My rating: 2 of 5 stars
According to my Goodreads log, I started the 1,157 paperback-bound pages of Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84” on July 14. Last night, on November 27, I finally finished it.
In the four months, 13 days, 2 hours and 31 minutes it took me to read the book, a solar eclipse worked its way across the United States; Glen Campbell died; hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria struck the United States and Caribbean; Hugh Hefner died; 58 people were killed in a mass shooting in Las Vegas; Fats Domino died; 26 people were killed in a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas; and Prince Harry got engaged. Donald Trump was in his 27th year as president.
Also, I read a handful of other books, including Joshua Green’s “Devil’s Bargain,” Andy Weir’s “Artemis” and George Orwell’s “1984.” It was Murakami who inspired me (and my book club) to pick up Orwell again. It was a nice respite while it lasted.
Well, a lot happens when you’re trudging through nonsense.
I will say, unlike so many other events of the past few months, “1Q84” didn’t leave death and destruction in its wake. However, it did keep me from reading at least four other books and a stack of New Yorkers.
The story does start out with a bang. In the year 1984, Aomame is a pretty young fitness instructor on the cusp of 30 who has a job to do: kill a man. On her way to her assignation, she gets out of a cab and, upon descending a freeway staircase, she enters another world – one almost exactly like this one except it has two moons.
(Oh, and the parallel Earth is apparently controlled by the Little People. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)
The other main character is a math teacher on the cusp of 30 named Tengo. He teaches to make ends meet; his real focus is writing. His publisher puts him together with a teenager named Fuka-Eri, who has written a raw manuscript called “Air Chrysalis.” Tengo’s job is to polish the book. He, too, crosses over into the world that Aomame calls “1Q84” (the Q is a pun in Japanese) and gets entangled with the cult that Fuka-Eri escaped. (“Air Chrysalis” also contains references to the Little People. This is significant.)
There’s an eerie connection between Aomame and Tengo. When the two were 10 years old, they were two lonely children at the same elementary school, and — for a brief moment — held hands. This is an experience neither has ever forgotten, and both are convinced that the other is The One. For the next 1,000 pages, they will attempt to reconnect, and then the world will end in an orgasm of explosive passion.
Well, no. You’re not really sure what’s going to happen when they meet, or if they’ll meet, or what their meeting will mean. But essentially, the attempt to reconnect is the plot driver. And as a driver, it’s the equivalent of an Uber guy taking you all over town before getting to your destination, which he finally approaches doing 10 miles per hour.
Fortunately, as you’d expect with Murakami, there are also lots of other plots, some unusual – a ghostly NHK fee collector who harasses people, a creepy private detective on the trail of Aomame and Tengo – and some straight out of a thriller.
Perhaps the best involves the cult, Sakigake, that Fuka-Eri has escaped and Aomame used to belong to. A sequence in which Aomame is tasked with killing the Sakigake leader becomes both a master class in suspense and a philosophical argument about responsibility. Another section, in which Tengo goes to a small city to care for his distant, dying father, is a moving meditation on regret.
And then there’s the private detective, Ushikawa. He’s a former lawyer with a misshapen head and an outwardly odious appearance, and early on, he’s no more than a Peter Lorre character, offering Tengo hush money and quietly threatening him. But in the last third of the novel (which was published as three books in Japan) he comes into his own, rationalizing his work as he comes closer to unraveling the Aomame-Tengo mystery. He’s fascinating, repulsive, and worthy of his own book.
But that’s the thing about “1Q84” – there are LOTS of books within its pages. I wish Murakami would have chosen one and streamlined the rest, or somehow made the whole thing more picaresque. Instead, it’s every bit as baggy as its 1,100-plus pages would have you fear. There are musings on food, blind alleys on the characters’ backgrounds (what DID happen to Tengo’s mother? Your guess is as good as mine), lots of lush copy on breasts (“Aomame thought again of Tamaki. She remembered her smooth, beautifully shaped breasts. So different from my own underdeveloped chest, she thought. But those beautiful breasts are now gone forever”), and virtually no explanation of the Little People.
The Little People can apparently get bigger once they crawl out of people’s mouths. And they say “ho-ho” a lot, like Disney’s Dwarves. They also build air chrysalises. I don’t know their thoughts on breasts.
There were many times during my months of reading I put on my old English major hat in attempts to figure out “1Q84’s” depths. Is Murakami making comparisons to Orwell’s “1984”? If so, it’s only in the sketchiest ways. What is the symbolism of the two moons? Seemingly nothing more than a way to separate Earth 1 from Earth 2. Why is Ushikawa’s tongue a mossy green, like the second moon? Maybe he didn’t brush his teeth enough. That’s my theory, anyway.
I had high hopes for “1Q84.” I loved “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” which packed powerful tales of the 1930s Manchurian war into its broader plot. And there’s no question Murakami is a talented writer, capable of turning a phrase or sustaining the thrills of his off-kilter worlds. But the jumbled “1Q84” really could have used an editor.
It’s ironic. “1Q84” wants to be, among other things, a book about the power of storytelling, about losing yourself in another world. And, certainly, there are some books in which you reach the final page and then exhale, as if you’ve just come up for air. But upon finishing “1Q84,” I knew two things: Donald Trump was still in his 27th year as president, and I’d rather visit Orwell’s Room 101 than slog through “1Q84” again.