Translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin
Published: 2011 by Harvill Secker (Paperback 2012 by Vintage)
My copy: borrowed from the Library where I work
Memorable quote: “The air has changed, the scene has changed. I have to adapt to this word-with-a-question-mark as soon as I can. Like an animal released into a new forest. In order to protect myself and survive, I have to learn the rules of this place and adapt myself to them.”
When I was studying for my MA I had one particular lecturer who was notorious for his negative feedback. I’d get my essays back from him to find them awash with a sea of scrawl pointing out everything that was wrong with them, which would seem to be just about everything. I’d read the comments with mounting trepidation, wondering if I could dare to hope I’d scrape a pass in the module, then turn to the grade sheet to find he’d given me a first! Well, I think this review may end up reading similarly to that lecturer’s mark sheets. There was much about 1Q84 that I didn’t like, that annoyed and frustrated me, and yet for all that I wouldn’t argue for a second that this is anything other than an important, brilliant work, and I couldn’t put the damn thing down!
Set in Japan in a year and a reality that isn’t quite the familiar 1984, 1Q84 explores the intertwined fates of two thirty year olds. Lean and independent, Aomame has a job that is illegal, though perhaps not completely immoral, and a past from which she’d rather remain estranged. Tengo, meanwhile leads a quietly unremarkable life as a maths teacher and aspiring novelist. At first the two characters’ lives seem unconnected but soon both accept assignments that will propel towards each other and involve them in the troubling secrets of a mysterious commune-turned-religion.
So, I’m going to give this book a good grade, let’s be clear on that. Despite its length it’s a real page turner that manages to combine surreal atmospherics with psychological astuteness. As in other Murakami books I also enjoyed the contrast between his attention to everyday detail like the preparation of meals and the more uncanny incidents that punctuate everyday routine in the lives of his characters. But – here comes the scrawl – one of the things that frustrated me about 1Q84 is that its highly repetitious. Part of that seems explainable: in a work that deals so searchingly with the world of cults and religions having the same phrases and descriptions recurring again and again certainly underscores one of the novel’s central themes, the power and danger of indoctrination. So far, so effective, but in other places such repetitions also felt like arrogance and lack of editing. Across his rich career Murakami has established a number of thematic tics – Murakami-isms, if you will – such as talking cats and characters listening to Jazz, quoting Beatles lyrics and having a lot of graphically described sex. In this novel it felt at times that the narrative went well out of its way to include all these things and then crank up the volume right up to eleven. It’s almost too much Murakami if that makes sense, and a lot of it could have been edited out without ruining the story or atmosphere at all. I also found Aomame and Tengo’s increasing focus on each other – which comes, seemingly out of nowhere – quite hard to stomach, though it’s a considerable achievement to have created characters that I found I cared about so much despite that fact that both have an air of coldness that makes them hard to relate to.
Although a complete trilogy edition is now available in the UK, I chose to read and judge Books One and Two separately from the final volume as this is how they were originally published, with Book Three appearing unexpectedly a year after its predecessors. Book Two ends on a cliffhanger, but sometimes a little suspense is good for the soul. So I’m taking a break for now and will read some other authors before tackling the final part, but I don’t think I can stay away too long. Like the cults it describes, for all it unsettles, there’s something about the strange and powerful world of 1Q84 that gets under your skin. Murakami writes of the dislocation experienced even by those who leave their cults at an early age: “On separating from the religion, they had set foot in the real world. As far as Tengo could see, however, neither of them had fully adapted to their new world.” Finishing Book Two left me with a similar feeling; I had closed the cover but my mind was still entrenched in the vivid, puzzling world Murakami had created. For all its flaws, this is still something quite special.