Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Book Review: 1Q84 (Book One and Book Two) by Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin

When 1Q84 was published in Japan in 2009, bookshops all but sold out within a day. More than 1 million copies were sold in that first month alone. Ever since, English language readers have eagerly awaited its release. In an effort to expedite publication, Murakami’s US publishers Knopf took the unusual step of commissioning his two regular translators, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, to simultaneously work on different parts of the book. Rubin translated Book One and Book Two, published together here, Gabriel, Book Three which is published next week.

The tactic appears to have worked. Expectation has built steadily over the past two years, pre-orders have gone through the roof, and bookshops even opened at midnight to satisfy the demand of Murakami’s dedicated fans. Like the Harry Potter phenomenon, this hype has inspired people to have fun with books which is never a bad thing in my book. But away from all this Murakami-mania to which I and the entire media has whole-heartedly subscribed, the question of whether it is any good remains largely unanswered. Quite honestly, the answer is no. And yes. I cannot decide. Is 1Q84 the Magnum Opus that sums up Murakami’s worldview? Or an experiment with narrative that badly backfires? Very possibly it is both at the same time.

It is a long book – some 600 pages in Book One and Book Two alone, a further 350 in Book Three. The story is a familiar one: twenty-something drifters have their lives thrown into question by a series of unusual events over which they have little control. All the familiar Murakami tropes are there: Jazz, classical music, and 1960s rock provides the soundtrack to a novel essentially about disaffection, free will, love, and loneliness. Along the way, alternative worlds, cats, and cult religion ensnare the characters, forcing them to reappraise themselves and the world around them.

One departure from the familiar comes with the choice of a female protagonist. We meet Aomame as she sits in the back of a taxi that is stuck in stationary traffic on the Tokyo expressway. She is on her way to an important engagement that she cannot miss. So when her driver tells her of a hidden emergency staircase that she can use to get back to the city below, she grabs the opportunity with both hands. But beware, the driver warns, “things might look different to you down there.” They certainly do. Aomame finds herself in a subtly different world to the 1984 Tokyo she left behind. She names it 1Q84, the Q being a big question mark over what is going on, and continues on to her appointment.

Meanwhile, Tengo is an aspiring writer who agrees to rework a remarkable though poorly written novel to help it scoop a literary prize. The book, Air Chrysalis, is the work of a seventeen-year-old girl named Eriko Fukada, and seems to be based on her own experiences. With Tengo’s help it not only takes the prize but rapidly becomes a bestseller. But as the publishers work to prevent the truth about who wrote Air Chrysalis from getting out, Tengo finds Eriko’s world permeating every part of him and is drawn into the dangerous reality of Air Chrysalis, where two moons hang next to each other in the night sky, and the Little People emerge from the carcass of dead goat.

Amidst all that Aoomame and Tengo begin to realise how much they mean to each other, even though their last contact was a brief clutch of hands between two lonely outcasts in a school classroom when they were ten-years-old. Yet as each of their stories influence the other it comes to feel as though they are matryoshka dolls stacked inside each other. What is real? What is story? Chekhov’s gun hangs on the wall, but whether it is used or not depends, ultimately, on whether this is a story or real life.

Like most of Murakami’s novels, 1Q84 is, at its heart, a love story. Only a love story in which other things keep getting in the way.  “It’s like the Tibetan Wheel of Passions. As the wheel turns, the values and feelings on the outer rim rise and fall, shining or sinking into darkness. But true love stays fastened to the axle and doesn’t move.”

Nearly everything that I love about Murakami is present here. The plot carried me along. At times it was almost un-put-downable. The smoky urban landscape simmers along with an after-hours feel. However, the biggest problem comes in the way in which it is narrated. In 1Q84, Murakami has switched for the first time from his reliable first person style to a moving third person viewpoint. It turns out that his familiar conversational style does not translate will to this new voice. Where in the first person he successfully elucidates the quirky lives of his various protagonists, drawing the reader into their small everyday lives, in the third person his prose becomes inelegant and cliché ridden.

The result is a stylistically ugly experience that prevents the reader ever fully engaging with the characters. Through them, Murakami presents thoughtful insights, not least the subjugation of women in Japanese society, but because neither Tengo nor Aomame really work as characters in their own right, they feel like merely vehicles for the plot to move around, and through which to explore these issues, rather than people to engage with. For an author whose reputation has been built on character driven works, this is a major disappointment. For me, 1Q84 cannot recover from this narrative weakness. It seeps into everything. There are long flabby passages of italicised first person rumination that only make everything worse, and in the end, quite honestly I was glad to finish it.

And yet.

There is one area in which 1Q84 succeeds. Critics have so far been rather scathing of the Orwellian metaphor that the title conjures, but to me it works spectacularly well. Although the dialogue around Nineteen Eighty-Four is somewhat dull, the metaphor Murakami creates serves as a comment not only on his entire body of work, but half a century of social change as well. Where Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book about the dreaded future as the 1940s feared it, with homogenising political forces using ideology to cement their power, 1Q84 is that same time period as it would be written now. Politics is almost entirely absent from the lives of the characters. Even a formerly ideologically driven commune has morphed into a pseudo religious cult, and citizens couldn’t care less whether Big Brother – in the form of the State, or God, or a mysterious group known only as the Little People – is watching them. Like Winston Smith, Aomame and Tengo are drawn into a dangerous game of cat and mouse with forces more powerful than they, but unlike Winston, they care only about emerging unscathed, and finding each other while the rest of the world gets on with life as it chooses.

By placing these two competing visions of 1984 alongside each other, Murakami demonstrates the changing social and political climates of the past fifty years effectively. He has spent his career writing about urban alienation and the world as it has become. His entire opus has been a statement about the importance of the micro over the macro. The importance of love, and music, and literature, and food, and all those sort of things, over and above politics. His work captures the spirit of the age, the sense that politics has failed, but nothing other than empty technology has stepped into replace it. In this globalised world, Murakami speaks to an audience about loneliness, boredom and powerlessness just as effectively as Orwell spoke about the tendencies of communism and fascism. And like Orwell did more than sixty years ago, it perhaps says more about the world we live in that we really want to accept.

For all the narrative doesn’t work, this makes 1Q84 a thought-provoking read. There are successful, even fascinating aspects, but the overall reading experience is a convoluted one. By the end I was exhausted.

But beware, with Book Three still to come, it is unclear how things may evolve. There are questions that remain unanswered: a crow keeps appearing, just what happened to the NKH subscription collector who stabbed a client, and will Aomame and Tengo ever manage to find each other. In typical Murakami fashion, he places a warning about judging the book before the end on the very first page where Aomame ruminates on Janicek’s Sinfonietta, considers its relationship to the following years in Czech history, and ultimately comes to the conclusion that the most important proposition that history teaches us is this: “At the time, no one knew what was coming.”

1Q84 (Book One and Book Two) was first published in the UK by Harvill Secker on 18th October 2011. 624pp, ISBN: 9781846554070
1Q84 (Book Three) is published by Harvill Secker on 25th October 2011. 368pp, ISBN: 9781846554056


Ted said...

Thanks for your thoughtful take. It only makes me more interested to dig into this one. Your reaction reminds me of a running discussion I have with a fellow reader about DeLillo's Underworld vs. White Noise. She thinks White Noise his masterpiece, which I won't contest, but she really reviles Underworld for its exceesses, yet I admire it for them and was moved by it as well.

Sam Ruddock said...

Thats a very good analogy, Ted. I suspect I have been slightly too hard on this book, for there is plenty to like and enjoy. But like your fellow reader, my criticism comes from a position of such high esteem for other Murakami works that I'm critical if they don't hit the same hights. And I don't think this does. But I'd love to hear your comments when you've dug in and climbed out the other side of this one.

I haven't read Underworld but I think it is on my shelves at home. Will have to give it a read sometime.

Thanks for the introduction to your blog, too. I like it. Really interesting stuff.