My Rating: 6 out of 10
I was initially introduced to Haruki Murakami’s work in high school when I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle for a class on international literature. At the time, I found the book very strange and couldn’t really follow the entirety of the plot. In 2011, 1Q84 came out in America and, after seeing it in displayed in numerous book stores, I decided to give Murakami another shot. At that point, I had developed a deeper interest in reading and Japanese culture. However, I ended up putting the book aside and didn’t touch it for 5 years. After finally making my way through the 925 page, three-volume novel (Murakami’s longest), I have to say that I’m glad I read the book when I did since there are aspects of the characters that someone in their 20s would understand better than someone in college. Overall, I thought it was a good read that brought me into a unique world and allowed me to explore that world through the eyes of two relatable characters. With that said, the novel had some missed opportunities in my opinion.
The plot is straightforward on the surface. Two characters, Tengo and Aomame, shared a moment when they were ten years old in which they held hands and fell in love, but they never saw each other again after that instance. Twenty years later, they have both recently turned 30 and still hold onto the feelings of love they once had. While their lives and personalities are very different, they both long to meet one another again. While this seems like a very mundane plot, 1Q84 is anything but ordinary. I won’t get into many details in my review since part of the fun of the book is being introduced to the many connections between all the different elements. Murakami manages to blend the everyday aspects of this love story with the supernatural in a way that is so seamless it gives the novel a dreamlike quality where reality and fiction become blended. There are demonic fairies, a religious cult that operates like an organized crime syndicate, an immaculate conception, various murders, and so much more.
The story is very character driven since it is set up using alternating chapters that focus on either Aomame or Tengo, who spend a lot of time one their own, but are also involved in excited subplots that intertwine with each other in interesting ways. As I read through the novel, I was excited to see if the two of them to reunite, but I was also invested in seeing how the various other plots would resolve. Unfortunately, Murakami seemed to be less invested in these side plots, as the novel ended abruptly and the majority of them were left completely open with almost no explanation. The story still works without an explicit explanation of these things, but I really would have liked to know more about the supernatural elements. The lack of any explanation enhances the dreamlike feeling of the story and combines with the dark undertone to really get into your head, which I feel was Murakami’s intent. With that said, there is a positivity to the story that breaks up the darkness and gives you a sense of hope. Again, I have to commend Murakami for the way in which he blends story elements that are extremely fantastical and those that are completely realist. My only issue in this regard was that there were a few scenes where the characters seemed to know a little too much about what was going on around them.
With the two characters spending most their time alone, you would think that the book would get boring, but Murakami manages to keep things interesting both through the shifting narratives and the wisdom he imparts in each chapter. There were literally dozens of lines throughout the book that resonated with me due to how honest and relatable they were, regardless of whether these lines had a lot or a little to do with the actual plot. In a sense, 1Q84 is less about the actual plot than it is about imparting ideas. Whether this is a benefit or a flaw is up to the reader to decide. While there is certainly a good deal of action and dialogue, there are also sections that are full of observation and contemplation in which nothing physical actually happens. However, instead of blending these two aspects like most novelists, in most cases, Murakami gives us full chapters of one or the other. This leaves some parts of the novel feeling cinematic and other parts taking on the qualities of a very personal journal or memoir. Luckily, he manages to write the slower parts in a way that is not boring, which is a difficult task to pull off. While these parts do tend to drag at times, they do give the reader more insight into the characters’ mindsets.
The book is also split into three volumes, with the final of the three being the most unique. For one thing, it includes the addition of a third chapter character who had only been a side player up until that point. This final volume also has a tendency to meander and will allow side characters to take control of the narrative from one of the three main characters every now and again. I didn’t have any issue with this technique, but it did give the final book a different feeling from the others. I think Murakami may have done this intentionally to illustrate the unraveling of reality as the story took its course. My biggest issue with the novel does lie in this third volume, however. The end of the second volume was loaded with excitement that made me more invested in the story and eager to find out what would happen. But the third volume spends the majority of the time on contemplative elements and never gets around to the climactic ending that Murakami seemed to be building towards.
With this said, its hard to say that 1Q84 squandered its potential since I believe Murakami made these choices intentionally. Though, I personally would have written the final volume differently if I had invested so much of my time in building up the world of the novel and making the characters both so realistic and interesting. In addition to the wisdom Murakami inserted into the novel, there are also some self-referential elements. A large portion of the story deals with writing novels and there are many references to words by other authors peppered throughout (which I would one day like to look up during a reread). A prominent one is the mention of Chekov’s gun, which is the idea that once a gun has shown up in a story it must be fired. While there is a literal gun in 1Q84, the metaphor is, in this case, referring to the story itself in that it builds up a certain expectation then allows the “gun” not to fire and things to wrap up without all the loose ends being accounted for. In the final chapter, there is a line about how things have changed in the decades since the end of World War 2 (the novel takes place in 1984) and how one of those changes is the way in which novels are created. I certainly agree with Murakami in this regard since the world of today and the art of today is very different from how things were only a few decades ago. Thus this final bit of truth leaves us with something to contemplate both within the story and about the book itself.
I recommend reading 1Q84 if you are the kind of person who finds yourself contemplating the world and would like to think about things in a unique way. The novel is also excellent for people who enjoy magical realism (a term for fantastical stories centered in a reality that most people would recognize as their own). However, if you are hoping for a neatly wrapped up plot in which all of the various elements are explained and all of the subplots are completed, this is definitely not the right book for you. One day, I hope to give 1Q84 a reread and see if it is the kind of story that opens new doors to you as you age. Though, the next book I read will certainly be shorter and less mysterious.