Thursday, December 01, 2011

Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami
944 pages
Publisher: Knopf
Published: October 25, 2011

This is a big book.  Infinite Jest big.  And let me say before we get this started that I love Murakami.  One of my favorite books of all-time is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and I've been eagerly anticipating the release of 1Q84 in English for years.  So now it's finally here and I've just finished the book. I don't know if it's just because I over-hyped it in my head or if my expectations were sky-high, but while I enjoyed the read, I ended up feeling disappointed.

The bare-bones summary is this: Aomame is a fitness instructor and part-time assassin.  Tengo is a former math genius and budding writer.  For much of the novel, each character is on their own path: Aomame is tasked with taking out the head of a religious cult while Tengo is pressured into re-writing a novella (called Air Chrysalis) written by the daughter of the head of that same religious cult.  Additionally, they both find themselves in an alternate reality that Aomame refers to as "1Q84."  A reality that features two moons and other subtle differences from the reality that they're familiar with.  Both Tengo and Aomame's "assignments" get them into a heap of trouble with the cult known as Sakigake.

1Q84 has all the hallmarks of a Murakami novel.  There are cats, a particular attention to the shapes of people's ears, a weird sexuality and deeply fantastical elements.  In the world of 1Q84, there are beings known as the Little People that emerge from the mouth of a dead goat.  If that sounds vague and weird to you then you're on the right track.  1Q84 is over 900 pages long and the whole Little People thing is never fully explained.  Murakami addresses this, masked as a review of Air Chrysalis:
One reviewer concluded his piece, “As a story, the work is put together in an exceptionally interesting way and it carries the reader along to the very end, but when it comes to the question of what is an air chrysalis, or who are the Little People, we are left in a pool of mysterious question marks.

We are led to understand that Tengo and Aomame had been classmates as children and at the age of ten had briefly held hands and from then on were deeply and totally in love with each other.  The only problem was that after their brief shared moment, they never spoke to each other again and Aomame's family pulled her from the public school.  The two spend the next 20 years drifting through life, longing for each other but never actively searching.  Throughout 1Q84, Tengo and Aomame circle each other, getting closer and closer.  I won't spoil it by telling you if they finally find each other, but it's not rocket science.

The story is told primarily from alternating viewpoints - Tengo and Aomame for the first two "books" and with the addition of another character, Ushikawa, in the third book.

Like I said, it's a long book and even my summary above barely scratches the surface.  But even with all the plot there are long sections of the book that just drag on and on.  You see, the characters spend a lot of time waiting for things to happen and Murakami makes us wait with them.  This might have been fine for a single section, but it happens repeatedly.  Additionally, since the viewpoint is primarily alternating between Tengo and Aomame, we get the same scenes described from different (but very similar) points of view.  This wouldn't be a big deal if it was a shorter book, but over 900+ pages, it gets really tiresome.  The result is that the book feels flabby, overweight.

There are some really amazing sequences - Aomame's encounter with the Leader of Sakigake and Tengo's experience visiting his comatose father in the "cat town" really stand out.  The Ushikawa sections of book three were also very well done.  And maybe that's what makes the boring parts so hard to get through.  You can see that Murakami can deliver the goods and it makes the book feel inconsistent.

There are a lot of tedious and boring stretches.  I've read some discussions that try to pin it on Jay Rubin's translation - the argument being that Rubin's style is more sparse.  M.A.Orthofer over at Complete Review compared the German translation to the English translation:
 In comparing the translations the one sentence that really struck me comes right near the beginning, when Aomame is in the taxi. In German what the driver warns her is:
Die Dinge sind meist nicht das, was sie zu sein scheinen
Things usually aren't what they appear to be

Jay Rubin's translation has it the more absolute:
things are not what they seem
But that seems far too definite -- and hence too easy -- to me; the atmosphere Murakami creates is exactly one where things usually aren't what they seem, but not always, and its that slight but ever-present sense of uncertainty that adds to the richness of the work.
 Given that Murakami's own English is very good, that he translates English novels to Japanese and that he worked with both Rubin and Philip Gabriel on the translation, I don't think the book's fault lies in the translation.  Although Rubin's thoughts on translation are certainly very interesting.

So would I recommend 1Q84?  If you're already a fan of Murakami then it is highly recommended.  1Q84 is definitely Murakami's most ambitious novel, but it's far from his best.  If you're new to his work, I'd recommend picking up something like Wild Sheep Chase or Hard Boiled Wonderland first.  It hurts me to be so negative of 1Q84 - I just wanted to love it so much!

Rating: 6/10

Book Source: purchased

No comments: