Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Title: 1Q84

Author: Haruki Murakami

Rating: 

Publisher: Knopf

Format: Audio

In George Orwell’s novel, 1984, he imagines a dystopian future where man is ruled by a totalitarian state. Murakami’s vision does not take us to the future, but to a parallel world, where many things remain the same, but some things are strikingly different.

Aomame is traveling in Tokyo when the stopped traffic leads her to abandon her taxi and exit the freeway by foot. Traveling down a set of emergency stairs, she enters the world 1Q84. It is like Tokyo in 1984, but this world has two moons and some other odd peculiarities. Not knowing what else to call this somewhat strange world, she names it 1Q84 — Q meaning question.

Also drawn into this world is Tengo, a ghostwriter for a teenage girl who enters a story into a literary contest. The story is good,  but needs the workmanship of a professional writer to make it a real best seller. What Tengo doesn’t know is that the novel is a real depiction of the world 1Q84 and a religious cult tied to some supernatural forces plan to deal with him.

1Q84 is about Aomame and Tengo navigating the strange world. They shared an innocent romance in grade school which is rekindled in this new world and they seek to find each other. Aomame’s path crosses a dowager, who solicits her to covertly assassinate abusive men that the law fails to punish. But the biggest target of all is tied to the religious cult and she and Tengo soon find themselves fleeing for their lives.

I have very mixed feelings about this novel. On one hand, the world Murakami developed is imaginative and many of the characters are complex and rich. I’ve only read one previous title by Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles), but I am noticing a pattern in his male protagonists. They seem somewhat autobiographical, defying the cultural expectations for Japanese manhood. They have emotions and fancy artistic pursuits. Having failed to ascend some sort of corporate ladder, they are either jobless or indulge in a career that lacks prestige.

In Tengo’s case, he is a writer. Even though he hasn’t seen Aomame in twenty years, he pines for her, clinging to a memory of holding her hand. His affections now are much less innocent and the entire novel revolves around sex. Yes, the entire novel. The novel is not pornographic in the sense that the sex is glamorized, but it is explicit in a matter-of-fact manner. I suspect there is no other novel that uses the term flaccid or pubic more than this novel.

The tome spans more than 900 pages (or in my case, over 46 hours) and the plot and narrative really did not support its length. Many scenes are repeated two, three, even more times. The scene takes place and then the character recalls the scene, sometimes with rote detail, and it is reiterated to the reader. Half-way through the novel, I was ready to give up, but trudged on, desiring to know the fate of Aomame and Tengo.

So therein highlights the strength of the novel. Murakami is great at creating memorable characters — ones that the reader truly cares about. I never knew how the novel would end. Would Aomame and Tengo unite? Would one or both die at the hands of the religious cult? Would they forever be trapped in 1Q84?

I don’t want to deter anyone from reading this book. The characters and world are fascinating and the plot itself is interesting as well. The reader just needs to be prepared to suffer through explicit details about genitalia (you know, in an unerotic sort of way) and a narrative that is quite repetitive. For those who haven’t read Murakami, this is not the place to start.

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Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Title: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Author: Haruki Murakami

Rating: 

Publisher: Knopf

Format: Trade Paperback

Toru Okada, by most standards, is a bum. He has forsaken his legal career to be a stay-at-home husband while his wife, Kumiko, serves as the breadwinner. With no job prospects, Kumiko gives her husband the task of tracking down their missing cat.

A forsaken career and missing pet are the least of Toru’s problems. Despite his wife’s assurances, their marriage is failing and she begins to work long hours, leaving Toru with idle time to dwell in his thoughts. Upon Kumiko’s encouragement, he enlists two sister psychics to help find the missing cat. Their abilities transcend their normal occupation and they visit Toru in his dreams as well as in real life. In addition, a mysterious woman begins to call him on the phone, neglecting to identify herself, but seems to have intimate knowledge of Toru. Then there is May Kasahara, a teenage neighbor, who has a profound interest in death.

Soon, Toru finds that Kumiko has gone missing, presumably with another man, but the facts don’t add up. Kumiko’s brother, a politician whose stardom seems rooted in the occult, warns Toru to lay off. He sees Toru as a deadbeat husband with rocks in his head and is adamant that Kumiko has no desire to see him again.

Toru refuses to give up on his quest for Kumiko and finds himself in a strange hotel room and for many days at the bottom of a well. Just as the psychics meet Toru in reality and in his dreams, Toru seems to have the ability to transcend into another plane of existence. By traveling through the well, Toru escapes to a surreal world that bears resemblance to the physical world from which he came, but is in many ways different. It is here that Toru hopes to find his missing wife.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a tremendous achievement, rich in character and complete with the hyperbolic world both Toru and Kumiko occupy. When Kumiko disappeared, I saw this book as being the antithesis of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Instead of following the antihero, Rabbit Angstrom, who decidedly leaves his family on a wayward journey, we follow Toru, the remnant that remains, uncertain of what has happened. But unlike Rabbit’s wife, who finds her solace in alcohol, Toru searches to restore his family. Even when all of the facts suggest that their marriage is not repairable, Toru continues on, unafraid of death or the reality which he might encounter.

Perhaps the biggest fault of the novel lies in its stream-of-consciousness nature. The premise is simple, but the plot is scattered. There were times in the middle where I felt the story became bogged down and without direction, but my frustration soon subsided as familiar threads began to come together.

Not having read a lot of Murakami, I cannot say what novel the reader should begin with. Having read it, I can say that I am eager to read more (I am currently halfway through 1Q84). Despite the looseness of the narrative, the characters and surreal depiction of the human condition struck a chord with me. It is an intelligent read with enough puzzles to keep the reader guessing.