I finally got to this end of this book after starting it about a year ago, then putting it aside for a few months while I read a couple of others, then picking it up again. Reading Murakami is something of a rite of passage for foreigners living in Japan, so not surprisingly I’ve read a bunch. His books would be considered “magical realism”, where they’re based in the real world but have this kind of slipstream fantasy going on. Difficult to explain, and in fact, a lot of the weird stuff that goes on in his books is left unexplained. This is one reason, of course, while I have a very love-hate relationship with his books, and consider his best book to be Norwegian Wood, a book that make him a superstar and was intentionally written as a “regular” drama.
1Q84 is very much magical realism. The main characters start to see two moon in the sky, and there are frequent references to the Little People, strange beings who can come through “receivers” into the world of 1Q84, which is subtly different from 1984, when the book is set, don’t you know.
Murakami’s books are always very readable and really personable, giving you this sense that living in Tokyo as a young person is this wonderfully bohemian lifestyle (and as someone who lives only two hours from Tokyo by train, it’s even more poignant). However, unlike most of his books that I’ve read, this one really sprawls. Slow build up doesn’t really describe it.
The book features two characters, Tengo and Aomame. Tengo is a part time math teacher in a private school, and an aspiring novelist. Aomame is an assassin who knocks of men who’ve abused their wives on behalf of a rich old woman known as “the dowager”. The characters are portrayed in alternative chapters, and you get the impression than they know each other in some way (we find out on like page 500).
Anyway, Tengo is asked by an editor friend to rewrite a short story called Air Chrysalis, written by a seventeen-year-old girl called Eriko Fukada (Fuka-Eri), who comes from a kind of cult group. Meanwhile, Aomame is asked to knock off a man we find out later is Fuka-Eri’s father, because he is apparently a child abuser. So we’re led to believe, and at the end of this 624-page book we’re still not quite sure.
And that’s pretty much the sum of it. The world of the characters is explored in great detail, but things happen really slowly. There are conversations that appear to be little more than musings on life that go on for pages and pages, and the whole way it’s written is that the characters aren’t sure what’s going on. And neither, of course, are we.
Such is the risk you take when you read Murakami. From a writing point of view, obviously this is a translation, and while the narration is third-person limited, it spends a lot of time with the thoughts and feelings of each characters, as well as all the vagueries of language (the almosts, justs, maybes and probablies), in short, all the things that know-it-all indie writers tell the rest of us we shouldn’t do. It makes the narrative very welcoming and easy to read (when I picked it up again, I read the second half in a couple of weeks – a positive racing car pace for me), but at times it would be nice if it got to the point a little quicker.
And then of course, you get to the end, and find out that that its not the end, that there is a second, 466-page book that I have to read next. I’ve invested so much in this story that I’ve already downloaded the sample, but honestly, if you wanted an intro to Murakami, take on one a little shorter. Norwegian Wood is a masterpiece that made him a household name in Japan, a book everyone should read. And if you want to go with the magical realism go with something a little shorter, like Sputnik Sweetheart or Kafka on the shore. Just don’t expect to get all the answers – you won’t.