It’s unusual for a 1,000-page novel to be a worldwide hit unless it’s about a scarred magician, but the English translation of Murakami’s three-volume tome 1Q84 has been widely sold throughout the US and Europe—as well as to 5% of the population in his native Japan—cementing his status as global literary titan.
To those wondering if 1Q84 hits the standard of Murakami’s previous works, it’s most comparable to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, though there are major differences. 1Q84—which bears no discernible relationship with 1984—is as wide in scope as the author’s 1995 tour de force, but more conventional in terms of narrative arc—though “conventional” is not a word most would associate with a novel where two moons hang in the sky of an alternate world, and “Little People” emerge from a goat’s mouth. The nefarious cult Sakigake, probably inspired by Aum Shinrikyo—about whose 1995 sakarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway Murakami released a non-fiction book—does not have the same emotional power as the war atrocities dealt with in Wind-Up Bird. The Little People are perhaps more comic than scary, and the nervous David Lynch-esque foreboding produced by Wind-Up Bird’s evil politician, Noboru Wataya, is not replicated here. But what’s lost in simmering dread is gained in 1Q84 through an epic love story unmatched in Murakami’s oeuvre.
This is first of the author’s books I’ve read since moving to Japan, and I can now recognize traits such as the appreciation of space and silence, careful analysis, and attention to detail. Fans will be happy with the familiarly smooth and unlabored narration. Routine actions are painstakingly outlined—“Tengo stopped by a supermarket and bought some vegetables, eggs, milk, and fish”—giving a comforting calmness. The reader witnesses daily actions, such as in what order food is prepared, how the body is washed during a shower, how exercise is taken. Yet all the while similes bring a transcendent element of otherness: “Her silence floated up and hung in the air like fine dust.” Some comparisons can lift the reader out of the static scene into another time/place:
“Tengo stared at the dead [telephone] receiver in his hand for a while, the way a farmer stares at a withered vegetable he has picked up from his drought-wracked field.”
Sometimes these are highly comic or absurd, yet still provide an evocative visualization, such as when one character imagines “a small boat surrounded by sharks, but only as a single cartoon frame with a clever twist.”
Murakami is an expert at rhythm, and slowing down time. For half the book one character is sequestered in an apartment with barely any outside interaction, yet the time is filled with contemplation, anecdotal memories, and momentary drama. The fact that she is reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is no accident—the French modernist’s emphasis on mental flights sparked by daily experience is a constant theme for Murakami.
There are inconsistencies—in one chapter the author documents something unobserved by the female protagonist, transgressing his conceit up to that point. The novel is also overlong. Though Murakami is expert at drawing out moments, the willful separation of the two protagonists feels strained in the final third, like he is making time to fit an arbitrary constraint.
However, some common criticisms are unfounded. The scathing New York Times review by Janet Maslin took exception to 1Q84’s unexplained elements: “It used to be customary, in a book of this magnitude, to explain unanswered questions and tie up loose ends.” Maslin doesn’t say when that was customary, though she’s obviously not a fan of David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, Laurence Sterne, and countless other highly respected writers who create unique frames for their stories. One of Murakami’s key themes is how characters respond to unexplainable events. Though the events are rather more colorful and fanciful, this is a parallel with what all people live through, residing as we do in a “pool of mysterious question marks.”
Murakami is also frequently lampooned for his excessive pop-culture references—though this could be viewed as enriching the literary experience. The majority of his allusions lie beyond pop culture in the realm of classical music and literature. His book connects with the body of knowledge around us, and might push the reader to discover Janáček, Chekhov, Proust, and others.
Though fatalism underlines 1Q84—the belief of the protagonists that they’ll meet again, for example—it is far from the quasi-religious conviction of a Coelho, representing instead a confidence that the unexplained things in life can be benevolent. It recalls Murakami’s own decision to be a writer, something which he has said came in a moment of inspiration during a baseball game. This confidence in intuition does not require justification in his world.
Much has been made of Murakami’s influences, among them Raymond Chandler, three of whose books Murakami has translated into Japanese. There is something of Chandler’s individualism in Murakami. The protagonist knows nothing of the world in which he moves except that which he discovers, deduces or experiences himself. Nevertheless there are breathing forces around which intervene periodically. This supernatural element combined with the quotidian normality of the characters is perhaps the key to Murakami’s success.