To begin, I am an avid reader. I studied literature in college and graduated with an English degree with high honors (it would’ve been summa cum laude but I transferred from community college to a four year university thus not eligible for that title). Since I read so much, one thing I’ve wanted to do on this website of mine is to list what books I’ve been reading and to have a personal commentary on those books. I’m nowhere near the level of a professional critic so this is merely for my own amusement and if any readers of these reviews like what I am stating about a book, then thanks are in order to you and I hope you trust my semi-professional criticism. So, unfortunaltely for me, the first book for this task is 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami because I like to make things easy in my life. That was sarcasm.
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (IMHO)
I had read a lot about 1Q84 and the magnificent tome it is of Haruki Murakami. Actually, I read a lot about how wonderful a writer Murakami is. It was because of that hearsay that I was talking about him to a family friend who then gave me a copy of Murakami’s latest book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. To use the colorless cliché, I could not put that book down. Much like when I read War and Peace, I took every opportunity that was free to me to read Colorless Tsukuru and before I knew it, I had finished reading the book. I was instantly hooked on Murakami. You see, I’m a sucker for character studies that are the main plot device of a novel and not only did Murakami deliver on that for me but he also did something in Colorless Tsukuru that is pretty rare for me- I couldn’t figure out where the story was going. Usually, I can put a lot of details in a story together to figure out what will happen to most characters and, most of the times, the ending to a story. It happens not only with novels but with movies as well. So when I’m taken for a ride in a story and I have no idea what or where the final destination is, I am pretty impressed and usually fall in love with the story and the writer of that story. Murakami delivered on that for me with Colorless Tsukuru and, better yet, left me with an afterglow of amazement that felt like I had been put under a spell when I had finished the book. I could not stop thinking about all of the characters and their stories and it was because of this blissful feeling after finishing Colorless Tsukuru that I was determined to read 1Q84.
It didn’t take me very long to feel that Murakami wrote 1Q84 simply to write a long novel. There were certain elements of the novel I felt were added in and not really needed to the main characters, the plot, or the novel as a whole. The two biggest examples of this were when the character Ushikawa gets his own narrative in the third book and the mysterious NHK Collector who bangs on doors. There are other examples but I’m going to focus on these two.
As much as I found the character of Ushikawa interesting, I wasn’t much of a fan of him getting his own narrative or of it being introduced in the third, and last, book. Of course I understood that Ushikawa was central for moving the plot along, especially between Tengo and Aomame, but after going two thirds of the book of only having narratives of Tengo and Aomame, Ushikawa’s narrative, when introduced, felt jarring to me and unexpected. I believe that Murakami is an incredibly talented writer and possesses the talent to have continued Ushikawa’s role in the novel without having his own narrative or having Ushikawa’s narrative introduced much earlier in the novel. However, the ultimate fate of Ushikawa was heartbreaking and the visuals created by Murakami of Ushikawa’s end in the novel were striking and memorable to say the least.
The NHK Collecter was a mysterious character that none of the three characters who interacted with him (Tengo, Aomame, and Ushikawa) ever caught a glimpse of. It’s because of this that I felt the NHK Collector was an unneeded character who didn’t do anything to drive the plot along and was only there to add a bit of mystery and, if nothing else, to elongate the length of 1Q84. Furthermore, there was never any conclusion drawn about the NHK Collector, which I wouldn’t usually mind; however, I feel that a character can be left unresolved at the end of a story but that character needs to be important as a plot device. I guess it could go without saying that I felt the NHK Collector did not fulfill that role. I understand who Murakami hinted was the NHK Collector but even that was left unfulfilled as if he didn’t know what to do with the character.
The title of the novel, 1Q84, and the allusion to Anton Chekov, I found to be quite interesting. Of course the fact the novel takes place in a major city, Tokyo, and in the year 1984, and the title 1Q84 all lend themselves towards George Orwell’s masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. As for Chekov’s role in 1Q84, Murakami brings in Chekov’s experience on Sakhalin Island and the idea that if a gun is introduced in a play it better be fired by the end of the play. But I found these obvious elements to actually be deterrents to the reader specifically used by Murakami to test the reader’s ability to look past what is obvious and what is not; or, what is real and what is not. What is real and what is not real is an important theme in 1Q84. I found nothing in common that was terribly important to the story when it comes to 1Q84 and Nineteen Eighty-Four, except for the fact both novels take place in the same year. What Murakami tells the reader of Chekov is also made obvious. Aomame buys an illegal handgun and threatens to use multiple times but she never fires it, thus breaking Chekov’s rule. The character Tamaru tells Aomame the story of the Gilyak people, now known as Nivkh people, and Chekov’s observation of how they would always walk across fields and never use the roads that the Russian settlers had built. This read to me as an obvious metaphor for Aomame being in the alternate year of 1Q84 and not in the actual year of 1984 and that she must do things differently than what appears to be right or easy or even real.
What struck me about those major elements was they they were deterrents to more subtle allusions. I know Murakami personally has an adoration and appreciation for Russian literature (who doesn’t really?), hence the numerous references to Chekov, but 1Q84 felt more like Franz Kafka or Gabriel Garcia Marquez to me than Chekov or Orwell. There is magical realism in 1Q84 and it is a major player in the novel and Murakami does the genre justice with his approach and use of it. There are only subtle changes between the years of 1984 and 1Q84, so much so that both Aomame and Tengo notice these subtle differences and actually question their own sanity because the differences are so minute. Yes, there are two moons in the sky in the year 1Q84 but aside from Aomame, Tengo, and Ushikawa, we don’t know if anyone else in Tokyo or Japan or the entire world for that matter even see the two moons or, if they do, if it is normal to them. This reminded me so much of when, in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa’s family never acknowledge he had turned into a giant insect-like creature or that anything had changed at all. And just as much as Gregor Samsa had to adjust to life in his new body, Aomame and Tengo had to do the same by having been transported to the alternate reality of the year 1Q84 and like Kafka, Murakami never gives the reader an explanation nor does he even hint at one.
However, not having everything explained can be problematic for many readers of 1Q84. I remember when the television show Lost ended its run and a vast majority of its loyal viewers cried foul because so many questions came up in the show’s six seasons but only a few were answered by the series finale. I believe that magical realism can and does have the same effect of a fair amount of readers who are not familiar with or fans of that literary style. There is no explanation given by Murakami about the Little People, the thunderstorm, how Aomame physically got pregnant, and, again, how Aomame, Tengo, and Ushikawa ended up in the year 1Q84. Personally, this doesn’t bother me. In fact, I feel not having an explanation of everything that happens to characters in a story of any kind is actually more realistic. There are so many questions in our everyday lives that have not nor will ever be explained in our lifetimes so why should any story be any different? And that was what I loved most about 1Q84 and it was that which gave me the Murakami afterglow when I had finished reading the novel.
With 1Q84 being only the second Haruki Murakami book I have ever read, I do believe I am hooked on him. I already know he has written better stories than 1Q84 and not because professional critics have said so but because I’ve read one in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, but this only makes me want to read more of his works and to do so with enthusiasm.
But take this all as you like, because it is all In My Humble Opinion.
-Matthew A. Sandusky