The publication of this 925-page behemoth by prolific Japanese author Haruki Murakami was a sensation of the 2011 literary world.
It took me until 2012 to finish it.
The task was not without its rewards, but it sometimes felt like toil, if for no other reason than adjusting the sheer weight of a hardback book on my stomach or in my lap.
I first fell for Murakami with his 1997 book, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, a mysterious and magical tale of a passive protagonist, Toru Okada, who loses his wife’s cat and in the process of looking for it, loses his wife as well, falling down a Tokyo proverbial rabbit hole. I proceeded to read a number of his novels, including A Wild Sheep Chase and Norwegian Wood (soon to be a major motion picture!). And you can hardly pick up a New Yorker without stumbling into one of his short stories.
His work explores surrealistic territory; one part science fiction (without the science), one part fantasy (without the dragons). It can be enraging at times, as you grow impatient for answers; but the results are quite worth the struggle.
But when the equation includes schlepping around a 900-page book, stakes are raised. And, for a while at least, 1Q84 is as beguiling a work as any Murakami has published.
The story follows two distinct narrative paths; one is Aomame, a 30-year-old woman who — in the year 1984 — discovers a parallel world, a world she dubs 1Q84. Meanwhile, an aspiring novelist (and passive protagonist) named Tengo finds himself pulled into 1Q84, as he gets too close to a dangerous religious cult. Aomame and Tengo were elementary schoolmates, and so the novel spends some 850 pages keeping them apart.
The beginning of the book reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, and Dick and Murakami share a similar stature in the world of letters: eschewed by the literary establishment, but embraced by readers — and Hollywood producers.
Dick is not the only shadow looming over this book. I couldn’t help but think of Don DeLillo’s massive tome, Underworld. Underworld, like The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, was published in 1997, and at 827 pages is nearly as colossal as 1Q84.
DeLillo’s Underworld did not win the National Book Award that year. Inexplicably, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain won; I daresay Cold Mountain has not stood the test of time, while DeLillo’s book is now considered a masterwork of contemporary fiction.
Thing is, DeLillo’s work since Underworld has been, well, underwhelming. I was concerned at the time that this author — who had already crafted such extraordinary books as White Noise and, my personal favorite, The Names was in danger of blowing his literary wad with Underworld, and his small, terse novels since then have reinforced that concern. It’s not just the size of his novels, of course; it’s the overly familiar terrain — language and imagination.
And don’t get me started on David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest. One can surmise DFW blew his allotted existential wad on that one.
I don’t want 1Q84 to be the 62 year-old Murakami’s blown wad, because it is no Underworld-scale masterwork.
Well into the second half of the book, I began to skim entire passages. Some chapters seemed downright gratuitous; not much happens at all. Especially irritating are chapters focused on a third major character, an antagonist named Ushikawa, introduced two-thirds into the narrative. It’s unknown why Murakami spends so much time straining to build character nuances into Ushikawa. He could have easily trimmed his narrative by spending less time on Ushikawa.
Even more irritating is the way Murakami shorthand-names his characters, like The Dowager, The Professor and Ponytail, or the magical creatures in the story, the Little People. It’s one thing to rely on these naming conventions in a traditional-sized narrative, but 900 pages of reading about The Dowager and Ponytail and Buzzcut becomes downright silly.
Ultimately the title of the book tells all. It’s… well, it’s awkward. Who knows how to pronounce it? It’s supposed to evoke Orwell’s 1984, and the Q stands for the word “question,” but the “1” looks like an “I” and thus looks like “IQ” — um, Intelligence Quotient? Does someone in the book have an IQ of 84? Nope.
Fascinating, compelling and sometimes annoying, 1Q84 ends up buried beneath its own weight.