Sunday, 29 January 2012


Completely unrelated to the matter at hand, but here's an old picture of my friend Yu in an Osaka McDonald's, circa 2010. 
Feeling optimistic about my progress in the Japanese language, I decided to try out reading a full-length Japanese novel and picked up the first volume of Haruki Murakami's recently released 1Q84 towards the end of last August. Over five months and 1600 pages later, I set down volume three with a puzzled sigh. That's it?!? 

("1Q84" is a Japanese pun on 1984 - both can be pronounced "ichi-kew-hachi-yon")

Murakami has been one of my favorite writers since high school, and starting his latest novel in the original Japanese (before the English translation was completed!) was.... awesome. I won't divulge too many important plot details, but the book is at its core a love story about two lonely people searching for one another other. One's an personal trainer/assassin (generally not to the same people), one's a struggling writer, and, through distinct and unusual circumstances, both become entangled with a mysterious cult. IQ84 is recognizable a piece of Murakami work from the outset, complete with obscure musical references, aimless male protagonists who enjoy ironing shirts, prurient attention to female ears, weird fetishes (one character is obsessed Sean Connery's perfectly formed bald head), weirder sex scenes, extended quotes from interesting works of literature, memorable dialogue, fake newspaper articles, and mysterious supernatural forces at work.

 It also shares thematic similarities with Underground, his excellent nonfiction book on the 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway by the apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo.  Consider, for example, the similarities between Aum's leader Asahara Shoko and the charismatic leader of 1Q84's cult Sakigake - both are nearly blind, charismatic, and reclusive. And, like Underground, 1Q84 tackles the weighty subject of the search for personal narrative in the vacuousness of contemporary society, though what, precisely, Murakami is trying to say on the subject with this novel is not quite clear. Which is fine. The richness of his imagined worlds can lead to plenty of hidden meaning upon closer examination, but that same richness can't be reduced to an allegory about x or y (unlike, say, some of George Orwell's books).  I became obsessed with these books in high school because they were so entertaining. I learned how to read into the deeper levels of meaning in college, but it's Murakami's ability to sustain a fascinating, amusing, intelligent narrative for hundreds of pages that makes him such an appealing writer.

This brings me to my problem with 1Q84: It's boring.

There are many flashes of brilliance in the book, many delightful details and memorable scenes. The Little People (no "Big Brother" in 1Q84) are especially vivid, mysterious creations, and the character Tamaru - a world-weary, homosexual bodyguard and all-around badass - is consistently fascinating. There are also hundreds of pages of people staring out windows waiting for something to happen. Such chapters take up a large percentage of the work (most of the last third of the book), and they serve no apparent function except to inch the plot forward at an unnecessarily slow pace. I must admit that my struggles with the Japanese language probably didn't help things, but really, much of the book is tedious and repetitive, plain and simple. I can't help but suspect that Murakami has become a victim of his own success - his stature as Japan's leading writer and perennial Nobel prize contender may have taken a toll on his editorial discipline.

Whatever the cause, it's a pretty big disappointment. Fans will find much to like within the pages of 1Q84, but they'll have to sift through some less-than-interesting chaff to find it. The whole, in other words, is less than the sum of its parts.  If you haven't picked up a Murakami book before, I recommend The Wind-up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore - they're awesome.

Here's a recent profile of the author from the NY Times:

In the interest of ending on a positive note, here's an extended quote from Anton Chekhov, whose travel diaries show up in one of the more interesting segments of 1Q84:

"At Oreanda they sat on a bench, not far from the church, looked down at the sea and were silent. Yalta was hardly visible through the morning mist. The tops of the hills were shrouded in motionless white clouds. The leaves of the trees never stirred, the cicadas trilled, and the monotonous dull sound of the sea, coming up from below, spoke of the rest, the eternal sleep awaiting us. So the sea roared when there was neither Yalta nor Oreanda, and so it roars and will roar, dully, indifferently when we shall be no more. And in this indifference to the life and death of each of us lives pent up the pledge of our eternal salvation, of the uninterrupted movement of life on earth and its unceasing perfection. Sitting side by side with a young woman, who in the dawn seemed so beautiful, Gomov, appeased and enchanted by the sight of the fairy scene, the sea, the mountains, the clouds, the wide sky, thought how at bottom, if it were thoroughly explored, everything on earth was beautiful, everything, except what we ourselves think and do when we forget the higher purposes of life and our own human dignity." (The Lady with the Toy Dog, 1899)"

I can't think of a passage more precious to me, and I think it supports Christopher Hitchens's assertion that literature has more to teach us about life and morality than religion does. I could go on and on about about how awesome Chekhov is, but, well, that's old news..... 


  1. I'm about to read it...been sitting on my kitchen table for a long time because I'm sort of dreading reading it based on everyone's comments. But I'm sure I'll do it eventually. Have you read Hard-Boiled Wonderland? I think that might be my favorite actually.

  2. I think you'd enjoy the book, just don't be shy about skimming it if it gets repetitive. Hard-Boiled Wonderland is great - I think it's tied for first with Wind-up Bird Chronicle in my personal rankings.