Author’s Note: This Ras-curated post was written by his good friend Howard Cincotta, a fiction writer and freelancer for all seasons. Cincotta read 1Q84 while recovering from outpatient surgery. Cincotta’s most recent articles – on green roofs and Toastmasters International – have been or will be published by SPAN, the U.S. Embassy’s bimonthly magazine in India. He is writing a novel about an archaeological dig on an alien planet called The Ruins of Trapezium.
Spoiler Warning: If you read to the end of this review, you’ll learn a couple of its major plot points, but that may be OK because you’re unlikely to finish the novel if you read to the end of this review.
At one of the first writer’s workshops I ever attended, the instructor – half-kidding, half-serious – said that he was going to give us the innermost secret of the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop (of which he was a graduate). Which was this: “Remember, for the reader, every word carries equal weight.”
In other words, if you describe something at length, or return again and again to a single theme or image, it better be for a good reason.
But not, apparently, for Haruki Murakami in his gargantuan novel 1Q84 – the so-called publishing event of the year – where he describes quotidian events in self-indulgent mind-numbing detail over 925 pages. There is hardly a single observation or thought – from travel and food to personal history, philosophy, and Western literature – that is not repeated time and time again, as if the reader were either an idiot or suffering severe memory lapses.
As far as I’m concerned, you must deploy hundreds of named characters and be named George R.R. Martin before you can get away with writing a novel of this length, especially one whose chapters alternate between only two main characters, with a third appearing toward the end.
Consider the repeated and detailed descriptions of unremarkable food preparation by Aomame, a fitness instructor and assassin, and the other chief protagonist, Tengo, a writer and math teacher. After a while, the phrase “prepared a simple meal” or “light meal” takes on the character of a Homeric epithet, like “wine-dark sea.”
Want an extended discourse on Aomame’s views of vegetarianism and how she adds fish or chicken to her diet, but only occasionally, and uses olive oil and lemon but never dressing? It’s here.
All in all, TMI – Too Much Information. And to no end, since most of this needless exposition and unnecessary detail carry no weight for the reader at all.
If 1Q84 were shrunk down and “workshopped” at a writer’s conference, I have little doubt that the instructor, if not the more experienced student reviewers, would gently point out that you have to trust the reader … and that not trusting readers by hammering your themes over their heads is often the mark of a novice writer.
The prose would also get marked down for such “expository lumps” as one adult character carefully explaining the basics of the male and female reproductive systems to another adult, as if he were teaching a health unit in middle school.
But Murakami is hardly a novice; he knows exactly what he’s doing. I confess to being utterly baffled by his approach – and we haven’t even gotten to the exceedingly strange story he purports to tell.
Equally baffling, reviewers like Michael Dirda of the Washington Post have praised the book as a masterpiece. So did the Los Angeles Times, although the New York Times gave it a pan. Whew … not totally alone.
So what is going on here? Perhaps some reviewers have been seduced somewhat by the density of the book’s literary allusions: George Orwell’s 1984, of course, but also an entire pantheon of Western literature, including such genres as hard-boiled mystery and horror fantasy that Murakami has explored in past books. (I don’t recall a single Japanese author or title even mentioned.) Another factor may be that readers familiar with Murakami’s past themes and obsessions enjoy seeing them played out at length once again. The sex is both explicit, and like the book itself, peculiarly passionless.
Then there is the story itself.
1Q84 opens when Aomame (we are told at least 20 times in the course of the book that her name is quite unusual) escapes from a freeway traffic jam to find a world with odd changes (two moons in the sky) to keep her appointment for killing an abusive man in an unusual and undetectable manner.
Her story alternates with that of Tengo, who is hired as a ghostwriter for a strange novel called Air Chrysalis, which apparently reveals the secrets of a religious cult, including the existence of Little People who appear from the mouth of a dead goat. Aomame and Tengo are deeply, if obscurely connected (they held hands for an intense moment in the fourth grade). But it will take 900 excruciating pages before they finally meet. Think Sleepless in Seattle cubed.
Another problem becomes apparent by this point. Aomame and Tengo are attractive young people, but they are two of the blandest and most uninteresting characters in modern fiction … Aomame’s skill in delicate assassinations notwithstanding.
The story arc hinges on Aomame’s killing of the religious cult leader – at the behest of a wealthy older woman – who may or may not be raping prepubescent girls. Aomame and the cult leader have a long discussion about good and evil and reality and illusion before she knocks him off, with his acquiescence. (This scene “echoes Ivan’s conversation with the Devil in The Brothers Karamazov,” according to the Post’s Dirda.)
It later becomes apparent that the killing has resulted in Aomame’s pregnancy – a kind of immaculate conception, since the “father” is not the religious leader, but in some mystical manner, Tengo, whom Aomame will not encounter in the flesh for several hundred more pages.
At this point, 1Q84 grinds to a halt like some kind of hideous wind-up toy. Aomame must hide in a safe house, where she prepares “light meals,” bathes, reads Proust, and increasingly fantasizes about Tengo. Tengo, meanwhile, visits his father in a nursing home and tries to write “a long novel.”
In other words, almost nothing happens, except for the appearance of the only truly interesting character in the novel, Ushikawa, a small ugly man with a misshapen head and ties to the Yakuza. Ushikawa has been hired by the religious cult to a) warn Tengo not to involve himself in the Air Chrysalis matter anymore, and b) find Aomame.
He succeeds in both endeavors, but his reward is to be brutally murdered. No matter, Aomame and Tengo are finally united and manage to climb back onto the expressway and return to the one-moon world of 1984 instead of the two-moon 1Q84. As for all the novel’s loose ends, they are allowed to dangle, largely unresolved.
Yet there is one beautifully crafted part of the book that I first read as a short story in the New Yorker. When Tengo visits his estranged father, Tengo reads a story to him, “The Town of Cats,” about a town mysteriously populated by cats where the human protagonist, who can never leave, seems to be invisible to them. Father and son puzzle over the story’s conclusion that the town was “the place where he is meant to be lost.” It is a precious moment of connection between the two of them, and their last. Tengo will return and read more books to his father – but the father will be in a coma and unconscious.
(If you want my advice, skip the novel and find the 2011 New Yorker short story.)
In the end, I don’t think there is even a thin novella crying to get out of this obese novel. 1Q84 smothered it to death a long time ago.