Boiled down to its essence, Liquorature’s April book club session “1Q84” is nothing more than boy eventually finds girl. There. I’ve summarized 925 pages into four words – I can now go onto the next rum in my queue, or reread The Lord of the Rings for the ninth time…or maybe just watch “Serendipity.” Again.
If my truncated review here sounds facile, well, maybe it is, and it explains something of my disappointed irritation with Murakami’s door stopper of a novel. Because a book of magical realism, written with such lovely, even haunting, prose, containing so many off-the-cuff philosophical nuggets, and such an amazing surfeit of references to classical music, literature and movies – plus what may be the only gay ninja in modern literature – should have equal weight given to ensuring the payoff is worth it. But apparently Murakami, according to our guest Lorenzo Il Magnifico (the only one of us who has read other works by the author), is a master at taking strange characters out of their comfort zone and seeing how they develop and react to stuff that is in turns bizarre and utterly out to lunch, and is less interested in resolving all possible loose ends at the end of the book.
Once we get past our ADD-induced desire for the quick fix and the snappy chapters (and a shorter book), I must admit that 1Q84 is written so well that one feels almost enveloped in it. Like some of Tarantino’s later movies which are broken down into chapters, the overall flow is seductive enough, the material interesting enough, the atmosphere and characters bright enough, that you are content to float along the currents of storytelling for no other reason than to take your time and enjoy the flow for a change. And you just don’t realize how much you’ve covered until you’re three hundred pages in, nothing of real consequence has yet occurred, and you ask yourself how you got that far without noticing.
The core of 1Q84 is solid enough to make that possible: Aomame, a lonely physical therapist with a sideline in assassination is gradually moved, chapter by chapter, to intersecting the orbit of the boy she loved as a ten-year old girl, a cram-school maths instructor who likes writing in his spare time and who is engaged to touch up a short novel of startling originality written by a seventeen year old girl. The fact that Aomame is not actually in 1984 but in some queer parallel world she calls “1Q84” which she reached by climbing down an escape ladder of a Tokyo highway, merely adds to the textual richness of the prose. Having established this premise, we keep getting drawn into a richly realized inner world of fascinating people in a strange and wonderful mental existence. As Aomame fulfils her last contract, she is hunted by the cult’s minions; after Tengo finishes his work he realizes the same cult is after him because the girl who came up with the story is connected with the organization and somehow has weird psychic connections, and then his father gets sick and dies and a weird (and very ugly) detective starts snooping around and…oh well. This is not a tale that lends itself to either easy categorization or easy summarization… Let’s just say that if your taste is for the offbeat, you’d probably like it. A lot.
At end, for me, the entire story is a succession of red herrings (and I mean that as a real compliment, because what I’m saying is that it upends all expectations, over and over again). The references to 1984 are irrelevant. The gun is a hoax. The detective is a sideshow. The killing of the Leader is not a murder. The reuniting of Tengo and Aomame, to which the whole book leads, is a let down. The escape is not really an escape. Even the separate worlds are unnecessary (if you’re going to discuss a parallel universe then it has to suffuse the whole work, which here does not really happen – the story could have been just as powerful without it). This is not to minimize Murakami’s achievement – I must confess to wallowing in the richness and density of the writing, and while constant references to physical attributes, strange sex and past memories don’t always work, I can slide past such quibbles and simply remark that, overall, I enjoyed the book because of its utter uniqueness – I can state quite without doubts that I’ve never really read anything quite like this before, and will probably read other works by the man just to get more.
It takes real guts and a bit of insanity to take a novel this far off the beaten track and keep the reader interested. When you can seamlessly weave a love story, sex, violence, magic, death, parental disillusion and loss into a tapestry whose high point is when amorphous little people climb out a blind dead goat’s mouth, and interweave that with pop cultural and literary references varying from Chekhov, Stephen King and classical music, mix it all up with a detective story, a polemic on religion and spirituality, assassination and movies…to put all that in one narrative and hold the reader to the end – now that’s quite an achievement.
And that’s not even discussing the gay ninja.