1Q84 was released to unprecedented hype for a Murakami novel, with the phrase ‘magnum opus’ appearing on several websites before the English translation was even complete. As a Murakami fan this heightened my anticipation of the release. 1Q84 also received significant critical acclaim, so my expectations were high – perhaps too high.
1Q84 is a thoroughly enjoyable Murakami novel, a step up from Kafka on the Shore and the slightly dreary After Dark. It does not, however, rival the Murakami greats – Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World being, to my mind, his two best works. It also wasn’t as enjoyable, for me, as Wild Sheep Chase or Dance Dance Dance, or as emotionally affecting as Norwegian Wood.
First the good. 1Q84 presents an immersive Murakami world. As always, I whizzed through the book – Murakami knows how to construct a page-turner, and although I don’t warm to the idea of alternating chapters, I found neither main character grating and both story arcs compelling. Murakami also knows how to construct a sense of fear, and the freaky knocking of the NHK fee collector on doors was both genuinely scary and also recalled that familiar Murakami trope – figures from the past who are lost in the present. Indeed, as far as Murakami tropes go, this one has a fair few of them – cats (albeit not those that talk), a single guy living on his own (albeit not the only focus of the story),a slightly skewed reality …. in fact I’ll just skip listing the rest and present this graph I found, which is pretty accurate:
The presence of these tropes reassures us Murakami fans, and is not necessarily seen as a criticism. Indeed most fans will accept that Murakami novels are all variations on the same theme, and this is unlikely to change. So, if these things were present, what were the bad points of 1Q84?
Firstly, it’s too long. Not enough happens to justify this book’s 1,000 plus length. I’m all for character introspection, but there’s a lot of waffle that could, and should, have been cut. Secondly, the sex scenes are badly written. Thirdly, a lot of the supplementary characters don’t work. Some do – the bodyguard Tamaru is very likeable, and, despite some sniffy comments elsewhere, I enjoyed the Ushikawa chapters. But the other characters appear and disappear without sufficient fleshing out – particularly Tengo’s older girlfriend, who after disappearing mysteriously is never seen or heard from again. But most of all, 1Q84 just didn’t do enough with the Murakami tropes to make it a stand out novel. Wild Sheep Chase is mysterious and sad, particularly the friendship between the Boku character (the male narrator) and the Rat man. Norwegian Wood is centred on a compelling love story. Wind-up bird is genuinely scary, and Hardboiled Wonderland is fatalistic and fantastical in its conception. Unfortunately, 1Q84 was none of these things – the love story didn’t convince, the cult wasn’t scary enough, and the meandering through cats, cooking and listening to music wasn’t enough to make this a Murakami great. The ending was also unsatisfying, leaving too many issues unresolved. As I said at the start, this is a step up from Kafka on the Shore, but Murakami remains at his best in the shorter, snappier novels that started his career.