I finally finished 1Q84. I’ve been slogging my way through it since August. Well, that’s not entirely true. I took a couple of months off because of work. But still, that’s a record. I’ve taken that long to finish books before, but I usually read several books in the interim. This past fall was utterly devoid of books for me. Anyway.
There is no way to accurately sum this book up. But I’ll give it a shot. Hang in there, folks. Basically, there are two main characters, Tengo and Aomame. The book switches back and forth, chapter by chapter, between their perspectives. They both, unexpectedly and inexplicably, find themselves in a world that is not quite their own. It’s the same except for a few small details, including the sudden appearance of a second moon. But it’s Tokyo in 1984, so a little extra weirdness would probably get lost in a sea of the already-weird. Tengo and Aomame had an intense connection as children but haven’t seen each other for twenty years, although they both think of the other often. Their separate storylines are (very slowly) brought closer and closer together through a series of wacked-out and seemingly unrelated events. Tengo is asked to help rewrite a fantasy novel that a young girl wrote, which is a thinly-veiled description of her own childhood in a crazy cult. When the book is published the cult leader stops hearing the voices that tell him what to do, and sends people to find the girl and the ghostwriter so that the voices will come back (whether their intention is to kill them remains unclear). Meanwhile, Aomame is a skilled assassin who has been hired by a wealthy dowager to secretly kill men who brutally abuse their wives and girlfriends, but are so powerful or wealthy that they have escaped the law. As it turns out, the leader of the crazy cult is one of these men, and when he dies Tengo and Aomame are suddenly wrapped up in the same story. Although they don’t know it at the time. They spend the next seven-hundred pages figuring it out.
Which is fucking torture.
Now, let me be clear: it’s a good book. The writing is good, the language lush, the characters fascinating. But it’s like A Tale of Two Cities took a bunch of acid and got lost in an Ang Lee film. The pace is so slow as to be frustrating and the weirdness of the details remains unexplained, dangled like a carrot in front of the reader throughout. The characters’ utter acceptance of suddenly finding themselves in a different universe reads almost like magical realism, as does the cult’s understanding that the supernatural creatures they worship are real (this isn’t just simple faith, though, they know it for a fact and have seen these things in action). And I suppose some of my frustration could be due to the chatter that I’d heard about the book before I got my hands on it. As much as I hate to admit it, I went in with some preconceived notions. But you always do, don’t you? The person who recommended it or the other books it’s compared to always skew the way we read things, right? I was expecting either a noir mystery with a scifi twist, or an epic scifi with a noir mystery twist situation. It was, disappointingly, none of these things. I’m not sure what it was.
But that brought up a good point in the discussion I had with the Pantsless Book Club – that neither of us would recommend this book to anyone unless they had already read some of the books that we would compare it to. Seems like a catch-22, doesn’t it? This kind of difficult fiction is best described through comparisons, though. For example, I would never have read Dhalgren if I hadn’t implicitly trusted the taste of the person who recommended it. Now, it’s one of the books that I would never recommend to anyone if they didn’t implicitly trust my taste, or unless they’d read something that I would use as a descriptor for it. Dhalgren is probably the only book that I’d compare to 1Q84, actually, and they have a lot of details in common, including the two moons thing. It’s kind of like how Tool and Pink Floyd are nothing alike, but they’re the only two bands I would put in the same category as each other.
I guess my point is that the slavering, gushy reviews I read of 1Q84 misled me. Pretty badly misled me, at that. I was drawn in by the hype and fully expected to devoir the story with gusto. But it was more like a lukewarm bath. It got me clean, but I wasn’t rushing home to get back into it. Which makes me a little sad, if I’m being honest. Because while it was in fact a good book, I feel like everything I have to say on the subject is about how deeply disappointed I was. And that’s unfortunate. I’d love to give it a glowing recommendation, tell you to stop what you’re doing and go read it now now now. But I just can’t. Read it, by all means, but I’m not going to tell you it’ll blow your mind.
Something that Jessica from Seattle said stuck with me, though. She was interested in the slow pace and intricacy of the character’s points of view (which are well-illustrated despite the book’s being in third person). She said that learning how to just go along with them and follow their logic and not be plot-driven in her reading was a new experience for her, and she used it as an exercise in mindful, patient reading. I think that’s really interesting, and is, honestly, something I should learn how to do. I read so much and so fast that I often forget things as soon as I’m done with them. Unless it rocks my world, I’ll probably just remember vaguely a plot point or the feeling that a book gave me. Like a drug addict who needs more and more or purer and purer fixes, I find that so many books are so similar as to be forgettable. So I like the idea of really being purposeful and cautious when reading something difficult or beautiful, so I get everything out of it that I can.
I should also say that Murakami is a beloved author. I haven’t read any of his other books, but from what people are telling me, 1Q84 seems to be a bit of an outlier. All the reviews talk about it like it’s completely different from his other work in style, structure, even humor. I’d like to do a little comparing and contrasting and see if I can ferret out why this story warranted such a departure from what has made him a huge figure in literature. It is, at its core, a simple love story, but it’s couched in such indecipherable weirdness that I wonder which was the point. I’ll try some of his other stuff and get back to you guys. This will be a fun experiment, don’t you think?