Book review: 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

originally posted elsewhere: December 5, 2011

tl;dr: Not the epic I was hoping it'd be, alas...

For quite some time I had been wanting to try my first sampling of the works of popular Japanese author Haruki Murakami, so when I heard about the U.S. publication of his greatest work (in length and, presumably, scope), 1Q84, I bought a copy on the day of the first release and started reading. Given this and the facts that I have traveled to Japan and have an appreciation for Japanese culture, cuisine and technology, one could say I was biased towards wanting to enjoy 1Q84. Alas, although I enjoyed aspects of the book, it did not fully live up to what I realize, in retrospect, were lofty expectations.

For the longest time while reading 1Q84 I was not sure what the book is. With a title like 1Q84 and the occasional mention in the text of bits from George Orwell's classic book, one might expect upon opening the book for the first time that 1Q84 would be a political treatise. A violent act at the beginning of the book, coupled with some subsequent events, had me thinking the book might be a thriller set in Tokyo. Murakami presents an alternative world that contains some fantastical beings and worshippers, leading me to think he might be trying to present an new religious belief and value system. Or maybe, since the chapters of the book start off by alternating between the two lead characters, one male and one female, Murakami has penned a love story.

A book cover consisting of a faint image of a young Asian woman's face, with the title in large block characters and the author's name in smaller characters

Eventually it becomes clear what 1Q84 is, when certain things get fully explored and resolved whereas other plot elements do not. But even when it is finally clear what type of book 1Q84 is, that only tells you what the book is on the surface. Ultimately 1Q84 is a story about alienation in the modern world, which happens to be the Tokyo of 1984 - but it could easily be the New York City of 2011. All the main characters are loners with varying degrees of suffering in their backgrounds. Their interactions vary from the mundane to events which apparently violate the laws of physics. Moral principles get turned upside down as the characters struggle to determine what is the right thing to do (by the way, 1Q84 is not a book for young adults, as there are several scenes and scenarios that would cause U.S. school boards to keep the book off lists of recommended summer reading for high schoolers). If I had to summarize what Murakami is saying, it is that we live in a frighteningly complex world in which it is impossible to know how and why everything is happening, and the best that we can hope for is to find a refuge from the craziness. Sometimes, that refuge takes the form of dying, but there are other solutions, too.

1Q84 did hold my interest throughout, although as one might expect the first third of the book was a bit slower paced than the remainder. The writing, as translated into English, was fairly straightforward and easy to follow. One minor surprise was the large number of references to Western popular and classical culture; I was expecting more references to Japanese culture. The very first scene takes place on the elevated Tokyo highway that ran next to the hotel I stayed at during my last visit to Tokyo, which was amusing to me: I did recognize some elements of Tokyo throughout the book. And I was a bit sad to see 1Q84 come to an end. But when an author pens a 900+ page volume (which I consider to be epic length), then my expectation is that the book measure up to epic standards. Alas, 1Q84 does not, in my opinion.