Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 is not a modest endeavor.
It clocks in at 932 pages, putting us in "Karenina" and "Quixote" territory. A journey through its considerable bulk confronts the reader with alternate realities, religious cults, Janacek's Sinfonietta, literary subterfuge, murder by ice pick, a ghostly television-fee collector, girl's softball, a misshapen private investigator, and a race of "Little People" who construct chrysalides from threads they summon out of thin air.
All of these elements, and a number of others, orbit around the central duo of Aomame and Tengo, whose story unfolds in alternating chapters. Tengo is a young math instructor and aspiring writer enjoined by his editor to revise a manuscript called "Air Chrysalis" and submit it for a prominent literary prize under the name of its original author: a mysterious 17-year-old girl named Fuka-Eri.
Aomame supplements her time as a health club employee by eliminating abusive men at the behest of a wealthy dowager who runs a shelter for battered women. The reader soon learns that these two share a childhood connection, and the balance of the narrative concerns their efforts to re-enter each other's lives.
The sheer length of the piece initially works to its benefit. Murakami has the luxury of deploying various plot threads and bits of exposition across an exceptionally broad canvas. The shadow of the authorial hand recedes, allowing details and connections to accrue in a manner that feels casual and organic.
The narrative and its mysteries needs to be the selling point here: however, the prose is generally pedestrian, characters don't so much have conversations as they declare information in each other's general direction, and there's little sense of place or of life being lived outside the protagonists' field of vision.
As the novel progresses, the problems multiply. Chief among these is the sheer volume of repetition. Basic information concerning characters' appearance, thoughts, and motivations is repeated long after even the most inattentive reader should be up to speed. Aomame and Tengo are given internal monologues in which they simply restate information the reader has just gleaned from the narrative, like soap opera characters summarizing plot points for anyone who missed last week's episodes.
This tendency reaches its pinnacle with Ushikawa, our singularly unattractive private detective. When he undertakes some investigating at an elementary school on page 699, we learn that as a child he "wasn't good at sports" but his "grades in other classes were excellent". He was unpopular due to his "big, ugly face, with a misshapen head" and his "hair was frizzy and unruly." On page 734, we learn that as a child he had "a large, misshapen head and unkempt, frizzy hair." In school "he had generally gotten excellent grades, but his performance in some subjects was erratic and he was particularly hopeless at sports." Do tell. Bear in mind that Ushikawa's unusual appearance, particularly his large, misshapen head, has been established -- and reestablished -- on numerous occasions by this point in the text.
1Q84 is trying to be many things at once: a tale of star-crossed lovers separated by circumstance, a detective story, a portrait of a son confronting his father and the ghosts of his past, a story of shifting realities and irruptions of fantasy in humdrum lives, and more.
Any of these subjects could form the basis for an engaging read, as could any combination of said. But, in the work in question, none of them serve to enhance any of the others, and all of them could be improved by a heavy dose of concision.
Murakami is constantly striving to give a sense of the extraordinary, but the plodding and repetitive presentation, dragged out to the point of absurdity, grounds any attempt at an effect that requires such a light touch.
By the time, late in the novel, he breaks the narrative fourth wall to point out to the reader that Aomame and Tengo have just now almost managed to encounter each other, it feels less like the playful wit of a mischievous puppet master and more like a taunt.
It's a warning to the reader that the book is too absorbed in its own games to offer something so humble as resolution, and too turgid and lumbering to offer any more rarified satisfactions.
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