I first tried reading Murakami several years ago, when The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle came highly recommended to me from several friends. I didn’t make it very far into the book, but not due to lack of interest; as I recall, I had checked it out from the library and had to return it due to there being a long holds list. But 1Q84 is the first book of his I’ve finished, and … well, it’s interesting, to say the least.
I don’t read a lot of literary fiction. I read books mostly for plot, and while I’ve finally come to appreciate character-driven stories, straight-up literary fiction (in my experience) is more about theme than anything else. I say that because I wonder if I’m missing the point of the novel. It does have a plot, and it’s interesting and compelling enough, but I can’t help but think that the story could have been told in a fraction of the length of this novel. My edition clocked in at 1157 pages; I feel like the plot could have been told in about 400, easy, if Murakami condensed some of the dialogue, or left out much of the detail. Because there’s a lot of it. I mean, the level of detail in this novel could put that in American Psycho to shame, and at least in American Psycho the detail was there to show how obsessive and out of touch Bateman was. In 1Q84, I couldn’t determine why all that detail was necessary, to the point where I wonder if those details are what makes this novel significant. But lengthy descriptions of cooking and sleeping and breasts (even the female characters seem obsessed by them) just doesn’t seem like the point of anything here. The novel just feels superficial.
Speaking of the story being compelling, I was surprised to find that the story was very breezy and easy to read. For a story of this length, and from what I’ve heard of Murakami, I was expecting this to be a dense read, but the story flows easily enough. Murakami alternates his points of view from chapter to chapter, first telling the story of one of the characters (Tengo), and then telling the story of the other (Aomame). Both stories are intriguing, and the alternating of the chapters is a good way to keep the reader engaged. I was tempted sometimes to read over certain chapters, but as the stories progressed, it became clear that there was some intertwining of the two, and before long, reading one character’s chapter revealed more about the other. But it did take a long time to get there, and then once the novel reached its conclusion, it seemed to move along too quickly.
Given Murakami’s reputation, I expected there to be some complexity to the story, but when you break it down to its base elements, the story was pretty simple. There was some effort put into interweaving the two stories, but even then, it didn’t have any more complexity than the average fantasy novel. For the length of the novel, I was expecting something a little more impressive.
In addition, the story is described as a love story, and while I can see why, I’m not really convinced that love has anything to do with the story at all. What relationship there was wasn’t convincing to me. There wasn’t a kind of breathless passion that translated the relationship, especially when the two characters in question supposedly fell in love at ten years old, then separated and didn’t see each other for twenty years. And it’s not that they found one another, rediscovered each other, and then built a relationship out of it; they had been pining for each other and had convinced themselves that they were the only ones for each other. And it fell totally flat with me.
Much has been made of the title of the novel, since in Japanese, the word for "nine" is a homophone of the letter Q, making the title a pun on George Orwell's ubiquitous novel. Some of the blurbs speak of the Orwellian setting of the novel, but I don’t really see it. Maybe it’s my lack of understanding of Japanese culture, to the point where I don’t know what’s an actual part of the culture and what isn’t, but nothing in the novel jumped out to me as being equivalent to the political state of Nineteen Eighty-four. The novel is set in that year, and the comparisons are made within and without the novel, but it didn’t make a connection with me.
Overall, the story was just disappointing. I’m still holding out hope for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but I’m kind of curious what fans of that novel think of 1Q84; if they liked this one as much as that one, then maybe I should just pass on that one, too.