Haruki Murakami may be the world’s most popular working literary author. And there is absolutely no logical reason for this.
He’s not an especially nimble writer, and you’d be hard-pressed to pick out a passage of his work that can survive quotation. Some of that may be due to the static of translation, but even in his native Japanese Murakami can sound as if he’s already been translated. (Indeed, Murakami started his first book Hear the Wind Sing, in English, then translated it back into Japanese to help achieve the disassociated, detached style that has since become his trademark.) Murakami has cited hard-boiled detective fiction as an early influence on his style, but at his leanest he can read like Raymond Chandler without the whiskey.
Yet to the legions of fervent Murakami fans, and I count myself among them, none of this really matters. To enter into the best Murakami novels—The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, Dance Dance Dance—is to fall under a spell that seems all the more magical for its outward ordinariness. Sure, fantastic things happen in his novels: talking cats, demonic possession, Mongolian soldiers with a taste for flaying. But that deadpan Murakami tone and those recognizable Murakami elements (nearly all of his books are narrated in the first person by interchangeable male protagonists who tend to like jazz, pasta and American novels) keeps the uncanny elements grounded in such a way that they burrow all the deeper. If Murakami were a better writer, he wouldn’t be anywhere near so great a writer.
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But as it is with all magicians, the spell cast by Murakami is a delicate one. In his massive new novel 1Q84, just published in English translation, it never quite dazzles as it should. All the usual Murakami elements are there: the detached protagonist, the creepy authoritarian cult, the mysterious quest, the moments when the bizarre bleeds into the buttoned-up world of modern Japan. Yet too often the words simply lay there on the page—all 932 of them. The effort feels all too forced, as if Murakami set out to write something that simply approximated a great novel. (Murakami has said that he was inspired by The Brothers Karamazov, which is similar to 1Q84 in that it is also very, very long.) This is a jazz solo that overstays its welcome.
For a book of its length—though it should be noted the novel was published in several volumes in Japanese, which might have benefited readers overseas—surprisingly little actually happens. A young woman in 1984 named Aomame (the name means “green peas”) leaves a taxi stranded in traffic on an elevated highway in Tokyo. She’s late for an appointment—an assassination, albeit of a very bad man—and decides to walk down an emergency stairway on the side of the highway that will take her down to street-level. As she leaves, her driver cautions her with a warning that should really come attached to all Murakami novels. “Please remember, things are not what they seem,” he says. “After you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little.”
So it does, as Aomame finds herself in a world that’s slightly askew, one where the police dress a little bit differently, the U.S. and the Soviet Union are planning a moon base and there are now two moons in the sky, one our pale, white satellite, the other small and green. Aomame trades narration with Tengo, a 30-year-old struggling writer enlisted to revise a strange novel called Air Chrysalis written by a preternaturally beautiful 16-year-old cult escapee who is apparently incapable of using question marks. And then there are the Little People, eerie mystical beings who resemble Snow White’s seven dwarfs as imagined by Kafka. Also, there is some truly weird sex.
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Like Toru Okada in the also big (and far better) Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Aomame and Tengo find themselves grappling with a demonic authoritarian cult that lurks behind the scenes in mundane Japan. Authoritarianism, and the flight from it, has always been an obsession for Murakami, who returns again and again in his most powerful writing to the enduring question of why so many ordinary Japanese were willing to obey insanity during World War II. That drive has been socially valuable—too many Japanese remain in a state of enforced amnesia about the war—and it helped make Murakami more than just a cool pop novelist. But ultimately 1Q84, despite the deliberate reference to Orwell’s 1984, which never really plays out, doesn’t have much to say about those larger questions of obedience and independence. There are blocks and blocks and blocks of exposition, but little of the python-like squeeze of invisible power that made books like Wind-Up Bird and A Wild Sheep Chase so unsettling.
Instead, 1Q84 unwinds as a result of its looping plot. There are still wonderfully Murakami-esque moments, like the “town of cats,” a fantastic story within the main story about a traveler who goes to a place populated only by cats, and comes to find himself “irretrievably lost.” But what I missed in this long-awaited Murakami novel was Murakami himself. With 1Q84, the author decided for the first time in his career to fully abandon first-person narration, and the absence is felt. I could spend hours in Murakami’s company, which is essentially the experience that all those earlier books offered. (I imagine we’d cook some spaghetti, listen to Stan Getz, talk obliquely about girls, maybe go for a run.) Aomame and Tengo, however, I could do without. Remove Murakami from Murakami, and the magic vanishes.
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