1Q84 (Book 3): Haruki Murakami

Can I get some virtual high fives? I have finished this monster! And it is a monster in more ways than one. I almost gave up on it, disgust and frustration building up over the course of these more than 1600 pages, and there was a part where I really did not care how it ended. But you already know how irritated I have been with this book in so many ways (and if you have not been following along these last couple of months, find my previous rants here), so let’s take a blissful minute to talk about the good things. And yes, there be spoilers ahead.

The story. Yes, the story that I nearly gave up on, but so glad I didn’t. It continued to twist and shift throughout the book(s), so that I couldn’t get a firm grasp on it until about halfway through Book 3. I had already read somewhere that it was a love story of the strangest sort before I even started reading it, so the ending was somewhat of a foregone conclusion, but that did not change the pleasure I felt when grown-up Aomame was finally holding grown-up Tengo’s hand. And the moment when she finds him on top of the slide is just perfect and beautiful. “Open your eyes,” she whispers. “You can see the moon.” Which sounds sort of cheesy out of context, but is one of my favourite moments of the whole book. The pacing, the wording, the silence between the words, it all works here.

There are some thematic things that I really love too, the idea of empty spaces that pervades the novel being one of them. This is articulated by some of the characters (most notably, Tengo’s dad), the idea of empty spaces that need to be filled somehow, with someone or in some way. Empty spaces in people, in places. The area at the bottom of the emergency stairs Aomame descends is a great physical empty space, abandoned by the business that owns it and then by the homeless people that squatted in it. All these empty spaces—both physical and emotional—of course lead to Aomame and Tengo filling in those spaces in each other.

And the last half of the book does finally pick up and overcome a lot of the issues that have kept me from really enjoying 1Q84. Enough that the waiting times various characters experience are adding to the story rather than hindering it, as they did in his previous books. It doesn’t feel like unnecessary verbosity here, but rather a deliberate part of the story to allow the characters to process and move forward. But even when he is making things work, Murakami still manages to toss a spanner into the works.

But to talk about that, we have to take a look at the most irritating part of Book 3, the appearance of Ushikawa. Or rather, of Ushikawa as a point-of-view character. Remember how Book 2 ended on a really tense note and you were all wondering where things would go from there? Get ready to wait a little longer when you open Book 3. Because you will have to sit through Ushikawa, the unpleasant-looking detective who tried to sway Tengo to the dark side earlier, having his own thoughts and doing his own things. Maybe this would add to the story if he actually did anything that the reader was unaware of, but as the private detective hired to find Aomame, his function for three-quarters of Book 3 is to rehash all the things you already learned in Books 1 and 2 about Tengo and Aomame and the cult that is after them. Seriously. Around Chapter 22, you finally get to see just what his purpose in the story is. That’s Chapter 22 out of 31. So you know, mostly, he just tells you what you already know, which takes us back to my complaint that Murakami clearly does not trust his readers to understand anything without him spoonfeeding it to us.

The worst instance of this is probably in Chapter 17 when Aomame spies a kid with a too-big head leaving the park across the street from the apartment building where she is in hiding. Having read this far, a vaguely half-witted reader would realize from the description of this kid that it was in fact not a kid, but the intrepid Ushikawa. And yet immediately after Ushikawa runs out of the park, an all-knowing narrator appears for the first time in any of the books, to tell us exactly who that person was and why he was there and how narrowly Aomame missed being discovered. It completely ripped me out of the moment in the book, being so out of character with the narrative up to that point. My feeling was that if you feel the need to step out of the narrative structure you’ve set up to explain just exactly what is happening, then you either have not written what is happening very well or you don’t trust your readers to figure it out.

Murakami steps out from behind the curtain again a little later to tell us that had Ushikawa only followed Tengo on this particular night, he would have known that Tengo was meeting the editor Komatsu. Uh, thanks. I could not have figured that out myself from the already detailed information in the book. It’s frustrating because I want to like this book, because I do like the story and I do like the way he chooses his words and the images he creates with them. But I find it very hard to overlook these sudden jumps out of the structure Murakami himself created.

I am less opposed to the weird paralysis sex from Book 2, since it does play a major part in the plot that was not obvious when I wrote about Book 2. Although the ear festish is still there and still creepy. And like I said before, the story really does get a lot tighter in Book 3. But I was already so tired of this book and so frustrated with it before I even got here that I found it difficult to enjoy the pleasures offered by the tighter writing. I know the English version is getting some editing and I actually wish I had just skipped the original and waited for the English. I feel like this is at least one time where the translation is going to be better than the original.

5 thoughts on “1Q84 (Book 3): Haruki Murakami

  1. I just finished the first two books of 1Q84 in Swedish (which is my first language) and was surprised to realize upon googling that there is a third book and that the English translation isn’t out yet! I greatly enjoyed reading your thoughts on the opus, especially as I mostly agree with you in your criticism. I only read my first Murakami books earlier this year, to see what all the fuss was about (Kafka on the shore, After dark, and Sputnik Sweetheart) and didn’t like what I read, even though the books were good reads (if that makes sense). Curiousity led me to borrowing #1 and #2 of 1Q84 when I found them in the library… I find it interesting that this was such a popular book (the back cover of the Swedish copy was full of overwhelming praise) as it indeed was so repetitive, almost to the extent that it was disrespectful to the reader. And my eyebrows did indeed travel higher and higher up for every time Fukaeri’s breast were mentioned. And every time Murakami had to point out that none of the main characters had even a percent of body fat.
    I feel a bit stupid for thinking #2 was the end, but it would have – kind of – made sense, even despite all the loose threads. Can’t find plot descriptions on book #3 anywhere, but it seems Aomame didn’t die? Hmm. I wonder when it will be out in Swedish…
    Very illuminating to read comments on how it will be possible to translate the Japanese original to English, as I found the Swedish translation good over all but very much lacking in the ambiguous department (in fairness, it’s probably almost impossible to come up with a good translation of things like “air pupa” as I’ve understood it has double meanings in Japanese?).
    Any way, thank you for good reviews on the book(s)!

    • Yeah, the English translation is slow coming. I think the Korean version came out a week after the Japanese. At least you got it in Swedish already! Hooray!
      I’m glad to hear that you came across the same things as I did in reading 1Q84. I’ve been reading praise for this thing all over the place to the point where I was starting to wonder if I was the only one genuinely irritated by so much of it. Thanks for pointing out how ridiculously fit and attractive everyone is! I wanted to mention that, but felt I was already complaining about too many things in the book. And I definitely felt it was repetitive to the point of disrespect, which is a real shame, because like I said in my review, I really love his earlier work and I wanted to like this too.
      I can easily see how you thought Book 2 was the end. It ends in a really tense, end-y kind of place. I would’ve been more frustrated if that had been the end though, because of all the questions left hanging. Read Book 3 if you get the chance. I was really grumpy about the book at the end of Book 2, but Book 3 did redeem the whole work for me to some extent. I felt less annoyed, anyway.
      To get a feel for what the fuss is about, you should check out his earlier works. I would particularly recommend A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance. They’re connected, although you can read one without reading the other, and they show off the Murakami I fell in love with.

  2. I just finished this series a few minutes ago and have relished reading someone else’s thoughts about it. And I agree with a lot of them—when Murakami got suddenly omniscient in the Ushikawa chapter, I certainly had to blink and read that again. I was enjoying the POV conceit so much (yes, even Ushikawa’s) that to see it broken so flippantly was really jarring.

    Despite the undeniable stylistic repetition, I didn’t find the characterizations so grating as the folks above have. Particularly, I didn’t find them too “perfect.” Yes, Tengo’s good at just about everything, but he’s so obviously stunted and insecure that I can see his diverse talents as a way of bringing him up to about average, rather than rocketing him ahead of anyone. And Aomame may be fit as can be, but she’s clearly worked for it, and she’s still no Venus; Murakami is not shy about pointing out her physical flaws (even to the point that we get tired of reading about them).

    Yes, the boob fixation that follows Fukaeri around is creepy. Especially coming from a teacher twice her age who’s supposed to be in love with another protagonist. But I think that anyone who means to like Murakami has to accept that his male characters are going to be pretty passive and accepting when it comes to sex, whether by enjoying commitment-free Fridays with a married girlfriend or by being actually paralyzed during predestined wormhole insemination rape (or is there a better way to describe it). Not saying we shouldn’t scrunch up our faces when it happens. Just saying that it’s going to happen, but if we really want to justify it to ourselves, there’s probably a way. (For example, maybe that Fukaeri was a clone! …and therefore OK to imagine raping a teacher and having her breasts ogled! …well, maybe not.)

    Anyway, thanks again for the great comments. I appreciated the shot of empathy.

    • I agree that when you come to Murakami, you do need to be prepared to accept some of the things that irritated me in 1Q84, and I think that if it hadn’t been so hammered into my face for three long books, I probably would’ve been inclined to be forgiving. But over and over, Murakami reminds the reader that Tengo is a genius, Fukaeri has great boobs and Aomame is a fitness guru. You make a good point about Tengo being so stunted and insecure, and yes, Aomame does work for her fit self, but it just gets so tiresome and in your face that I really felt I couldn’t just forgive it the way I might have if the whole thing had seen the hand of a good editor.

      Either way, from now on, I will think of Fukaeri as a clone! Thanks for that!

    • “But I think that anyone who means to like Murakami has to accept that his male characters are going to be pretty passive and accepting when it comes to sex, whether by enjoying commitment-free Fridays with a married girlfriend or by being actually paralyzed during predestined wormhole insemination rape (or is there a better way to describe it)”
      HAHA well put!

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