I never thought I could enjoy a fantasy novel. I also doubted that I needed to read another book by Murakami. He is not among my favorite authors. I find him far too desperate to sell himself to Western readers for my taste. In this respect, he reminds me of Garcia Marquez whose novels were always about exoticizing and cutesefying Colombia as much as possible in search of global popularity and massive sales.
The main reason why I pre-ordered Murakami’s 1Q84, I have to confess, was its length. If a book runs to almost 1,000 pages, I absolutely need to have it. It’s a compulsion I cannot resist. I didn’t have any great expectations for the novel which is why I was really shocked by how much I enjoyed it.
Murakami still cannot keep his exaggerated desire to be relevant to his Western readers in check. Among all of the literary references in the novel (some of which are quite lengthy), there is a single Japanese one. Other than that one work of Japanese literature, the characters read Chekhov, Proust, Orwell, Dostoevsky, etc. The novel is filled with explanations of the “In Japan, banks work this way” and “Japanese police officers do this and that” variety that are, obviously, of no use to Japanese readers and that sound very strange in the mouth of a Japanese character talking to her friend. For instance, can you imagine regaling your childhood buddy with the information that, “In the US, we use ATMs to withdraw money”? Still, there is a lot less of this in 1Q84 than there is, for example, in Norwegian Wood.
The fantasy aspect of the novel did not annoy me in the least. The reason why I didn’t mind it in 1Q84 when I mind it everywhere else to a degree that borders on paranoid is that fantasy in this novel does not exist for its own sake. The Little People and the air chrysalises play a very limited role of highlighting how empty, emotionally barren and castrated the lives of all of the characters are.
The characters of Murakami’s novel are so completely lonely, miserable and emotionally stunted that the only two of them who had a single moment of actual human contact when they held hands at the age of ten are the truly privileged ones. The rest do not even have that.
The Japan Murakami brings to us in 1Q84 is a place where people are so profoundly alienated that any one of them can drop off the face of the earth at any moment and nobody will even notice. And the scariest thing is that none of them seems to be even remotely conscious that there is something abnormal in living in a complete emotional and relational vacuum. By page 250, you get so desperate reading about the robotic existences of these characters that the irruption of fantastic elements feels entirely welcome. The mysterious evil Little People pose enough of a threat to propel the apathetic protagonists of the novel into some sort of reevaluation of their bereft existences.
Murakami’s trademark machismo is absent from this book. His tendency to resolve all of the conflicts and terminate all of the plot lines by getting the characters to kill themselves is almost gone, too, which is very refreshing. In this novel, Murakami has dramatically improved his not inconsiderable strengths while eliminating most of his weaknesses.
I have no knowledge of Japan that would enable me to judge whether there is some kind of a social reality behind the terrifying alienation described in 1Q84. What I can say, however, is that Murakami has definitely outdone himself in this novel. It is incomparably better than his previous work and I highly recommend it. If you never read Murakami before, start with this novel. It will take you forever to read it, but it will be a very enjoyable forever.