Thursday, March 22, 2012

Haruki Murakami's 1Q84: A Review

OK! So I’m in trouble.  I’ve found another author who has a long list of books to his credit, and I am now inclined to read them all.  Bottom line: I enjoyed all three books of 1Q84.  How I got to that bottom line is a meandering tale of inverted snobbery, ignorance, misconceptions, clever marketing, revulsion, and susceptibility to beautifully designed book covers.

I was not intimately familiar with Murakami’s work.  When I first became aware of 1Q84 it was the cover of Book Three that attracted me; the dark background, the enigmatic title, “1Q84,” with a crow perched on the Q, and the title and the crow silhouetted against an image of a somewhat distorted moon, not to mention a smaller, green hued moon a short distance to the bottom left.  (I hope you can all see the second moon.  Please tell me you can.)

After my initial attraction to the cover I read some of the online blurbs about the book. (I try to avoid reading reviews of books before I read the actual work in case they give away plot lines and spoil the work for me.  That is also why I try never to give anything other than the highest level plot information in the reviews I write.  I believe the author has laid out the plot of his/her work in the way he/she intends the reader to discover it and that a preview of the plot is just something that can only remove an element of the pleasure to be gleaned by reading the book unsullied by prior knowledge. Of course, some book blurbs can be equally dangerous in this regard. End of sermon.)  There was mention of Orwell’s 1984 which left me with the, as it turned out, misconception that it was simply a re-write of 1984.  That was when my revulsion kicked in.  “Why”, thought I, “do people just rewrite other people’s stories?  I don’t think I would enjoy reading just a rewrite of 1984.”

Also, thought I, I’ve never heard of this book before and the first thing I see is Book Three.   What about books One and Two?  Oh, how convenient, they are available in a single volume.  Clever; heavily market Book Three and draw people into having to buy the previous two books.  This reminded me of my experience of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books.  I first became aware of The Amber Spyglass being marketed heavily and being a very stunning looking volume.  I had never noticed the earlier volumes.  I thought the 1Q84 publishers were pulling the same trick and I was a bit reluctant to be a victim to clever marketing.

The 1Q84 book covers are designed very differently from Murakami’s other novels.  This prevented my realising that Murakami was the same person who wrote Kafka on the Shore, a book that I had noticed being critically acclaimed but had, due to my superficial scanning of news articles on the book, considered as one of those “literary” works of merit that mere mortals such as myself could not appreciate without having swallowed a dictionary of literary terms and fully paid my dues as a member of the literati.  Yes, this was my inverted snobbery and ignorance.

Anyway, I found myself in a bookshop and the combined Book One and Book Two volume of 1Q84 was in front of me.  I decided to try the first page.  That was a fatal mistake.  I immediately bought the two volume set and have not regretted it one bit.  As you can see, I had a lot of emotional energy invested in these books before I started reading them.  Being a reader is so draining.

“What about the books?” I hear you cry.

1Q84 Books One & Two were published in a single volume which, apparently, is in line with the original Japanese publication.  In my opinion they are really a single book. The subtlety of the dividing line between one book and the next escaped me.  It just appeared to be an arbitrary delineation of the end of one book and the beginning of another; perhaps I'm just not sensitive enough or perhaps it’s my overdue membership for the literati being exposed.

Regardless, I enjoyed the book.  Its structure worked well; chapters alternated between the viewpoint of one of the two primary characters and that of the other.  Having finished the book (or "books" if you prefer) I can say it (they) constitute a good, enjoyable novel.   If Book 3 had never come into existence I would be happy that Books 1 and 2 were sufficient in themselves to be regarded as a good work of fiction.

The primary theme in Book One and Book Two is violence against women.  However, here are many other themes worked into the story; namely, love, family (in particular parent/child relationships), religious sects, justice, helplessness, isolation, etc...  There is also a strong "coming of age" element.  In addition, there are many episodes of sexual gymnastics.  I hasten to add that I was enjoying the book before I reached Chapter 3, and I didn't enjoyed it any less having read the hot lesbian encounter in that chapter.

Chapter 1 introduces Aomame (pronounced “Ah-oh-mah-meh” and meaning “green peas”) and describes a piece of music by Janáček, as well as providing some historical context for Janáček’s music.  Chapter 2 gives some interesting information on the workings of the world of publishing and some pointers on writing, as well as introducing Tengo Kawana, a maths teaching aspiring author. Described in the fashion above chapters 1 and 2 may not appear to be material that would draw a reader into a three book story.  But I was well hooked before even getting to chapter 2 and was in the landing net before I got to chapter three.

The strongest characters in all three books are female.  This includes the primary character Aomame, some of her friends, and a rather enigmatic seventeen year old.  Tengo and Tamaru (you’ll have to read the book to find out who he is) are no slouches, but the ladies do have the majority of the strong roles.  This is not a “women good – men bad” sort of novel, but more everyone is equal story.

Another message from Book One and Book Two is that the bad guy may not necessarily be the bad guy; he/she could be a victim too.

Book Two ends with many questions unanswered, but it is not necessary to answer these questions.  The fact that they are not answered is a strength of the book.  Had this been the end of the story I would have been quite happy and would still feel it was a good tale.  It reminded me of the end of K-Pax by Gene Brewer.  The fact that there was a third 1Q84 book scared me.  K-Pax was an excellent book but the author went on to produce K-Pax II and K-Pax III, books that destroyed the mystery, the wonder and the awe of the original K-Pax story (which is faithfully and excellently replicated in the film of the same name).  My fear was that Book Three of 1Q84 would destroy the great work done in Book One and Book Two. 

I need not have worried.  While Book Three may not have been necessary, it did work well and complemented the earlier work.  While it tied up some loose ends, it still left enough unanswered questions to leave the reader with a mind buzzing with queries and wondering about many things.  It can often be what is not said that gives the reader the most reward.

Book Three was not predominantly about violence against women, but was much more a thriller with danger at every turn, a powerfully romantic love story, a tale of tenacity, and realisation that we all face sojourns in a dangerous world filled with unknowns, and that we sometimes have to take the bull by the horns and dictate the path of our own destiny; and that sometimes this does not always work out.

Murakami keeps the tension up right to the very end.  This is not a story where one gets to the penultimate chapter and knows what is going to happen.   A very rewarding read.