How to write about a monster like 1Q84 (official site) without giving too much away?
I suppose I could start by mentioning the things that it isn’t.
It isn’t, ultimately, the crushing disappointment that I feared after Kafka On The Shore or the insubstantial After Dark (which read more like Banana Yoshimoto* than Murakami). It isn’t short. It isn’t, in many ways, difficult to follow or seemingly random. It isn’t lacking in Murakami’s trademarks (erotic sex**, shadowy organisations menacing the lead characters, powerfully felt senses of fate or destiny, transgressive sex, young-girl-psychopomp figures and so on).
So what’s new? Why did 1Q84 ultimately engage me so powerfully where other of his more recent books have left me cold? Firstly, I use the term ‘ultimately’ quite advisedly. One strand of the book constantly references Proust in a way that comes to seem a little knowing, as if Murakami is sending us a clear message about what he’s doing here. The challenges that I imagine Proust offers – I confess I’ve yet to tackle him – relate to the need for the reader to submit absolutely to the writer’s envisioning of another’s inner life and Murakami is quite thoroughly immersing us in the inner lives of three highly contrasting characters at some length and in great detail. The other hint provided by Proust is the requirement of stamina. 1Q84 takes patience and commitment and probably only works for the reader prepared to be enchanted by its steady, rolling flow.
This isn’t a meandering trek through a world of meditation and madelines, however. It does have its own madelines and the memories and past lives of the two lead characters suffuse the text. But 1Q84 is also a thriller and a mystery story, albeit a rather metaphysical one. The stakes are high – the existence of a world, the persistence and transformation of inner lives, the fulfilment of a destiny possibly set in motion in childhood. It’s also a thoroughly unapologetic love story. There’s redemption, death, sorrow, ruthlessness…It is, after all, a very large book.
1Q84 will take patience. I almost gave up half way through. But it rewards the effort. You might want to take a box of tissues along for the ride but I put my Kindle down (it is, after all, a rather heavy book) with a sigh of, well, fulfilment. And more than that, I’m not saying.
*Banana Yoshimoto’s most recently translated book, Hard Boiled, is actually rather good, by the way. But one’s expectations are different.
** Look, most sex in literary fiction takes a positive pride in being unerotic, okay?