Published Jan 27, 2013In Haruki Murakami novels, strange incidents (that somehow don't seem all that strange in the context of their story) are interspersed with longer stretches of plot that focus on the quotidian, with protagonists going through daily routines while they wait and think and figure (or don't figure) things out. 1Q84 is no exception to this broad literary modus operandi.
But a number of reviewers, like The New York Times' Janet Maslin, seem perturbed by how little happens—or by how few events they deem significant or illuminating happen—in the novel. It's possible that their agitation stems from the fact that 1Q84 is close to a thousand pages long (comparable in length to those two Tolstoyan tomes known as War and Peace and Anna Karenina) and that with this page count comes latent expectations: a correlation between size and scope, length and loftiness. If a novel is that enormous, the logic goes, then reading it had better be worthwhile (in whatever way the reader decides to define that worthwhileness). It had better be superlative—demanding, important and life-changing—and it had better not disappoint. Presuming that 1Q84 can't measure up to all those longings, then it must be a failure, right? It must not be worth reading, right?
No. Not right. While Murakami's latest novel is far from perfect (as is Anna Karenina, it should be noted), it is good and compelling. Set in a parallel two-mooned Tokyo circa 1984, the story (mostly) alternates chapters between the lives of its two main characters, Aomame (a slim female fitness instructor who also happens to be a moral assassin) and Tengo (a broad male math teacher who also happens to be a reluctant ghostwriter), whose fates seem tenuously bound together in some unknown and enigmatic way that will be fleshed out during 1Q84. While, in a way, little does "happen" for a good chunk of the novel, the domestic lingering and lack of constant, plot-based dynamism serves a purpose.
The author, a long-distance runner whose memoir What We Talk About When We Talk About Running draws out the connection between his athletic and literary pursuits, is a man who finds value in independent work and in a regimented approach to everyday life. Aomame and Tengo exhibit a similar appreciation of isolation and structure. The former, who finds herself secluded away in a safe house for a sizeable portion of the novel, does her best to remain healthy during her removal from the outside world through a rigorous daily routine: she exercises and eats well to keep her body limber and she reads Marcel Proust's (renowned, if little read) Remembrance of Things Past to keep her mind engaged. Murakami seems to suggest that by appreciating the little things and by keeping (mentally and physically) active, contentment is more easily achieved.
That said 1Q84 is far from uneventful or uninteresting. There is a peppering of quirky, curious incidents and characters spread throughout its pages: a wise, dyslexic teenage girl with preternatural abilities, Little People who can grow at will, cocoon-like structures and a cat town. There are also some beautiful passages of prose and the insightful insertion of cultural and literary references that illuminate the novel's thematic underpinnings.
While the dialogue can occasionally be clunky and/or overwritten (particularly when it's erotic in nature), the denouement may seem delayed and perhaps too many loose ends aren't tied up, the world of 1Q84, with its two moons, nebulous cults and persistent fee collectors, remains an engaging place through which to live vicariously, if only for a few chapters each day. Would the novel be better if it were more to the point, if it were edited down a few hundred pages?: Quite possibly. But there is something profoundly simple and spiritual about the circadian rhythms of the authors' protagonists, which explains, if not necessitates, the page count. Dismissing this aspect of the novel as dull or trifling seems shortsighted. What is life but a series of days, some more interesting than others? The point is to find some joy in each day and to have something—however large or small, whether it's a person, an event or a construct like love—of which to look forward, isn't it? (Random House)