Book Review: Haruki Murakami — Marathon Storyteller

In his dozen or so works of international, best-selling fiction, Haruki Murakami has created an alternate-reality Japan that is at once magical and familiar, dangerous and comfortable, foreign but Westernized.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. Alfred A. Knopf, 2011, 925 pages, $30.50.

By Tommy Wallach.

Embarrassingly, I am the kind of person who needs to read a book twice if I hope to remember it. This is particularly dangerous if I happen to misread something the first time around; at age 13, I saw Humbert Humbert as the victim of Lolita and Dolores Haze as a kind of 20th-century Estella. Until I returned to the book in high school, I was convinced it was about the endless cruelty of teenage girls.

But even if I don’t go so far as to entirely misinterpret a book, without a second reading, I’m unlikely to be able even to put the basic outline of a plot to a title once I’ve closed the covers. This inadequacy of mine is particularly pronounced in the case of authors who excavate the same thematic territory over and over again in novel after novel, such as Japan’s foremost man-of-letters, Haruki Murakami. While I’ve read the majority of Murakami’s books, I could sooner recite the first five minutes of Wayne’s World verbatim than tell you whether The Wind-up Bird Chronicle or Dance Dance Dance was the one with the creepy elevator scene, or the guy who worked at a record store, or the guy stuck in the well.

Opening up Murakami’s latest novel, the much-ballyhooed 1Q84, I found myself immediately afloat in a nebulous sea of Murakami memory. Within the first 10 pages, there’s a reference to classical music, some needlessly obscure “mystery-speak” from a cab driver (“Please remember: things are not what they seem”), and of course, some of the worst sentences this side of a community college, continuing education, creative writing course—but more on that later. I wasn’t sure if I was reading a new story or, like something out of a Murakami book, experiencing a kind of ghostly recurrence of all of his old works at once.

What draws people to Murakami—what has drawn me back time and again—is difficult to explain. It isn’t the characters, who are interchangeable and vague, and it isn’t the stories, which are almost Lynch-like in their inscrutability. It’s something I can only describe as ambience. In his dozen or so works of fiction, Murakami has created an alternate-reality Japan that is at once magical and familiar, dangerous and comfortable, foreign but Westernized.

The worst you could say of these books is that they function as airport literature but carry the stamp of literary approval. There’s nothing embarrassing about pulling out a Murakami novel on the subway. And this is perhaps understandable. It isn’t as if the books are page-turning potboilers. Murakami’s protagonists barely deserve the appellation; they are connoisseurs not of desire but of drift. Their ambitions are small: usually little more than a vague itch to discover what’s at the heart of whichever mystery they’ve been drawn into.

But how do you reconcile this inherent aimlessness—the pronounced lack of intention that distinguishes Murakami’s novels—with the implied ambition of the near-thousand page tome that he’s just published?

1Q84 follows two characters, a man named Tengo and a woman named Aomame, as they navigate an alternate version of 1984, which they rename 1Q84. Tengo takes on a job as a ghostwriter, fraudulently editing a book by a precocious teenage girl in order to help her win a literary prize. Only it turns out this girl is the daughter of a cult-like religious leader that Aomame—an amateur hit woman—is slated to kill and who talks to a race of dwarves called “Little People,” who may or may not be God, and who pull threads from the air in order to weave them into “air chrysalises,” which are a bit like wombs that contain the souls of those who . . .

On second thought, there’s no need for a plot summary, because none of it makes the slightest bit of sense. It’s a syncretic mishmash of Christianity, Buddhism, mythology, and plain-old gobbledygook and manages neither to be thematically interesting nor emotionally affecting. All you really need to know is that Tengo and Aomame are meant to be together, and they eventually end up together. 1Q84 is, more or less, a love story.

But it is an interminable love story in which the protagonists never meet, in which cryptic subplots dissolve like mirages in the desert, leaving the reader in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction. This purposeful vagueness was forgivable—even enjoyable—in Murakami’s shorter novels. But on this larger canvas, the lack of focus becomes a serious hindrance that borders on the offensive. When a third narrator is introduced in the final third of the book, destroying the bipartite architecture of the previous 600 pages only to die without accomplishing anything, one wonders if Murakami even bothered to read through 1Q84 after finishing it.

Of course, what has always been hardest to stomach about Murakami’s novels is the writing, which is at its most blandly labyrinthine in 1Q84. Of particular note are the similes, which oscillate between hoary clichés and an Ionesco-like senselessness.

In the clichéd category, there are such gems as a character introduced with eyes “like stars glittering in the winter night sky” and a “silence like a rock on the far side of the moon.” A girl takes off her coat “like an insect sloughing off its skin.” Later, Aomame’s college career as a softball star is written off as something “she clung to . . . the way a person clings to a post when a storm threatens to blow him away.”

But it is the utterly impenetrable in which Murakami seems to specialize:

He spent day after day feeling uneasy and muddled, like someone who has mistakenly swallowed a thick swatch of cloud.

. . . her stylishly cut linen jacket looked like a lovely piece of fabric that had descended from heaven on a windless afternoon.

Like a cheap alarm clock, it does a halfway decent job of fulfilling its assigned role.

A few streaks of clouds floated off high in the sky, so high and far away that they were like abstract concepts unrelated to the affairs of man.

I’ve never heard of someone swallowing a thick swatch of cloud (and all clouds are equally unrelated to the affairs of man, in my experience), mostly because it’s a physical impossibility, but why would it make you uneasy? And why would a jacket look like a piece of fabric, which would be shapeless and flat, and why would it fall on a windless afternoon? And don’t even the cheapest alarm clocks usually go off at the right time, which is all they need to do?

Taken separately, these double-take similes might not be problematic. But there are often two or three on a page, along with a number of equally disconcerting descriptions and bits of dialogue: “No one could unlock the heart of the moon,” we are informed—a seeming platitude that breaks down into mush the longer you think about it. Later, Murakami seems to forget that he’s writing about the year 1984, rather than 2011, but chooses to write around his error rather than correct it. When asked to do a bit of research on a potential rapist, a police officer responds: “It’s easy, we just have to do a quick search on our computer—or, at least, I wish I could say that, but I’m afraid computerization is not so advanced . . . I suspect it’ll take a few more years to get to that stage.” Thanks for letting us know, believable character from 1984.

Haruki Murakami — in his latest novel he forgets that less can often be more.

I could go on for days listing examples of flat-out terrible writing. One could blame the translators (the very name of the novel, difficult to say in English, is a pun in Japanese, where the letter Q and the number 9 are homonyms), but the truth is that Murakami himself seems unconcerned with his utter lack of technique. Early in 1Q84, he inserts a commentary on the novelist within the novel, who I can only imagine is meant as a stand-in for himself: “The writing is incredibly bad. It’s ungrammatical, and in some places you have no idea what she’s trying to say. She should go back to school and learn how to write a decent sentence before she starts writing fiction.”

Later on, he is slightly less caustic: “No amount of work is going to make it any better. It’s never going to happen. And the reason it’s never going to happen is that the writer herself doesn’t give a damn about style: she shows absolutely no intention of wanting to write well, of wanting to improve her writing . . . Don’t ask me why, but style as such simply doesn’t interest her. What she does have, though, is the desire to tell a story—a fairly strong desire.” Murakami excuses himself by arguing that he’s a storyteller, not a stylist. Unfortunately, the story he creates here isn’t nearly interesting enough to justify the laziness apparent in every sentence.

Murakami has written extensively about his love of running, specifically in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running; he has even gone so far as to participate in a 100k ultramarathon. Perhaps a bit of this plodding, tireless ethic has seeped into his fiction. The act of reading 1Q84 is not unlike how I imagine it would be to run a marathon—dull and seemingly endless, satisfying to complete mostly because it means you can finally stop.

It’s possible I just didn’t get 1Q84, the same way I didn’t get Lolita the first time around. Murakami has shoved a lot of book in there—a lot of plot, and reference, and ambience. Maybe he deserves a second read. But I’ll be damned if I’ll run that marathon again. We’re willing to forgive our stylists—our Prousts and Joyces and even Franzens—for being long-distance runners because of the loveliness of the landscape they create. But our storytellers better know how to sprint.


  1. Kevin McEvoy on November 29, 2011 at 10:09 am

    The problem with critics is that many don’t take works as a whole, it’s all just picking apart the pieces, which often make each seem odd out of context. I think I speak for many rabid Murakami fans when I say that what is special about Murakami is the way the books make the reader feel — that bizarre, dreamy, unreal and slightly unsatisfying state of simultaneously floating by and being sucked into the story — rather than his prowess with metaphor or his clear, precise plot lines (the author of this article even hints at it, but then proceeds to ignore it. Good writing? See below). But trying to explain why something is great to someone whom it doesn’t touch is a generally futile effort.

    But speaking of bad writing, what about introducing your critique by talking about your personal ability to remember books and then totally abandoning the idea without coming back to it, wrapping it up or tying into the review in any way? Or how about leaving off a key piece of a quote (“I’m afraid computerization is not so advanced . . .” The “. . .” in the book is “in Japan yet,” which makes perfect 1984 sense) to prove your point, when the whole quote would render it moot. Or debasing an author because people read his works in airports (logic? Are air travelers stupid and therefore readers of low-class literature?). Or saying that even though it’s ambiance, not characters or stories, that draws people to Murakami, the book is bad because it lacks a solid story or characters.

    I’m still reading 1Q84, and maybe it’s not his best book, but it’s certainly Murakami, and I’m loving every moment of it.

  2. Tommy on November 29, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Dear Kevin,

    Thanks so much for the comment. Negative reviews often hit a nerve with people who love authors, but I do stand by what I had to say here. A few things:

    1) It is impossible not to take things out of context in a review. I can’t quote entire pages. You have to trust that I’m choosing lines that are, in my opinion, embarrassing even considering the sentences that precede or follow them. You’ll notice that most major reviews of this book have commented on the outright bizarre writing.

    2) I have read Murakami’s entire canon, more or less, and I have always been a fan of his books, as I say. That doesn’t change the fact that this book is a mess.

    3) The line about computerization is illogical, not because Japan didn’t have computerization, but because of the way it’s written. If you can’t look something up on a computer, you’d simply say “I have no way of looking that up.” You wouldn’t say “I’ll go look that up on the computer…or at least, I wish I could say that, but I won’t be able to for a number of years.” That’s bizarre and unrealistic.

    4) “Airport Novel” is a universally accepted term for sub-standard (read: non-literary) fiction. You can read more about it here:

    5) As for the ambiance issue, I think this book fails, where many of his books succeed, because the dreamy ambiance becomes downright boring as the book floats on for 925 pages. It’s okay to not have much of a plot for 400 pages, but longer than that is, to my mind, inexcusable.

    If you are loving the book, I certainly can’t say anything other than that I very much didn’t. There are plenty of apologists for 1Q84, but I am far from the only person to make these complaints. In the NY Times, Janet Maslin exhorted people to take a page from Aomame herself, and just read Proust instead of Murakami. He’s a great writer, but this book is a misstep.


  3. Kevin McEvoy on November 29, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    I realize I’m making a bigger deal out of this than it is, but I appreciate your reply, so I’ll parley. I disagree that it’s impossible not to take a quote out of context; on the contrary, a quote should be to put something in context, or to use a context to prove something. As for the Japan/computer issue, when I read it I took it to mean that Ayumi the police officer was stating that her country is behind the times and hasn’t caught up to using computers as other police forces have.

    You’re right, negative reviews do hit nerves of those who are passionate about something. It occurred to me that Murakami is like the Pink Floyd of literature. Long, rambling works with intangible, ethereal “feeling” rather than substance, somehow erudite and pedestrian at once, panned by critics and adored by fanatics… I happen to be a lover of both the author in question and of the Floyd, so yes, perhaps I am overly sensitive.

    In the end, I’m not a writer, so perhaps I’m not that attune to stylistic nuances, but I have read quite a few reviews of 1Q84 in the past few months and have only seen similar comments to yours a couple of times. Like you mentioned, hard for us non-Japanophones to really know…

    But I can say for sure that while you say that your opposition in the matter are “apologists,” I have seen many glowing reviews (from “credible” organizations – see NPR for example) for the book. As for the lack of plot, well, I’m only 400 pages in, but I see it as about on-par with other Murakami books in terms of (lack of) storyline.
    It’s worth remembering that Norwegian Wood was disliked by many upon its release, obviously for reasons different than these, but like I said, worth remembering.

    Thanks for your time.

  4. Josh S on December 3, 2011 at 11:30 am

    While I haven’t read 1Q84, I am not surprised by the reviewer’s findings. My previous encounters with Murakami’s novels left me equally unsatisfied. I always chalked it up to my own dislike of dream-like narrative. Fiction is most engaging to me when the stakes are well-grounded and cannot be uprooted and changed on an author’s whim. If everything can change at any moment for no apparent reason, there is little incentive to care or invest in the world or the characters. I can see the pleasure many readers find of just experiencing a work of art — drifting with the protagonists through a story — but like the reviewer, have personally found that kind of storytelling weak, lackluster and at the end of the page, wholly enervating.

    Thanks for your thoughts on 1Q84 — while some readers with different tastes and literary needs might find enjoyment in this novel, your review speaks to my sensibilities and nicely lays out what irks me about Murakami’s prose style on the whole.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts