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Friday, December 21, 2012

What I'm Reading: 1Q84

Back in August I finished listening to 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I had listened to it as part of the update I made to the Murakami readalike article on NoveList (more on that in a minute). 

Now I need to say up front, I am a Murakami fan.  What you get with Murakami are stories in which the plot is not even close to the reason you read the book.  He writes wildly imagined yet familiar stories, and they can be very long (as is the case here), and convoluted to the point that as a reader, you may not be quite sure what is going on (or even why), but if you like his writing, these are stories that grab a hold of you, draw you in, and refuse to let you go even after you have finished.

Murakami also tends to use the same general plot-- a character, more Western-oriented that the average Japanese citizen, who has lost a loved one for inexplicable reasons, often involving a supernatural event, embarks on a journey to explain this mystery.  The overall themes are usually darker: alienation, loneliness, obsession, and a longing for acceptance and love, but he uses many references to pop culture, especially music and sports, and humor to temper the darkness.  The overall effect is that Murakami writes metaphysical, post-modern fiction that is actually fun to read.

Since the plots can be a little bit wacky, non-linear, and confusing in Murakami, the focus is on the characters-- intensely on the characters.  We know where the characters sleep, what they eat, what they are wearing, down to the last detail.  The protagonists, and there are always at least 2, are introspective and quirky, narrating their stories, thoughts, and feelings in first person, so the reader is literally inside their heads.

The narration will switch between the different characters, who are often on parallel quests (although they may not know it). This makes the pacing engrossing, if not fast.  The story goes back and forth between different storylines, focusing on different characters, who are all leading toward each other.  The reader knows more than the characters, and this keeps you turning the pages to see how it will all end up.

On a side note, a Murakami novel usually features a talking cat; in fact, in 1Q84, there is a town of talking cats that feature prominently in the story. I have met a few readers who seemed like the perfect match for a Murakami book until they told me they refuse to read a book with talking animals.
All of these comments about Murakami in general are from the research I did for the NoveList article, but they also all hold 100% true for 1Q84.  In fact, I have purposely saved the plot info for now, after the appeal discussion, for just this reason.  I will share a brief discussion of the plot here, but what you need to understand is that it does not play a role in whether or not you will enjoy this novel. Everything I said above will though.  If you do not like what I have had to say so far, Murakami is not the author for you.

Click here for the Murakami graphic from the NY Times which turns his style into an amusing AND totally accurate BINGO card.

Now the plot of 1Q84 specifically.  The novel is an ode to Orwell's 1984. The year is 1984 in the novel, and our female protagonist, Aomame is an assassin who, after travelling down a staircase, enters a parallel version of 1984 (or 1Q84 as she calls it).  The male narrator is Tengo, who is a math teacher and aspiring novelist living in the normal 1984.  The two are nearing their 30s and both still hold an unrequited love for one and other stemming from a single hand holding when they were 10 years old.  The plot revolves around the quest of Tengo and Aomame to come to terms with their life's purpose and find one and other.

Sounds clear right?  But wait, it is Murakami, so there is more.  Along the way one of the main plot devices that unites both Aomame's and Tengo's stories involves a cult that worships "little people."  In true Murakami fashion, this subplot is extremely important, but is never explained.  The novel ends in  heartwarming fashion, but if you want the whole "little people thing" rationalized, it doesn't happen, so don't wait for it.  I know this about Murakami going in, so I did not expect an explanation, and as a result, was not bothered by it in the least.

In terms of genre, this is a true blend of fantasy and realism, mystery and epic

This is one of the best books I have ever read.  From start to finish, every second I listened was amazing.  Since it is such a huge novel, I would suggest listening to it OR getting the paperback edition, which is split into 3 volumes (1 paperback for each "book" Murakami has divided the story into). Otherwise, you may hurt yourself toting it around.  In Japan, it was released in 2 parts, months apart.

A note on the audio:  I listened to 1Q84, and thought it was well done.  There are Japanese readers, alternating a man and a woman so that Tengo's chapters are in a male voice and Aomame's are in a female voice.  As a result, the intimacy Murakami infuses into writing his characters shines through in the narration.  I felt like Tengo and Aomame became my friends over the course of the story.

Three Words That Describe This Book: character centered, metaphysical, parallel worlds

Readalikes: I have many readalike authors suggested in my NoveList article.  Here is a little bit of a preview of what you can find there. If you have access to NoveList, you can see a lot more.

The most similar author to Murakami is Neil Gaiman.  Both use complex storylines, a serious tone, and themes of loneliness and alienation with a dash of playfulness.  The most epic of Gaiman's works is American Gods and would be a good fit here.

A brand new readalike author who I added to the article just this fall is Jennifer Egan:
For readers looking for a female author who writes like Murakami, try Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Jennifer Egan. Like Murakami, Egan writes character-centered, complexly layered narratives that shift points of view. She crafts tales of alienation and lost love that carry a haunting and thoughtful tone. Murakami fans should try A Visit from the Goon Squad, in which music plays a central role. In a story that spans from the 1970s until 2020, Egan recounts the lives of a punk rocker turned music executive and his secretary, using interconnected stories that shift points of view and are written in different styles. One chapter is even in the form of a Power Point presentation. Readers of Murakami will appreciate the novel’s experimental nature, while being drawn to the larger metaphysical questions it raises.

If you are looking for another Japanese author who is readily available in translation, try  Kobo Abe.

When I reviewed 11.22.63 by Stephen King last month, I noted in the readalikes section that since I listened to it right after listening to 1Q84 I felt like they had a similar feel, but I wasn't sure if it was just a proximity issue.  With some more distance on the question I can say they are similar to a point.  They share the same pacing that is engrossing if not traditionally fast.  They are also very focused on a character on a speculative quest that the protagonists must keep secret from the rest of the people around them.  And, both have a parallel world aspect with a heart-warming ending.  However, if you are a stickler for a linear plot in which every detail makes sense and pans out in the end, Murakami is not for you.  The feel and basic plots are similar, but the style is vastly different.

Finally, here is a link to all of the times I have mentioned Murakami on this blog.  In many cases he appears in the readalikes for a book I have read.

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