1Q84: Murakami’s “Magnum Opus”
What I’ve always enjoyed about Haruki Murakami is the feeling that, within his books, I had missed something. It was Kafka on the Shore that left me speechless, or possibly thoughtless—a feeling best represented by my rabid page-turning, trying to find what it was that I had missed. Who was The Boy Named Crow? What was his relationship with Johnnie Walker? Before Kafka, I thought I could fully understand Murakami because I had read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I thought I understood it. I thought that I had built a connection with it. But recently I let my friend borrow it, which lead to his questions of, “What happened in this part?” and “How will that affect the story?” I didn’t know. I had forgotten all about the parts in question. In fact, the only parts I truly remembered anymore in Wind-Up Bird were a man being skinned alive and the main character making pasta while listening to Tchaikovsky.
So far I am six-hundred pages into 1Q84, and I’m not feeling that need to re-read it. I’ve considered many angles as to why this is happening, why I’m feeling like the mystery of the novel is giving itself away little-by-little while leaving nothing for me to figure out myself. Quite possibly it’s that I’ve read many books by Murakami. Indeed, my familiarity with Murakami could be contributing to 1Q84 and how it seems unnervingly repetitive—a repetition not only in themes, but also in repeated lines (paragraphs even). Or, quite possibly, it’s the sterile mood that Murakami perpetuates through his ambivalence toward his characters. Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel underwhelmed or unimpressed with his “Magnum Opus.”
For some time I always considered it a fallacy that I needed to read the earlier works of authors before I opened their Magnum Opus. So far, Gravity’s Rainbow has been the only Pynchon I’ve read, while it was Infinite Jest that I read before any other Wallace novel. With both Pynchon and Wallace, there was mystery in their nuance, their ideas, their angles. Everything was new to me—sometimes too new to the point that I was afraid I didn’t know what to do with their literary enterprise. In reading 1Q84, I don’t feel that same response toward Murakami’s enterprise, as if everything has been built upon some predestined schedule. His nuance seems contrived: the cats and the crows are overdone; I skim the pages to find a shared focalization between a male and female character and I know that Murakami is beating me over the head again with the duality of the world; the notion of cause and effect; the belief that each action has an equal and opposite reaction. I’ve seen it all before.
Then there is the fact that a large portion of the book is gratuitous repetition. Whether or not this is the difference between the original text and the translated text, I can’t help but feel that Murakami is reminding me of inconsequential banalities. At one point he creates a laundry list of facts about Tengo—one of two central characters—whose contents communicate information that is anything but novel: “He graduated from college and started teaching mathematics at a cram school . . . Eventually he started writing fiction . . . [an] editor gave him the job of rewriting Air Chrysilis . . .” I can’t shake the feeling that he is copying and pasting his own character prototypes. This is already page five-hundred and eighty-one and he is repeating the mantra of Tengo’s rudimentary background. What happened to layers, Murakami? What happened to the artistic recreation of pasta recipes? What happened to meticulous character development and description (i.e. I know there is more to Aomame than her pubic hair being “irregular”). Yes, there is such a thing as useful repetition, but what meaning can I derive from a person’s genital landscape?
Suffice to say, it seems as if Murakami is getting tired. Don’t get me wrong, he still has the ability to construct beautiful sentences and paint beautiful landscapes—all of which support his novel’s intricate themes—but I can’t find myself caring too much about the characters because, well, it doesn’t seem like Murakami cares about them too much either. Or, more importantly, it seems that his disinterest in his own characters is the cause of his repetition and lack of mystery. Where Aomame was once a strong, female character—a fearless assassin who slept with older men for the thrill of domination—now we have a soft, hopeless romantic, lost in the dreams of returning to her true love (a dream about whose knowledge isn’t made explicit to the reader until the second part of the novel). And instead of continuing Aomame’s personal growth, Murakami frequently repeats the character’s prototypical personality traits in hopes that the reader might believe she has never changed, as if he wants to progress, but at the same time he’s afraid that progression will ruin the story arc. This causes for a very choppy progression, and sometimes a very boring read, as if him repeating each character’s past traits will make me believe that this is who the character was, is, and always will be.
I don’t want this to discourage any Murakami fan from reading 1Q84. By all means, pick it up, read it, tell me I’m wrong. But I think that the greatest connection Murakami created between his “masterpiece” and 1984 (since nobody can avoid that comparison) is this: it is the writer’s pen that controls the novel, and it is the writer’s pen that dreams each character’s past, present and future—a future independent of each character’s past and present.