Can a 926-page brick of a book dedicated to examinations of parallel universes, the process of artistic collaboration, and super-cults qualify as lazy? 1Q84, the outsized novel by pulpy postmodernist Haruki Murakami, makes the case that it can, with half the intrigue of superior Murakami fare like Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World at more than twice the bulk. Where Wonderland was a model of narrative fitness, 1Q84 is all flab, with repetitive, memory-insulting recapitulations of main characters’ motivations, histories, and looks (with special scrutiny reserved for female characters’ breasts) and a slow-to-unspool plot that frequently pauses for philosophical musings that barely warrant the journal treatment.
After taking a shortcut recommended by a mysterious cabbie, massage-therapist-turned-badass-assassin Aomame ends up in a new reality blessed with a lopsided additional moon and a sinister, supernatural group called “the little people,” possessed of mysterious powers and even more mysterious aims. After dubbing her new environment 1Q84 (a pun on the homophony of the letter Q and the Japanese number nine), Aomame searches for answers while fulfilling assassination contracts from a wealthy dowager who targets powerful, misogynistic men. On the story’s other track, Tengo, a one-time math prodigy turned novelist, ghostwrites Air Chrysalis, the story of a beautiful, otherworldly 17-year-old girl. She managed to escape an abusive cult, but now everyone in her life is a potential target.
The way these two plots dovetail and diverge is initially a sturdy hook: Aomame and Tengo do their best Abelard and Heloise impressions, pining and sighing across the narrative divide as this strange new 1984 collapses around them. But Murakami the straight-faced spinner of fantastically imaginative worlds quickly recedes into the background, as Murakami the metaphor-mixer, analogy-abuser, and pop-culture-referencer takes center stage. It’s difficult to stress just how stylistically clumsy 1Q84 is, especially in its sub-slash-fiction treatment of sex: “Tengo remembered his older girlfriend… Her deep sighs, her wet vagina.” Aomame, fantasizing about Tengo, lingers on his “big, strong genitals,” and her bodyguard, Tamaru, bizarrely observes, “When it comes to being gay, I’m in the big leagues.” There’s a kernel of compelling story buried somewhere in 1Q84, but digging through the layers of tone-deaf dialogue, turgid description, and unyielding plot just isn’t worth the strain.