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“There are spoilers in here, for 1Q84 and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I should say, even though there are spoilers for all of the reviews I do.
Murakami is the only author whose complete works I have read. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is my favorite book. I have been counting down for the release of 1Q84 since it was first announced.
Did I like it? Yes. Was it his magnum opus, as I've heard others say? Probably not.
It's got everything a Murakami novel should have. Mysterious magical villain? Leader is the Noboru Wataya and the Johnny Walker on 1Q84. There are mysterious pregnancies, gaps between the real world and some other strange world, there are discussions of climbing and descending, cats, and once again, we have that lovely unctuous character of Ushikawa.
The entire time I was reading this book, my objective was: Is this as good or better than the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? Answering this meant understanding exactly what I love about Wind-Up, which I feel I've done adequately. Wind-Up is a great story because of its pacing and momentum. The mystery of the cat's disappearance is well established, and from there, everything else falls logically, which in the novel is compared to water, and in this novel, is compared to math. From the cat comes logically Malta Kano, who is looking for the cat, as well as May, whom he finds in search of the cat, and comes Noboru Wataya, who is connected through being the cat's namesake, Malta Kano's client, as well as Toru's brother-in-law. From Malta comes Creta, and from the mysterious magical nature of the Kano sisters comes the equally spiritual Mamiya, who fits in because of his mystical nature as well as his connection to Honda, who is also mystical. In this way, the entire novel is one system. The novel is about the force of Noboru Wataya, the force of Toru, and the intermediaries who swing back and forth between them (Malta works for both, Creta is connected to both, Kumiko is related to both, etc).
1Q84 is similar in this, but not perfectly. There is of course the force of the Little People, which manifests in Fuka-Eri and her father, as well as in all mysterious Sakigake foces and deaths. The pregnancy, the deaths, the transfer to the world of 1Q84, all of these can be attributed to the forces of the Little People. But the direction was messy. What did the Little People want? It's stated multiple times that they're neutral beings. It's the religious nuts who work under Leader at Sakigake who are the real antagonists of the novel. They want to hunt Aomame, they hire Ushikawa. So it's not a matter of the protagonists versus the evil force, it's just the protagonists versus some very human antagonists who are both somewhat guided by this force of the Little People.
And this isn't as satisfying as it was in Wind-Up Bird. Toru was so helpless compared to Noboru Wataya. He just took Kumiko and Toru could do nothing, he didn't even understand what was going on. But he had clues in Mamiya and Honda, and in Creta Kano and party Malta Kano. And when he learned he needed to go down into the well, he did it, and met Nutmeg, and we watched him get stronger as a force to fight Noboru Wataya. The symbols of his rise to power were themselves emotionally power to me as a reader. The return of the cat was one, which is my one of favorite moments in literature. Then you have the appearance of Ushikawa, who is so ugly and evil looking that the fact that he shows up both reinforces Norboru Wataya's immense ugly corruption as well as shows that he is worried and scared enough to send this man. All of this culminates in the final confrontation, which is in a dream, but is still very physical and confrontational because there is an attack and a fight and Toru wins. And after that comes Kumiko's letter and note of Wataya's collapse, which show a very real victory.
This novel didn't have that. The antagonists simply stopped pursuing Aomame, they never really were pursuing Tengo, and the Little People were never pursuing anyone. Where was the conflict? There was conflict, of course, but only between very human antagonists of Sakigage and the very human protagonists of Tengo and Aomame. The major powerful forces of Leader and the Little People appear, but they don't take a side in the conflict.
Kafka on the Shore did this better than 1Q84 does. Johnny Walker is cursing Kafka, and confronts Nakata, and it's clear that all of Nakata's actions and all of Kafka's are an attempt to end this curse and this evil. It's the two of them versus evil. Aomame and Tengo are facing something here, but it isn't pure evil. And of course that's acceptable, who says a villain has to be pure evil? But that's what I love about Murakami. He's so capable of creating these powerful enigmatic conceptual evils of which the heroes have to purify themselves and defeat. It makes for a compelling story. Human villains don't have that gravitas.
And even for that, there isn't a particularly confrontational ending. Sakigage stops pursuing them. They escape back through the rabbit hole into 1984. Had the villains been abstract and evil, it would have made sense for Aomame to have been fully unable to visit Tengo earlier. Instead, the main antagonist for this part is Ushikawa, who not only is clearly human, but is made even more human by the fact that he has his own chapters. Had Aomame and he had to actually fight, it would have been just that, a fight. Who would win? I couldn't tell you. Neither Aomame or Ushikawa have any sort of crazy mysterious power that would have given them an obvious victory. And so most of this novel, then, is just waiting, and then being cautious. Ushikawa dies at the hands of Tamaru, who could have murdered Ushikawa at any time he wanted. In Wind-Up Bird, nothing could happen until Toru passed through the wall. And to do that, he needed the power and information that came from every character he encountered before that. It all built up to one final cumulative encounter. 1Q84 instead created a stalemate between Ushikawa and Sakigage and the two protagonists, and then had Tamaru slip in like deus ex machina and end it. The two were free to meet and climb up a ladder.
Ushikawa's role in Wind-Up Bird was fitting; he was the most human representative possible of the evil embodied by Noboru Wataya. Wataya wore a mask that made him seem clean and normal, but it was clear that had he taken off that mask, he would be a disgusting and evil figure like Ushikawa. And we know that by the fact that he sent Ushikawa and associated with that ugly figure. Here, Ushikawa doesn't have such an evil master. And he isn't portrayed as evil. As much as I dislike that Ushikawa wasn't used here to embody a super evil master, I did love his explorations. I loved how Murakami set out to explore the life of this human cockroach, and to see his motivations and his perils. That was wonderful. But could it have been enhanced by replacing Buzzcut and Ponytail by a figure defined by enigmatic evil instead of bad haircuts? Yes.
Anther highlight of the novel: Tengo's father. The scenes in which the NHK dues collector knocked on each of the three doors were the strongest. The sense of panic, the mystery and sinister nature of the figure behind the door: that is what I mean when I say Murakami can create these wonderful figures of enigmatic evil. I guess evil isn't the right word. But it's very sinister and creepy and powerful.
Also, the phrase "arms that are long and strong" was also appropriately mysterious, evil, and powerful, but when you realize they apply not the something mysterious like the Little People but instead to the misguided humans of Sakigage (and I am justified in saying they are misguided because they in fact say so at the end), it stops being a creepy concept and instead is just an organization's stupid scare tactic, like a guy stupidly waving a gun around.
Maybe I'll feel differently later. Maybe I'll reread it and change how I feel. But for a novel that begun so beautifully, with Aomame embracing her change into the new world, the sense of enigmatic adventure, the premonition of new and mysterious things to do and to encounter, it ended without any mystery. The two escape back. How? I've seen enough of Murakami not to quip about how the Little People, maza, dohta, Leader's powers, and the two worlds weren't explained. Those things don't matter. Except for the fact that they weren't even left unexplained well. They were like a rope that the characters had to jump over, instead of the dark heavy blanket that was thrown over them like in Kafka and Wind-Up Bird.
Good, but by no means his magnum opus.