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2011: 1Q84 Goes Abroad

Murakami Haruki’s most recent novel 1Q84 was released in English translation this past October — his most widely anticipated work and arguably the most anticipated Japanese translation ever.

Before its initial May 2009 release, Murakami kept the content of the two-volume novel a close secret. That sense of mystery fueled sales in Japan: The novel quickly sold out and went through several printings. Murakami added Book Three in April 2010 to finish the tale of writer/math teacher Tengo and physical trainer/assassin Aomame, two thirty-year-olds who are transported to an alternate universe and battle bizarre forces that control the universe. Book Three sold a million copies in just two weeks.

News of the Japanese version stoked the interest of the author’s international fan base. Now that Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin, and Phillip Gabriel (in addition to his many other translators around the world) have caught up with Murakami, fanboys and girls have to get their news from abroad via those who can read Japanese, or other languages which are more quickly translated. The Japan Times ran a review of Books One and Two (and later Three) as did The Complete Review cataloged the international critical response as the European translations followed the Chinese and Korean. Orthofer even wrote a review of the first two books based on the German translation.

In October, some American bookstores held midnight release parties, and one New York San Francisco bookstore even bought tacos and beer for customers who had pre-ordered the novel. The critical response to the 900+ page mammoth arrived quickly thanks to review copies that had been issued months earlier. 1Q84 has been included on all of the year-end best of lists by default (Amazon, New York Times, Barnes and Noble, The Economist), and many have lumped it together with Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and George R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, celebrating the return of the epic five-pound novel.

Critics overall, however, have been far more divided than the initial fervor surrounding the release would suggest.

Some have attempted to locate Murakami’s Japanese-ness as John Updike did in The New Yorker in 2005 for Kafka on the Shore, praising Murakami for his “Japanese spiritual tact.” Sam Sacks of the Wall Street Journal gives a balanced review that is mostly negative, but his final comment claims that the book “floats in a globalized ether”: It’s weak because it is “wrapped in a cocoon — or an air chrysalis — of cultural amnesia” and doesn’t take advantage of the country’s literary history. Emily Parker of The Daily Beast defends the novel with the puzzling suggestion that readers should “stop looking for hidden meanings.” Instead “Be one with the Japanese. Japanese cultural phenomena don’t always translate so well overseas.”

Michael Dirda of the Washington Postand Kathryn Schulz of the New York Times both claim that the book kept them reading (and thinking about it after they finished), but Dirda is far more willing to overlook its weaknesses. Schulz is one of the few critics to question Murakami’s use of rape, calling the novel “psychologically unconvincing and morally unsavory.” She isn’t ready to dismiss it completely, though. She still enjoyed reading it.

Another review in the New York Times, this one by Janet Maslin, was far more negative than Schulz’s and summed up the critical response: “…1Q84 has even [Murakami’s] most ardent fans doing back flips as they try to justify this book’s glaring troubles.” Nathan Heller of Slate is one of these fans, apparently. In the beginning of his review he acknowledges that “a novelist who can draw in, and retain, so large and avid an international audience must be doing something right.” And then the backflips begin. He decides that that “something” is this: 1Q84 succeeds by re-creating a childhood experience of storytelling.” He dismissed the banalities, the childish plot points, and fantastical nature as intentionally childish.

Heller is a more forgiving reader than Christian Williams of The Onion A.V. Club who refuses to play the game and bashes the novel, labeling it “stylistically clumsy” and filled with “tone-deaf dialogue, turgid description, and unyielding plot.” Perhaps the most succinct summary of the novel came on Amazon from a user named “bookcynic” who stated “many curiosities were left unexplained.”

While this is true for many of Murakami’s novels, nowhere before has he been gone on for so many pages with so little resolution. Nor with so much awkward sex: The novel was nominated for a Bad Sex in Fiction Award, an annual contest sponsored by Literary Review. 1Q84 was nominated along side King’s novel as well as Dead Europe by Christos Tsiolkas; David Guterson ended up winning for his rewriting of the Oedipus Rex myth, Ed King.

For more perspective, let us turn to Jay Rubin’s take on Kafka on the Shore in his book Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words — perhaps the most fitting description of Murakami’s fiction post-1987:

One’s reception…depends heavily on the degree of one’s willingness to ‘go with the flow’ of the story. To a reader less willing, Murakami seems to be relying far too heavily on contrivance and coincidence, and he too easily overlooks inconsistencies on the realistic pane.

Critics willing to read past what Schulz called the “surface gaffes” are more likely to enjoy the book. This, more than anything else, explains the range of responses to the book.

Other than Christopher Tayler of the London Review of Books, critics have also failed to mention that 1Q84 is Murakami’s least funny novel. Tayler astutely notes that the third-person narration “dampens the wisecracks, deprives the central characters of Boku’s buttonholing powers and generally takes the edge off Murakami’s storytelling.” One of the most enjoyable (if not the most enjoyable) parts about reading Murakami, especially his early works, is hearing his boku narrator’s commentary on the world around him. Take, for example, the narrator’s encounter with hotel reception when he asks about the development of the new Dolphin Hotel in Dance Dance Dance:

Thirty seconds later, [the receptionist] returned with a fortyish man in a black suit. A real live hotelier by the looks of him. I’d met enough of them in my line of work. They are a dubious species, with twenty-five different smiles on call for every variety of circumstance. From the cool and cordial twinge of disinterest to the measured grin of satisfaction. They wield the entire arsenal by number, like golf clubs for particular shots.

This is the Murakami I know and love. His narration had a healthy disrespect for authority but didn’t make much of it. At the heart of the narrator is sentimentality.

To an extent, Murakami wrote through his own disillusion of the dissolution of the student movement of the late-’60s. While Murakami worked late hours running a jazz bar after he graduated from Waseda University, his former classmates sold out for the Japanese economy, helping run the big businesses that fueled Japan’s boom. Norwegian Wood then is the end of the line — until then his narrators had been capable of drinking off the bad times or forgetting them, but in Norwegian Wood we learn that there is no amnesia, that in fact the narrators have been haunted by memories of lost love and dead friends. While this is a notable shift in tone, Watanabe, the narrator of the book, still has a healthy, sardonic view of the world.

The tone of 1Q84, however, is drastically different than anything Murakami’s ever written. Written completely in third person, the lack of first person narrator makes it difficult to tell when Murakami is trying to be funny and when he is trying to be earnest. Aomame’s lesbian encounter, for example, seems overly earnest:

As her mind traced these graphic memories, the brass unison of Leoš Janáček’s Sinfonietta rang like festive background music. The palm of her hand was caressing the curve of Tamaki’s waist. At first Tamaki just laughed as if she were being tickled, but soon the laughter stopped, and her breathing changed. The music had initially been composed as a fanfare for an athletic meet. The breeze blew gently over the green meadows of Bohemia in time with the music. Aomame knew when Tamaki’s nipples suddenly became erect. And then her own did the same. And then the timpani conjured up a complex musical pattern.

Yet the strange juxtaposition of bold brass instruments and erect nipples also begs to be read as comedy (unintentional though it may be). Murakami’s biggest failure with 1Q84 may be that he’s trying too hard.

December 23, 2011

Daniel MORALES lives in Chicago and blogs at

9 Responses

  1. How to Japanese» Blog Archive » 2011: 1Q84 Goes Abroad Says:

    […] have a piece up on Neojaponisme today about the reception of the English translation of 1Q84 abroad. Murakami has been divisively […]

  2. Chuckles Says:

    I myself found the reviews unconvincing – and I dont think H.M. is trying too hard. Whats going on is that his prose is beginning to approximate the spiritually vacant core of Western realism without preserving what John Nathan implies as the sacred nothingness that actuated folks like Mishima – i.e., the impotency and nonexistence of imperial deity. Be that as it may, Murakami still compares favorably with Pynchon, DeLilo, and for the sex – how about Tom Wolfes “Charlotte Simmons”. The amnesia is a given. Western audiences have no right to demand that the Japanese continue to meditate on a traumatic history when they themselves are prone to denial.
    Here is Murakami in a nutshell: Fragments. Memory doesnt work in the East, the way it works in the West. Theres no stream of consciousness, rather, theres fragments and transience. Discontinuity and the evaporation of narrative is key.
    I always hoped the day when Murakami would have to pay for his seeming portability to mostly white, western audiences would never come. Unfortunately, it has.

  3. Leonardo Boiko Says:

    Cultural amnesia = doesn’t care for Japanese “tradition” = doesn’t conform to my idea of Japaneseness = fails to satisfy my yearning for otherness?

    I concur with Chuckles; no one has the right to demand cultural authenticity in 2011. We’re all equally international and bland. Beatles and Chandler are more relevant to Murakami than Akutagawa and Noh—well duh, how could they not be?

    There’s a passage in Kawabata’s Koto where Chieko and her father conclude that all of Japan feels like bonsai—I’d take this a step further and say that, today, all of “cultural memory” feels like re-enacting. If Murakami made an effort to be more mindful of Japanese literary history, he would just be LARPing.

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    A bigger issue at hand is that 1Q84 may just not be very good, at least compared to Murakami’s other work. A lot of Japanese Murakami fans/readers close to me have said as much. Daniel doesn’t say it explicitly here, but is this not one of his first books without a direct Left-leaning, political agenda? He seemed to gain most traction with the West but also local readers when he directly explored the “dark heart” of Japanese society and the legacy of Japanese Imperialism.

  5. Daniel Says:

    Agree for the most part. I thought Sack’s criticism was good but the end note just confused me in the same way that Updike’s praise did. I’m not sure I look for “spiritual tact” in writers, even in Kawabata or Tanizaki for that matter. The expectation seems especially unfair in Murakami’s case given that he looked to different authors/traditions (noir, Chandler, Carver) in his own reading and sought to emulate them at first. Imagine if Carver’s “Cathedral” had been written by a Japanese author. How do you think the criticism would differ?

    Discontinuity and the evaporation of narrative is key.

    I’m curious what Murakami you are looking to with this line of thought. As mentioned above, I don’t think Murakami necessarily fits all of the Japanese molds.

    fails to satisfy my yearning for otherness?
    Yes. I think that’s exactly what happens in some cases.

    I think it’s pretty clear that the book isn’t very good, at least not compared to his other more controlled works, but it’s interesting to see what critics fault.

    I don’t think it’s clear what the political message is here. He’s definitely writing/thinking his way through the source of power in postmodern/post-9/11 society, the role of religion in controlling thought, and violence and sex and their roles in interpersonal relations, but it’s all so damned muddled. I don’t think he revised this book enough to make any kind of central claim for the novel. It might be a silly rubric, but you couldn’t summarize the main concept of the novel in a sentence or two, which makes me think that there isn’t one.

  6. M-Bone Says:

    If the mode of being a post “season of politics” high culture consumer in Japan was a blending of affect and consumption then doesn’t Murakami’s participation in this make his work more emblematic of the post-political than effective mourning? If the mourning is the point and the affective center that built the audience, isn’t this the reification of the end of engaged politics, and thus a profiting from it, rather than an attempt to describe it or provide an alternative? Building a fan community around mournful nostalgia might be lucrative, but it can’t lead to productive politics.

    I think of how Derrida stressed mourning as the potential for disruption and the opening to new uses and can’t really see how Murakami works in the same way.

    He is lauded for his dealing with empire, but I find this part of “Wind-up” hard to get my head around. There is a confession to atrocities in Nanjing, but the whole Mongol border skinned-alive thing is totally open to being read as “we became barbaric in barbaric Asian space” – and this is an example of imperial gaze. Like most of Murakami’s work, I just can’t find enough in the etherealness of it to foreclose some really dodgy, regressive potential readings.

    In a similar sense, people were right to call him on the rape in 1Q84 and for his writing of sex generally – the way he handles subjectivity has made some of his female characters into Boku’s quests and / or masturbation aids.

  7. Theophrastus Says:

    Ahem. Green Apple Books, where the tacos and beer were distributed, is in San Francisco, not New York.

  8. Daniel Says:

    Theophrastus – Damn, not sure how I missed that. I googled quite a bit about the store/event but the address is right down there at the bottom. Oops.

    M-Bone – I’ve written this before on my own site, but 1Q84 has really soured my read of Wind-up Bird. It feels too scattered and lazy, especially Book 3.

    The Derrida stuff is a little over my head, but Murakami can definitely be accused of failing to provide alternatives. I think part of his message, though, is that the system in Japan precludes effective change. It’s hopeless? I’ll be curious to see what he writes next and whether or not it’s influenced by the tsunami/quake at all.

  9. Quora Says:

    Should Murakami virgins not start with 1Q84? And if not there, then where?…

    I really like this article for going into more detail on what’s different about 1Q84. I haven’t read 1Q84 yet, but its seems like it’s probably not the best of his books to start with. That b…