How Murakami's '1Q84' Became 2011's Biggest Literary Letdown

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The Japanese author's long, unsatisfying book was a big disappointment after years of hype

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What is the sound of one book flopping?  Or is it three books flopping?

It's no exaggeration to call the English-language publication of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 the most anticipated literary event of the year. Two years ago, on the release of the first two volumes of the novel in Japan, the Guardian reported that Japanese fans were in a state of near hysteria:  "Five years of pent-up anticipation found release" when the books hit the stores.  

In April, American fans (and how strange it sounds to refer to a novelist's readers as "fans") had their appetites whetted by a 27-minute review on You Tube featuring the handsome covers of the Dutch edition, and on September 15 the New Yorker printed an excerpt. By the time 1Q84 was published in the UK and America in October, it seemed as if the only genuine purpose of critics was to give us their blessing. On October 30, the Guardian's Douglas Haddow called 1Q84 "a global event in itself [which] passionately defends the power of the novel."  He continued, "With midnight openings, queues around the block, magazine covers and un-precedented pre-orers, it receveid a level of attention typically reserved for established cross-platform franchises."

But now that 1Q84 has landed, what was its impact?  The answer seems to be, with each passing week:  silence. The novel hit the New York Times bestseller list in the number-two spot on November 13, an extraordinary achievement for a serious work of literature. By the following week it had dropped to number six, and by December 11 it was out of the top ten at number 12. You would have thought that after such oceans of hype, word of mouth would have sustained sales. So far, that doesn't look to be happening.

It seems unfair to call a best-seller a failure. (In Murakami's native Japan the first volume, published in 2009, sold out its first printing and the subsequent two volumes reached, at peak, nearly a million sales per month.) And yet, the sales numbers for 1Q84, no matter how impressive, don't obscure the feeling that the work is an enormous letdown—rather like a big-budget, much-publicized Hollywood film that cost over $200 million and tops the box office  on release but leaves you feeling that it was overstuffed and 45 minutes too long.

Initial reviews of 1Q84 were respectful if not worshipful, indicating the status that Murakami has achieved. Over the last ten years or so, he's practically become to adults what J.K. Rowling is to children.  The reasons for his success aren't difficult to pin down: Murakami is clever and fun to read.  In Norwegian Wood (published in Japan in 1987 and in English in 2000), and South of the Border, West of the Sun (1992/2000)—to pick just two of my favorites—he perfected a style based on layers of shimmering prose images.  His best novels could leave you with a sense of yearning, for exactly what isn't always clear—sometimes a lover, sometimes a dimly remembered childhood—and often end with scenes that seem like lines in poetry that can be intuited if not always defined.

Murakami's fiction also rewards rereading; his novels are loaded with illusions and references to western pop culture, mostly American, everything from Bing Crosby's Christmas album to John Ford westerns to Raymond Chandler. Chandler, as he has revealed in interviews, seems to have been a profound effect on him, and though it isn't always evident in translation, in most of Murakami's work it survives in the terse, precise descriptions, the smoky, hard-boiled style (which Murakami often seems to be playfully parodying), and perhaps most of all, in the first-person narratives. 

These trademarks have helped make Murakami the ideal novelist for Japanese, British, and, increasingly, American youth who want to read something smart and see their own culture reflected back to them. Though a character in a Murakami novel may stop for a cup of noodles, he's more likely to be at some atmospheric jazz club or a friend's apartment where the music selections are carefully chosen and described. Despite the occasional dropping of the name of a traditional Japanese literary classics like the 14th-century memoir The Confessions of Lady Nijo, Murakami seems to owe almost nothing to other 20th century Japanese writers such as Ryunosuke Akutagawa (best known in the West as the author of Rashomon) or Yasunari Kawabata (for whom a prestigious literary prize sought by a character in 1Q84 is named) or Shohei Ooka   (whose World War II novel, Fires on the Plain, was made into one of the greatest of Japanese films), and certainly not Yokio Mishima, the fiery novelist who committed suicide in 1970 and, before Murakami, was the most popular Japanese writer to be translated into English.  To many young American readers experiencing Murakami for the first time, the effect must have been like U.S. teenagers in the early 1960s hearing British rock: their own art transformed and handed back to them. 

What's so disappointing about 1Q84 is that while it's far more complicated than Murakami's previous books, it doesn't extend or deepen ideas and themes from them, and even seems like a pale reflection of his earlier work. For one thing, there's the staggering length of the entire book, 932 pages. The length is not suited to a writer of Murakami's fragile gifts, though he very nearly pulled it off with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997), which ran 624 pages. With its two main story lines, which alternate chapter by chapter, and its aimless plots about religious cults, female assassins, a 17-year-old girl who writes a best selling novel, and whimsical creatures called "the little people," 1Q84 has a kind of doughy amorphousness that is less like the Kafka and Proust mentioned by many critics than  Kurt Vonnegut (and whatever his shortcomings, Vonnegut never attempted a 900-plus page novel).

It's hard to believe that some of the critics praising 1Q84 didn't really feel, at times, like throwing the book in the air and walking away. Trying to say anything definite about it is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. (Even the title's allusion to Orwell seems vague.) It's an elaborate puzzle in which the pieces seem to change shape just as you try to fit them into place or a puzzle which, when assembled, adds up to a picture of a perfect blank.  For me, reading it was the literary equivalent of biting into a large, pumped-up soufflé.  After finishing five pounds of book, I was still hungry—for a novel.  

Were there other critics out there who felt as I did? Looking through the reviews, I found some brave dissenters. In the November 9 New York Times, Janet Maslin expressed sympathy for readers "stuck in the quick sand of 1Q84. You, sucker, will wade through nearly one thousand uneventful pages ... 1Q84 has even his most ardent fans doing back flips as they try to justify this book's glaring troubles."  In Time, Bryan Walsh identifies one of those troubles: "All the usual Murakami elements are there: the detached protagonist, the creepy authoritarian cult, the mysterious quest, the moments when the bizarre bleeds into the buttoned-up world of modern Japan. Yet too often the words simply lay there in the page ... This is a jazz solo that overstays its welcome." More to the point, perhaps, is Walsh's  observation that missing from the novel is "Murakami himself. With 1Q84, the author decided for the first time in his career to fully abandon first-person narration, and the absence is felt ... remove Murakami from Murakami, and the magic vanishes." 

One gets the feeling that critics who until recently were Murakami's cheerleaders are now, with 1Q84, becoming apologists.  If the book continues to slide down the bestseller lists, and—horrors!—goes into remainders, will some critics revisit their first responses?  And if so, will there be a critical backlash to Murakami's next work?  As the Zen master says, we will see.  Meanwhile, everyone might reflect on the pitfalls of treating novelists as if they were rock stars. 

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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