Although Haruki Murakami is one of the favourites for this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, there is a feeling that, had 1Q84 been the magnum opus that we all hoped, he would be a certainty. Many of the reasons why this three-book, thousand-page epic is not a masterpiece can be clearly seen in the third and final book. Even its existence might be questioned as at times it reads like an extended addendum to the first two books, adding little that is meaningful in either plot or characterisation.
Its main purpose seems to be to bring together the two main characters, Tengo and Aomame (this is not a ‘spoiler’ as the contents page makes it clear that the two narratives unite at the end). It will be no surprise, then, that Aomame, who we left contemplating suicide at the end of Book Two, does not go through with it but instead goes onto hiding from the religious cult Sakigake having killed their Leader. Tengo, meanwhile, is at the bedside of his comatose father. This makes for a rather static novel: Aomame spends most of it unable to leave the flat where she has been secreted, the action limited to a few phone conversations; Tengo spends most of his time in a hospital room, occasionally interacting with the nurses. A third narrative is added, that of Ushikawa, a private detective who has been hired by Sakigake to track down Aomame. This clearly provides some dramatic tension (though Ushikawa is soon stuck in a room too, watching Tengo’s apartment) but this is dissipated by the fact that almost all that Ushikawe discovers the reader already knows.
Book Three is also guilty of the under-development that was evident in the first two books. Murakami frequently drops inspired images or events into the narrative, but then seems unwilling to go very far with them. A perfect example would be the world of 1Q84 itself: apart from the two moons (an effective shorthand for a different world that has been used in countless science fiction films), there is little attempt to differentiate 1Q84 from 1984, even though it is made clear in the opening volume that the history of the two worlds is not the same. In Book Three Murakami introduces a mysterious, threatening NHK (television subscription) collector:
“You can’t escape, Miss Takai. As long as you get the TV signal I will be back. I’m not the kind of man who gives up easily. That’s just my personality.”
With so many characters in hiding, the relentless knocking at the door is one of the most effective elements of the novel, appearing at Aomame’s door, and at Fuka-Eri’s when she is staying in Tengo’s apartment. However, it’s an element that removes itself as suddenly as it appeared with a suggestion that it is somehow linked to Tengo’s comatose father who was a NHK collector. Similarly, there is a hint that one of the nurses Tengo befriends is linked to his murdered mother:
“What I remember is the moment I died. Someone was strangling me. A man I’d never seen before.”
(His mother’s death is one of the few things which Ushikawe discovers that was not already known from the previous volumes). After making this comment, however, the nurse does not reappear. Even Fuka-Eri, so central to Books One and Two, seems to simply to fade away.
Book Three also contains some less than sparkling prose:
“It was like his head was filled with frozen lettuce. There must be some people who don’t know you’re not supposed to freeze lettuce. Once lettuce has been frozen, it loses all its crispness – which for lettuce is surely its best characteristic.”
However, even when the writing deteriorates to a lengthy explanation of a weak simile, there is something almost hypnotic about Murakami’s style – he draws you through the banality because you know some wonder will appear eventually. Overall 1Q84 suffers from indulgence, and book Three is the most indulgent, but it still contains moments of great writing and he shouldn’t be denied the greatest prize of all.