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12 december 2011

If 1Q84 were a faux pitch to a Hollywood studio, you might say it was "At Swim-Two-Birds meets The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." Like Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds, it's the kind of story where characters begin to live the lives that a novelist has imagined for them. I say "kind of story," but there aren't all that many of them (the postmodernity becoming really hard to follow if you go in for it too wholeheartedly); perhaps the best example is from film, screenwriter Zach Helm's Stranger than Fiction.

OK, but why Dragon Tattoo? Like Stieg Larsson's Swedish saga, 1Q84 was published as a trilogy, even though it's a fairly seamless story across its 900+ pages. Like the Dragon Tattoo novels, 1Q84 connects a mild-mannered writer with an extremely dangerous young woman who delights in kicking the asses of (Larsson's original title) "men who hate women." The writer has a married girlfriend with whom he's compatible, but he's clearly fascinated with the dangerous woman. Various hit men are soon on their trail. Lots of sex and violence occurs. Lots of wish-fulfillment on the part of mild-mannered writers ensues, frankly.

Not that 1Q84 stops there, but its bloodlines are postmodern and pulpy – and in that respect it's a typical Murakami novel. It's atypical in being both longer and more pared-down. As I've said, it's immense (925 pages in the first U.S. edition); but it also limits its perspectives narrowly to the mild-mannered writer (Tengo) and the badass young woman (Aomame). Only in the third part of the trilogy do we have access to another perspective, that of the private investigator Ushikawa – who, despite being admittedly unlikable and a bad guy of sorts, at best a blocking character, is perhaps the most sympathetic and fully-realized character in the book. In fact, though one protagonist (Tengo) is a writer, and several characters are readers, Ushikawa may stand best for the role of both reader and writer in such a mystery. Both reader and writer try to investigate characters, to see what's brought them together or kept them apart or made them what they are.

A flaw in both 1Q84 and the Stieg Larsson trilogy is that much of the third installment is taken up with reviewing the first two. Where The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is exasperatingly made up of committee meetings, the third section of 1Q84 contains a lot, lot of phone calls where the characters discuss the whereabouts of other characters, and the resolution of various plot threads that pulled the reader insistently through parts One and Two.

What follows is a spoiler of sorts. I've been trying to describe what 1Q84 is like, instead of summarizing its plot. Now I'll give away the ending, though to do so might positively improve the reading experience. And anyway I won't give it away in very much detail. For most of the novel, Tengo and Aomame are apart – indeed, they are now adults and they haven't even met since they were ten years old. They don't meet till the end of the novel. But then, they live happily ever after, returning from the metafictional world that has harrassed them to the real world of work, love, and family.

In Murakami novels and stories, however, people so rarely live happily ever after that the classic boy-gets-girl ending is in itself a radically postmodern twist. (Ah, postmodernism, where everything is transgressive of something.) I guess it's a matter of taste. If you don't like oblique, asymmetrical, idiosyncratic plot resolutions, you won't like Murakami for the most part, but you may love 1Q84. My own favorite Murakami novel is Sputnik Sweetheart, which is about the absoluteness and inexplicability of loss. It rings truer to me than 1Q84. I was recently thinking of this dynamic when a Facebook friend asked about people's favorite last lines of novels. I said I preferred the ending of The Age of Innocence (where Newland Archer walks away from a reunion with the only woman he's ever loved) to that of Great Expectations, where Dickens reversed his first impulse to keep Pip and Estella apart, and replaced it with a wish-fulfilling ending where Pip "saw no shadow of another parting from her."

This is not to say that 1Q84 would have been better with an Age-of-Innocence ending instead of its current Great-Expectations one. It's just to express a preference, and therefore a bit of disappointment with the way that Murakami's magnum opus concludes – after a whole career of setting us up for less pat conclusions.

Murakami Haruki. 1Q84. 2009-10. Translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. New York: Knopf [Random House], 2011.