1Q84: Book Three

1Q84: Book Three
Murakami Haruki

At long last we are reaching the end of hefty tome. Real life has conspired to keep me away from the word processor for a bit, but even more than that, trying to comprehend the final third of 1Q84 has been most taxing. This is not the place to start this series of reviews, obviously, and while there will be no explicit spoilers, it’s probably better to have read the book before reading this post. Or, at the very least, I recommend reading all the other posts first, including kamo’s take on Book Three.

Much of the difficulty in parsing the last section is a result of a sudden and complete change in narrative. Book One sets the table with the usual assortment of Murakamian wackiness, while Book Two brings in a flambe that sets off multiple explosions. Book Three? Well, people sit in rooms and think. I suppose I could compare it to cigars and scotch in the drawing room, if I really want to stretch this already tenuous metaphor. Almost everything that’s going to happen happens in Book Two. Book Three is more like the extended coda of a Scooby-Do episode, explaining how those meddling kids figured it all out. In some ways, this was disappointing. Things were hurtling along in Book Two in an almost pure elixir of Murakami-ness that threatened at every turn to melt my brain. Then, suddenly, everything stopped. People sit around, looking at the moon and reading Proust. Tengo visits the cat town. Ushikawa reveals secrets in the most demeaning ways possible. The book ends.

Letting that sit for a moment, we will instead examine more prosaic matters. The biggest change in Book Three is Ushikawa’s voice. He is a bit part early on, one of those throw away messengers that occasionally pops up in Murakami’s worlds. In Book Three however, he assumes equal narrative importance with Tengo and Aomame. In some ways, Ushikawa is the reader, or a certain kind of reader. I have wondered about his existence, his ugliness, and his fate, and it occurs to me that Ushikawa may be Murakami’s warning to that type that looks for answers, for finality, for the underlying structure and logic of reality. (In other words, Hard SF readers. Doh.) These are the readers and critics who are probably hardest on Murakami, aside from maybe Japanese nationalists, and I wonder if he isn’t saying, “Hey, this dude spends his whole time poking around and figuring things out. He’s ugly, the truth he reveals is ugly, most of these things are better left unknown, and none of it is going to end well.” Almost without exception, the facts that Ushikawa uncovers are things I would have preferred not to know, as though Murakami wants us to appreciate that lingering mystery is often better than knowing. Keep Schrodinger’s Cat in his box, or we’ll all just end up disappointed.

And yet, the whole point of Book Three is to resolve questions. It ends as it must, not completely pat because this is Murakami, but without the usual partings and ambiguity that mark his other work. The resolution doesn’t confine itself to the last chapter, but runs in various ways throughout the book as bits and pieces of the story settle themselves and drift off-stage. As much as anything settles itself in a Murakami book at least. Again, I have no proof of this, but I visualize him wanting to leave things at the end of Book Two (which, apparently, he did in one early draft or another), but deciding that maybe this time he’ll toss a bone to his readers. Whether this was a challenge to himself to see what happens, a response to fans and critics, a perceived narrative necessity inherent in Tengo and Aomame’s story, or something completely different is beyond my comprehension, but I came away from 1Q84 with more answers than any other of his books.

This is not to say that questions don’t remain. I still can’t tell who is driving this train; there is no convincing proof (to my mind) that it isn’t all Tengo’s creation, while kamo speculates that Tamaru is actually the final voice of authority. My gut feeling is that the story is authentic, rather than Tengo’s wish fulfillment, but there are pervasive references to higher powers, shadowy control figures, and the like, to say nothing of Fuka-Eri, who is certainly a Vergence in the Force. (With prominent boobs. Top that, Lucas.) I’m getting myself all wound up again and full of questions. It probably goes without saying that the whole Little People thing remains very vague.

A particular point of interest is Sakigake. I’m surprised that it took this long for Aum Shinrikyo to finally rear its ugly head, but here it is. Granted, Sakigake is very different from the group that sarin gassed the Tokyo subways, but Murakami’s treatment of the fictional cult is heavily colored by his extensive writing on the real one. (As it should, considering the mountainous research he did before producing Underground.) What really interests me is the connection between Sakigake and the 1960s student protests, another of Murakami’s touchstones. The author has known sympathies with the protesters, though his disgust with their ideological intolerance is also on frequent display. This time, he draws a teleological line from the protests to a cult modeled loosely on an apocalyptic group from the 1990s. What does this mean? I have no idea. Just to muddy things further, the protests were in large part anti-American, or at least anti-security relationship with America, but the author himself professes to feeling more at home in the US than in Japan.

In the end, what do I make of it all? The book is sprawling and complicated, my relationship with it mirrors that fact. The last third dims my enthusiasm somewhat, and yet I read without any slackening of pace or urgency. Murakami’s treatment of women, especially the young ladies, is disturbing, but I cannot say whether he is manipulating and implicating the reader, or if he just sees himself as a guy who tells it like it is, admitting to things most people try to hide. Questions and loose threads abound, leaving him open to accusations of laziness and imprecision. On the other hand, Ushikawa and his secrets are a compelling defense of mystery. For 600 pages, this was my favorite Murakami book ever, but after 900 I find myself returning to past works. I am left with the lurking feeling that a reread would change my perspective completely.

I will give the book credit for two things, then wrap up. First, I have started listening to Janacek. I knew the name, but couldn’t hum anything he’s done. I can now. Second, this has really wound me up for a reread of Kafka on the Shore. That may happen sooner rather than later. For now though, 1Q84 continues to bubble away in my brain. Maybe more answers will float to the surface in coming weeks.

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2 thoughts on “1Q84: Book Three

  1. Apologies for the appalling slackness of this comment. Life, y’know?

    Also, this will have spoilers.

    Tamaru was very definitely a speculation, as opposed to anything resembling a fully fledged theory, but as the story went on I found the Tengo argument less and less convincing as well. And it’s always the side-characters you need to watch in that respect, eh?

    Like Ushikawa. Nice to know it’s not just me who and issues with his narrative role. Ultimately HE is the goat, isn’t he? Dunno what that means. Not sure I like it though.

    All of book three feels like a coda, and then everything that happens after Ushikawa’s death (the ‘real’ coda) just feels so unnecessary, and it goes on for surprisingly long. It’s almost a given that we’re not going everything neatly tied up in a bow, but then he spends so long folding the wrapping paper. There’s absolutely no narrative tension and it feels like it’s playing out because, well, we’ve come through 850 pages, we may as well round it out somehow.

    It’s not a bad book, by any means, but I can’t help but feel it dilutes the quality of the other two.

    Anyhow, thanks for sharing the journey. I’d be up for doing something similar again, but there’s no hurry, and maybe with something slightly less slippery?

  2. This kind of fizzled a bit at the end, didn’t it. Kind of like the book I guess. Perhaps June was a bad time for such a demanding project, though I’m not really sure when would have been a good time.

    I don’t know what to make of the third book. This could have been Murakami’s best book, I think, but instead sits somewhere in the upper middle. I’m glad those two are happy together, but I wonder if they couldn’t have done it a bit more quickly. Having said that, I kept reading without any pause, so who knows.

    Yeah, Ushikawa. He is the bad guy, I guess, and it stems directly from his need to know, and through knowledge control, everything. But he is also sympathetic. It’s not his fault that he’s ugly, though he does bear responsibility for letting it make his soul ugly as well. But ultimately, as an empirical, science-y type, I’m closer to Ushikawa than the more mystical types. He is a troubling character to be sure.

    I enjoyed our little book club. We should definitely do this again, though I don’t know with what.

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