Well, this is a bit of an intense book. It’s a long read (925 pages). It’s definitely not perfect and leaves a lot of really big questions unanswered. Still, it’s very ambitious, kind of like Murakami’s version of 2666 (a vastly better novel). In the end, it’s difficult for me to criticize a book for flying and failing, as opposed to not even attempting to fly at all. I’d rather that there be imperfect yet ambitious books like this one in the world, as opposed to only ones with really perfectly developed plotlines that are boring and trite.
I like Murakami. I have fond memories of A Wild Sheep Chase and I really enjoyed The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle when I read it, though to be honest if you were to ask me to summarize anything about it right now I’d be hard-pressed to say what it is, if anything, that I remember about it. I remember the going down into the well scene, of course, (talk about a Jungian encounter with darkness!) or all the moments of the narrator cooking in the kitchen. IQ84 has similar scenes of characters descending; for example, the main female character enters into the titular “IQ84” parallel universe by going down a staircase by a Tokyo highway. IQ84 also has some cooking scenes that are so detailed that I’m going to replicate one of the recipes, a shrimp and ginger stirfry, tonight in my own kitchen.
This book is divided into three sections and I really enjoyed reading the first two. The basic plot is the following: Aomame, the main female character, escapes a traffic jam via a taxi driver’s enigmatic suggestion that she go down the aforementioned staircase, and ends up in a parallel universe she calls “1Q84” (instead of 1984, get it? Q stands for Question). The key distinguishing characteristic of this parallel universe is that there are two moons in the sky as opposed to one, the second one smaller and mossy-looking. Every other chapter is narrated by Tengo, the main male character, who helps ghost-write a novel written by a dyslexic seventeen-year-old girl, and needless to say (in classic Murakami fashion) from that very simple initial situation a lot of very complicated ones arise, making a detailed plot summary impossible. There’s this religious cult, for one, and these scary critters called “the Little People” that crawl out of the mouths of dead bodies, and people in comas who send out their unconscious selves to go knocking on people’s doors demanding that they pay their overdue cable television fees, and I better stop there, because I could just go on and on.
There were a lot of big ideas in this book that I really enjoyed. I liked the parallels that Murakami attempts to draw with Orwell. I really liked all the parts in the narrative that talked about Jung, and the idea that we all have these shadow selves that we have to accept. Duality is a big theme in the novel (the two moons in the sky, for example) and the one that I found most interesting. At the heart of this book, I think, is the idea of being okay with yourself, despite all the dark, yucky or nasty stuff you might find within you.
There are a lot of yummy treats in IQ84. As readers we are treated to discussions about a book Chekhov wrote about indigenous tribes in Russia, classical symphonies and jazz records, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the house Jung built with his own hands in Switzerland, and other seemingly random anecdotes that nevertheless end up holding a lot of important symbolism for the characters. IQ84 a very rich book that tries to talk about really big, important things, such as how to deal with being alone, death and darkness (“irretrievably lost” is one phrase Murakami likes to employ a lot). The plot, though, is super dee dooper simple, basically a continuation of this short story: if you fail to talk to the 100% perfect girl the first time, how do you ever find her again?
It’s hard for me to find fault with this novel or to criticize it, because as with Terrence Malick movies, even though they’re not perfect and can be overblown and (yes) even pretentious at times, I still have a lot of respect for art that tries to do something ambitious and new. Yes, at its heart the plot is very simple, but there are so many other things that are complex about this book that in a way it’s really good that the main plot is basically girl-seeks-boy (and vice versa). I really loved reading the first two sections of IQ84, because it was classic, vintage Murakami at his best: I never knew what was going to happen next, and it made me want to keep reading. Even though I didn’t have all the answers and didn’t know how everything was going to fit together, the narrative seemed to hint that everything would eventually connect in a way that felt really rich and delicious. It’s the kind of writing that makes me wonder if Murakami know at the very beginning of the book that it was all going to end up this way, or did he just figure it out via writing (I feel like it’s the latter, but who knows–I ask the same thing about Game of Thrones, constantly.)
The last section of the book really stalled for me for two reasons. One, the main characters didn’t really do anything. Aomame is in hiding, holed up in an apartment that she can never leave and spends her time reading Proust and watching a playground, hoping that Tengo will appear. It’s hard to make a narrative be super exciting or engaging if one of your main characters basically isn’t doing anything. Two, in this section Murakami introduces a new POV character, a hideously ugly private investigator. While I wasn’t totally opposed to reading these chapters and I enjoyed the extra dimensions to the detective that these chapters provided, I couldn’t figure out what was the point of having them in the novel. I guess it’s through this detective’s investigations that Aomame and Tengo’s storylines are eventually able to connect, but the actual act of reading his chapters got to be a bit tedious at times. The detective is basically spending all his time finding out information that we readers already know, and in a book that’s 900+ pages, I don’t really understand why this info needed to be rehashed. I mean, I guess it’s interesting that we got to spend some time in the so-called villain’s head: I can see how that ties into other themes in the book, about things not always being what they seem, and the necessity of our shadow, darker selves.
Murakami leaves a lot of questions unanswered at the end of this book. In some ways, I am OK with that. I don’t need to be hit over the hammer with the full story behind the ultra creepy Little People, for example (are they the Devil? God? Big Brother? Or mix of all three?). I really would have liked to know how the heck the taxi driver knew about the gateway entrance, though: I was irked that detail was never even mentioned.
Still, that being said, I would still recommend this book. I just wouldn’t recommend it super enthusiastically, like “OMG it is sooooo amazing you absolutely have to read it.” The first two sections are really engaging and interesting, and the last one sputters, but there is still enough good material in the first two to make it well worth your while. Maybe it’s like eating a stir fry in which you don’t really like all the ingredients, so you just pick your way through it and eat the parts you like, and whatever you don’t, just leave it there on your plate. No big deal.