Reviews of 1Q84

Hey all,

So I have finally let myself get to some reviews of 1Q84. If you have any recommendations as to thoughtful reviews, be my guest. As for these, they’ve all got their problems, mostly because they are all looking for tidy ways to write their reviews.

The Onion’s AV Club; churlish and uninformative.

Janet Maslin of the NY Times; deaf to the bits in the book that Murakami dedicates to the critics.

Kathryn Schulz of the NY Times; by far the best and most thoughtful of the three, and so the most worth grappling with here.

Specific gripes:

  • Many of her criticisms come down to a matter of taste (she thinks that the storyline of Tengo’s missing mother is the most promising of the threads that Murakami abandons–and yet what is the point of the Tengo storyline but that needs to stop dwelling on the past?).
  • She doesn’t find the central love story convincing. It might be hard to believe that Aomame and Tengo formed such a lasting connection as children, but that may be because the incident is such a pure distillation of something that is actually pretty commonplace; I want to ask her: what is your first memory of feeling in love? Could you look on a picture of the person who inspired that feeling as an adult and feel nothing?
  • The suggestion that 1Q84 is immoral (or just amoral) is kind of just silly. The dowager does make serious efforts to calm Aomame’s doubts about the morality of their actions. These discussions are not facile, and they have a real psychology to them. More worrying for Schulz is the possibility that Murakami is talking about sexual abuse of children in order to tell a story.1 She’s correct to be wary about this tendency, but her reaction goes too far. It is queasy ground for Murakami to write a character who may or may not be justifying the sex that he has with premenstrual girls. But I don’t think he is presuming to talk about the trauma of being raped, or is trying to trivialize it; I think he is looking to explore Aomame’s responsibility and ability to fight against that kind of abuse. We are meant to agree with the dowager and Aomame in their quest, but is it possible to have a hero character who flouts the law as she pursues justice? What is our individual relationship to evil? How is this discussion complicated by when it is tied to religious communities such as the fictional Sakigake? I think Murakami’s doing a good job if he gets us to ask questions about these matters. It is very dangerous when a critic says “a novelist shouldn’t use sexual abuse just to tell a story,” because it is de facto censorship; the critic makes the debate about an author’s right to address certain issues rather than accepting the author’s work as a basis for discussion. Moreover, that qualified phrase “just to tell a story” is inherently debatable, and so distracts from the real questions that we should be thinking about.2
  • A better way to approach the problem is to consider Tengo’s thought (also quoted in the Schulz review) that an author is trying to put a question into another form. Murakami is trying to address the problem of sexual abuse in another form, and whether or not he succeeds is better ground for criticism than the question of whether or not he should write about abuse as he does in 1Q84.
  • She says that “by any standard metric, it is gravely flawed.” This is just the pits. What “standard metrics” do you use to judge a book? Aesthetic judgments are extremely individual and slippery ideas. So this book isn’t economical? Neither are Great Expectations or The Brothers Karamazov. So it exploits a lurid topic in order to tell a story? So do The Brothers Karamazov and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

A common thread to these reviews is that they think the book is too weighty; relatedly, they want everything to wrap up. I think a part of the point is that things don’twrap up, and you have to accept that you’ll never find out what happened to Tengo’s older girlfriend, Komatsu, etc., just as Tengo will likely never find out that his mother was murdered in Nagano when he was two. That is precisely the point; you have to pick and choose what mysteries you want to solve, and you need to let the others go.

A more interesting note to me is that in Sam Anderson’s profile in the Times says that Murakami is aiming for a bigger canvas, that he is looking to emulate Dostoevsky’s accomplishment inThe Brothers Karamazov. I think a more intelligent criticism of 1Q84is to assess whether or not he succeeded or failed, or to think about the reasons why Murakami might not even be able to write such a book here in 2011. But no one seems to be doing that. Yet.

1Murakami is extremely circumspect in the way he discusses the victims of the Tokyo gas attacks in Underground, so I have reason to think that he’s doing his best in this discussion of sexual abuse.

2It’s a debate that also came up between THL and I about Spike Lee’s Inside Man; I had mixed feeling about using the Holocaust to tell a heist story.

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