Recently I have paying more attention to the one star reviews on amazon than the five star ones. It’s not as negative as it sounds, I have found that gauging what the one stars are saying can give an interesting perspective. Five star reviews can be a bit gushy, but if they are tempered by one star reviews that offer thoughtful critique then a more balanced view starts to form. If, however, the one star reviews are just raving on about something much less thoughtful then they can actually add weight to the good reviews.
Looking at the one star reviews for 1Q84 (books 1 and 2 only, I have yet to read book three and will more than likely write about it separately) I see that a number of the reviews are suggesting that the book is over-long, derivative, not as good as his previous work, and the product of a writer who is more powerful than the publishers.
Thoughtful critique or tosh worth ignoring?
There can be no doubt that Murakami is a writer with a significant weight behind his name. Doubtless, that will influence the way he is edited. At 623 pages (with a further 364 to come in book 3) it is a pretty long book, but Murakami isn’t exactly new to writing long books. My paperback copies of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore are 607 and 504 pages long respectively. A debut author wouldn’t get away with a 900 page epic, as one reviewer suggests, but Murakami can because he has earned the right to do it. I’ll happily embark on a book that length by him because I trust he knows what he is doing.
But is it 623 pages well spent, or should it have been ruthlessly edited down to something a bit more sensible. Could the bloat have been trimmed? I guess it could have, but would we, as fans of Murakami, want it to? There is a chapter in the book in which Tengo, one of the point-of-view characters, does nothing more than muse about things while cooking dinner. Sounds like exactly the sort of bloated, empty prose than could easily be chopped out, but I want chapters like that. I want precise description of expert cookery set to classical music. It’s part of Murakami’s signature. Not every book needs to be set at an electric pace. Sometimes that slower speed with more breathing room is the right thing.
Another part of Murakami’s signature is a lack of explanation. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle doesn’t make any attempt to explain itself or answer any of the questions it poses at the start of the book. By the end of the book none of the questions posed at the beginning have been answered, and that is, I think, largely what that book is about. 1Q84 is a little more explicit. Indeed Murakami seems to make a statement in the prose that almost feels like his remit as a writer.
If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with one.
Which, ironically, is about as heavy handed an explanation as he has ever made. Toward the end of 1Q84 a lot of the questions posed at the start of the book are, if not answered, at least explored in a fairly literal way. We, along with the characters, understand quite well what has actually happened (I’m being careful not to spoil it) in a way that is unusually definite for Murakami. But 1Q84 is not The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and it seems worth letting it be its own book. Murakami has his own particular style and oeuvre, but this doesn’t mean he has to write the same book over and over again, ticking off the boxes of what has made his previous work a success.
Personally, I found the concrete explanations a little frustrating. I know that for some people 1Q84 is going to be their first read of Murakami, but it did occasionally feel a little heavy handed. I didn’t mind the repetition too much (another point raised in those one star reviews) but setting key points in bold was a bit much. It was like having a big arrow pointing at the bit you really need to be attention to. When I see bold text in a body of prose I can’t help but glance down at it and read it out of sequence with the rest of the page. That felt a bit much. Not enough for me to go and write a scathing one star review over, but a small frustration.
I don’t really know what would make a legitimate one star review. I don’t really know how to write a review at all. Certainly this post is testament to that. But the idea that this book is lazy, derivative and not as good as his other books doesn’t seem fair. Neither is it perfect. All I can say with any certainty is I enjoyed reading it a lot, and am looking forward to reading the third book.