Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers.
Japanese bestselling author Huraki Murakami usually operates in one of two modes: either his novels are straight-up romances (such as Norwegian Wood), or are heavily postmodern and surreal with magical realist elements (such as Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World). Murakami’s latest book, 1Q84, offers a little bit of both, though it’s also a bit of an anomaly amongst his works.
For starters, it’s actually three novels rolled up into one baggy and digressive 930-plus page volume (those individual novels were published separately in Japan), which makes the “novel” (which I’ll refer to in the singular from here on in, as it is being published in one book in North America), his longest piece of writing to date. The work is so big and expansive that it took not one, but two translators to take a crack at rendering the book from its original Japanese versions, which happened to be bestsellers in its home country.
1Q84 is also arguably Murakami’s most violent and sexually charged work, as well – even though much of the sex and violence takes place off the printed page, or, in the case of the brutality, is virtually bloodless. With 1Q84, Murakami is stretching himself to create a sort of hybrid between his humourous and off-beat slipstream novels and the aching and yearning of romance that permeates his more mainstream stuff.
Writing about 1Q84 is a little like offering a postage stamp-sized portrait of a large, sprawling vista of a mural that covers an entire wall. In its essence, however, 1Q84 is the narrative of two 30-year-old Japanese characters with vastly different back stories, connected by a single thread – and the novel, for its first two thirds, oscillates between these two people.
First of all, the story is about a young woman named Aomame (whose name translates into the odd-sounding “Green Peas” in English) who works as a fitness trainer and a sort of massage therapist for a tony Tokyo gym. On the side, however, she’s a hitwoman for a powerful dowager with a speciality in murdering men who abusive their wives, and making the murders look like natural deaths.
It’s on the way to one of these hits that she is stuck in traffic on an elevated expressway in a taxicab. She takes it upon herself to leave the cab and climb down a staircase leading away from the highway, but once she does, she finds herself stranded in a new world that isn’t the 1984 of the novel’s initial setting – she notices quickly that police officers on the street are dressed in new uniforms and carry sleek handguns, and that’s not to speak of the fact that the new Tokyo she finds herself in after descending down the stairs has two moons at night – likely a Star Wars reference from a writer known to infuse his works with all sorts of high-brow and low-brow pop culture nods.
Aomame takes to calling this new place 1Q84 – the “Q” stands for “ ‘question mark’. A world that bears a question”. Of course, all sorts of weirdness starts happening to her upon her arrival in the new year.
The other half of the novel concerns a young man named Tengo, who is both an excellent cram school mathematics teacher and an aspiring writer of novels that constantly get rejected from various publishers. However, Tengo has a connection to an editor who wants him to rewrite a novella, called “Air Chrysalis”, by a dyslexic 17-year-old girl named Fuka-Eri. Despite Tengo’s initial reservations – his rewriting the novella would be a form of fraud because the piece is meant to be submitted for a prestigious literary prize – he takes on the project, and suddenly finds himself in the strange new world that Aomame is in by simply writing his way into it.
“Air Chrysalis”, on the surface, might seem to be a work of fanciful fiction by a young writer – it involves a plot where “Little People”, or tiny dwarfs, come out and fashion cocoons that house sort of doppelgängers of real-life people to be birthed into the world – but it’s based on real events, and the very nature of rewriting the piece makes the fantastic even more palpable. This, telling enrages these powerful entities, that happen to be connected to a fundamental religious cult called Sakigake in the wilds of Japan.
1Q84 is an ambitious, rambling novel that naturally has a reference point in George Orwell’s 1984. Whereas Orwell’s classic novel was about the dangers of dystopian dictatorships, however, Murakami goes in the other direction: he posits that it is not a “Big Brother” that is a danger to the world anymore, but rather these “Little People”, or the tiny, seemingly insignificant hoi polloi that can change things in unseen, powerful ways.
Alas, 1Q84 doesn’t really dwell on this idea, and the so-called “Little People” remain an ambiguous question mark even when you close the novel for a final time. They are simply a special effect that don’t add up to much during the course of the events of the novel (or novels), and are here merely as a means for Murakami to indulge himself in pseudo-science fiction writing without a great deal of thought about what they and the people entombed in their special chrysalises really signify. 1Q84, then, is just a very long journey for the author to riff off his penchant for weirdness, and any attempts at depth are, unfortunately, largely ignored.
That, in essence, makes 1Q84 a work that is largely an excursion into the underbelly of the very strange, though there is a great deal of satisfaction that can be obtained simply by getting lost in this very long novel’s push and pull. The book tends to work best in its first third, particularly in rendering Tengo’s story, as this is the place where Murakami muses on the very nature of writing and how creating a world of one’s one can add power and depth to society. At one point, one character even notes that, “When you introduce things that most readers have never seen before into a piece of fiction, you have to describe them with as much precision and in as much detail as possible. What you can eliminate from fiction is the description of things that most readers have seen.”
In writing this, Murakami seems to be taking pointed aim at his critics in the Japanese literary establishment who seem to pass off his prose as mere twaddle and, even though he really doesn’t take his own advice here by not really explaining the purpose of his so-called “Little People”, seems to offering his own thoughts in an expanded format about the very nature of his work and why he considers it to be so crucial and vital. That’s brave, and that makes the first 300 pages or so of 1Q84 a delightful read: watching a writer think about the very nature of his own art can be fascinating and revealing in equal measure.
Unfortunately, things go off the rails about halfway through 1Q84 as the novel gets longer and longer and simply cannot hold itself together as a distinct piece of art. In fact, 1Q84, while it has a crackling great premise, has a tendency to get sillier as it trudges along. For example, and this is a bit of a spoiler as this information comes through halfway into the narrative, it turns out that the connection between Aomame and Tengo is that they are madly in love with each other, except they haven’t seen each other in 20 years, since they were school children, and their only form of communication was that they briefly held hands once. That’s a bit of whopper.
It also turns out, and here’s another spoiler, that Aomame gets pregnant with Tengo’s child, even though they have never met as adults and have never had sex – possibly another nod to the Star Wars prequels. Once again, that’s another aspect of the story that’s hard to swallow. The novel also gets more disturbing as it progresses, as well. We meet one character who rapes ten-year-old girls so violently that he destroys their uteruses in the process. In addition to that, and this is yet again another spoiler, the 30-year-old Tengo has sex with the not-quite-of-legal-age Fuka-Eri, but hey, it’s OK because Tengo doesn’t consider the sex act to be physical and it turns out that the characters concede that it is more of a purification ceremony.
What’s more, characters either disappear from the narrative altogether, or are brutally murdered without those murders being explained in any proper form. There’s a sub-plot involving Tengo’s father that doesn’t really go anywhere, and the last third of the novel is partially told from the perspective of a private investigator who is a day or two behind the main Aomame/Tengo narrative, diluting any tension or suspense from the proceedings as he’s always a step behind the main thrust of the action.
Still, 1Q84 is a dizzy labyrinth of a novel, and is well worth reading not only if you’re a fan of Murakami’s books, but if you’re the type that likes to get lost in a deftly constructed maze of a narrative. Reading a Murakami book is akin to eating a box of sweet and gooey chocolates: the writing is so precise and colourful that you want to stop at certain points and just savour the richness. The same is somewhat true for 1Q84, even though you have the distinct sensation that you’re eating a Hersey bar this time out – just something pop-culture infused that’s not nutritious in the least bit.
Still, there’s pleasure to be had from 1Q84 in watching a writer being so expansive and using such a large canvass. This novel might not reach the same dizzying heights of a Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or a Wild Sheep Chase, but it’s an enjoyable, readable book that is worthy of spending a great deal of time with. With 1Q84, you get the sensation that Murakami is trying to create an utter masterpiece, and even though it fails on that account, it;s still thrilling to watch the author try.
1Q84 is pleasant enough, and a welcome change from Murakami trying to do the same thing over and over – which was something I found reading his more recent novels such as Kafka on the Shore and After Dark – and, as the author himself has said, “When you read a good story, you just keep reading.” 1Q84 is a dark, baffling story that is similarly beguiling, even though it lacks a perfectly polished sheen, and just as the author says, you’ll probably keep reading in spite of yourself, despite the fact that the book is, ultimately, a little on the ridiculous side.