Review: 1Q84

Reviewed by EMILY GRECKI


Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 is no meager feat. At nine hundred twenty-five pages, published as three volumes in Japan, two in the UK, and one here in the US, it is the grandest novel he has yet undertaken.

The novel primarily alternates between the stories of two characters, Aomame (the name means “green peas” in Japanese) and Tengo.

Aomame works as a fitness instructor, but is also a secret assassin. Originally motivated by the murder of a childhood friend, who died at the hands of her abusive husband, Aomame created a weapon that leaves no traces. She is recruited by a wealthy widow, who runs a safe-house for battered women, to use this weapon to take the lives of abusive men who cannot be incapacitated through other means. On the way to complete one of the widow’s jobs, Aomame is forced to take a detour on foot off a traffic-jammed highway. After climbing down a rickety service staircase, Aomame realizes the world around her has changed. The policemen carry different weapons and there is a slaughter that she never remembers reading about in the newspapers. Two moons hang in the sky. She is no longer in the 1984 she knows; she dubs her new reality 1Q84.

Tengo works three days a week as a math instructor at a cram school in Tokyo, while writing fiction the rest of the time. His friend, a well-known editor named Komatsu, pushes him to secretly rewrite the fiction submission of a teenaged author, Fuka-Eri, and then resubmit it in a contest. Although Tengo is uncomfortable with the deceit, he agrees, with Fuka-Eri’s permission, because he is drawn in by the power of the fantastical story, involving a young girl living in a cult compound and the entrance of the mystical Little People, from whom she must flee. When the story is resubmitted, it becomes a sensation. After more interaction with the mysterious author, Tengo learns that the story is true. He also learns that he is a target of the consequent anger of the cult, and of the Little People for helping to reveal them. As he discovers more, he notices that something has changed. His world is almost the same, but not quite. It is also strikingly similar to the world in the novel that he is working on, where two moons hang in the sky.

There are numerous plot threads running through the novel, but as the different elements are brought in and out of focus, the essence of the story remains Aomame and Tengo’s search for each other. They move steadily closer together, even as they struggle to deal with the bizarre that keeps arising, including exploding dogs, sex as spiritual transmission, and murder. It is unclear as they move whether they will ever reach each other, or whether they will only travel asymptotically before finally diverging.

As always, Murakami’s prose is lucid and engaging, which keeps readers grounded as the story deepens and twists more complexly, especially as we try to hold onto a slippery reality. The story is filled with wonderful descriptions such as: “Whenever something caused her to frown or grimace, however, her features underwent dramatic changes…Instantly, she became a wholly different person, as if a cord had broken, dropping the mask that normally covered her face.”

And only in Murakami’s novels would a line like the following be considered merely relevant rather than bluntly mystical: “Beyond the window, some kind of small, black thing shot across the sky. A bird, possibly. Or it might have been someone’s soul being blown to the far side of the world.”

As usual in Murakami’s works, the novel is littered with mainly Western, pop-culture references from Chekhov to Sean Connery to Bach to Hemingway to Kurosawa, to less well-known figures, such as the Czech classical music composer, Janáček. (This is perhaps unsurprising, given the evidence in Murakami’s other novels that he is a classical music aficionado.) The most obvious allusion, to George Orwell’s 1984, cannot be ignored and is even mentioned in the novel itself. In an aural pun, the letter Q and the number nine use the same sound in Japanese, making “1Q84” as closely similar and dissimilar to “1984” as their corresponding realities. The dystopian menace in 1Q84 is the Little People and their corresponding cult, rather than Big Brother. As one character says, “But now, in the real year 1984, Big Brother is all too famous, and all too obvious. If Big Brother were to appear before us now, we’d point to him and say, ‘Watch out! He’s Big Brother!’ There’s no longer any place for a Big Brother in this real world of ours. Instead, these so-called Little People have come on the scene. Interesting verbal contrast, don’t you think?”

The Little People are a largely unnoticed threat, although their influence is wide. In Orwell’s 1984 the public’s memory of history is systematically updated, through the alteration of past newspapers, to correspond harmoniously with the present. But in1Q84, history itself, rather than the memory of it, has changed because the characters no longer exist in the same world. Their memories of the past remain unchanged, but they now conflict with a new reality.

Reality is the key in this novel. Fuka-Eri asks Tengo what is “real” and Tengo cannot answer: “Tengo himself did not know what it meant to say that such things ‘actually exist.’” As Aomame begins the descent that she unwittingly makes out of her current reality and into 1Q84, the cab driver warns her, “[D]on’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.” And yet Aomame is in 1Q84 and Tengo finds himself in a cat town. Aomame thinks, “What I’m afraid of is having reality get the better of me, of having reality leave me behind.”

This idea of a morphing reality is also linked to the idea of fiction in the novel. There are numerous comments made by characters that their lives are not like a story, or a movie, that they do not follow a certain plot or the conventions of certain tropes. We obviously can’t help but point to the fact that they are living the story that we are reading. But even within the story, they very well may have entered another fiction—Tengo’s novel. This appears to be another move by Murakami to keep us from holding onto our footing. Aomame makes sure to mention that, according to Chekhov, when a gun appears in a story, it must be fired. But must it because we expect it? “We’re drawing close to the end of the twentieth century. Things are different from back in Chekhov’s time. No more horse-drawn carriages, no more women in corsets. Somehow the world survived the Nazis, the atomic bomb, and modern music. Even the way novels are composed has changed drastically.” We must be careful about drawing conclusions in a world that fluctuates so greatly.

Although the plot keeps pushing the novel forward, there were points where it seemed to veer away. Characters once important seemed to drop off suddenly, and the length of the novel sometimes made reading it a motion of slogging through, rather than being carried along. This contributed to a slightly anticlimactic feeling when I finally reached the ending. Although, it must be said, this is one of Murakami’s most satisfying denouements.

Additionally, there were times when it felt like the reader was too removed from the driving force of the relationship between Aomame and Tengo. Other relationships were sometimes portrayed more vividly, like the friendship between Aomame and the dowager’s bodyguard, or the troubled bond between Tengo and his dying father. There is a wonderfully moving scene at a sanatorium where Tengo reads his father a story about a town of cats, a place where one is meant to be lost forever.

Throughout the novel, Murakami continually draws the reader’s attention to the question of reality, but ultimately the reader comes away with the feeling that this question is a moot point. It may not be about where we are but what exists there. Murakami may have given us the answer at the very beginning, in Rose and Harburg song lyrics:

It’s a Barnum and Bailey world,
just as phony as it can be,
But it wouldn’t be make-believe
if you believed in me

Even so, believing or not, the reader can’t help but enjoy rapping on the walls, tugging on the canvas sky, immersing herself in the paper world that Murakami has created this time.

Review: 1Q84

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