Reviewed by Katherine Matthews
1Q84 (on sale October 25th 2011) is the latest work from well-known Japanese author Haruki Murakami, a nearly 1,000 page tome in three books. The vastness of this novel has drawn a lot of attention, including the sell-out of the Japanese version of the novel on its release day, and the sale of one million copies within the first month – in other words, the stakes are high.
The novel begins with the ignition of two separate stories being developed in parallel (fans of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World will recognize this style, and appreciate the skill with which he uses it). On one path is the character Aomame, a young fitness instructor-cum-assassin who whiles away the lonely nights seducing strangers in bars. On the other path is Tengo, a math instructor and aspiring novelist who is talked into rewriting someone else’s novel to fraudulently win a prize. The two paths progress simultaneously, unconnected, leading the astute reader to know that their crossing is inevitable, provoking questions and creating tension.
The story takes place in the year 1984, though begins with a character noticing that something is surely out of place, and reality has switched to another plane. She names this alternate reality 1Q84. Murakami’s ability to describe intricate details of their world, and make it indistinguishable from our world except for a minor detail, is another element of his ability to create a world that we’re able to walk into without hesitation. It’s familiar, and as the small strange nuance is wedged deeper into fantasy, it’s believable.
The themes that 1Q84 explores are not unique and could trespass quickly into pulp: assassins, cult religions, conspiracy and fraud, private investigation and child molestation. Yet, his writing has the absolute charm to bypass your intellectual side and connect directly with your emotional core, childlike and fantastical. He creates the mood that lets you easily follow him, into the dream.
What is primarily masterful about Murakami’s writing is his ability to peel away the layers slowly, revealing details as reticently as secrets. The result is simply superb, structurally: it progresses the story, provides character development, and creates a desire to want to know more. What makes it remarkable is that he can do all this without drawing too much attention to himself as the architect.
With a work this long, it’s hard to condense the overall impression into a singular perspective. However, I do believe the book is best when experienced with as little detailed knowledge about the plot as possible, so I’ll avoid it. The first book is primarily setup, and the second book is a tense and magical experience, which for me was the height of a connection with the characters and the story. The third book, strangely, dropped all tension and actually turned into something rather slow – what someone holding a 940 page book fears most, to be honest. A private investigator turns to recapitulating the events of the story so far; the characters stop “doing” things and instead just reflect on their thoughts. It was agonizing, in the sense that, prior to the third book, I was completely captivated, and now I was afraid I might start skipping pages or even feel the book was “ruined” by the poor decision to make the book longer than it needed to be. It is just a slow spot to work through, though, and he does eventually pull the work back together for the conclusion. Could the book have benefited from a more ruthless editor? I believe so, unfortunately.
1Q84 is, as a title, a reference to Orwell’s 1984 (the ‘Q’ is pronounced as ‘9’ in Japanese), though the correlation between the subjects of the works are not so tangible. If anything, 1984’s Big Brother character, obvious and looming in his direct power, is contrasted against the concept of 1Q84’s Little People, invisible, omniscient characters who shape our reality, unbeknownst to us. Yet this is a relationship drawn literally in the book (it references the book 1984 a few times, in addition to many other works, actually), and not a relationship that I feel so implicitly by the content of the book itself. It’s not a political work, at least in my opinion. Ultimately, it carries themes of religion, taking risks for your beliefs or passions, patience and devotion, but my opinion is that it is, at its heart, a love story. (Hey, come to think of it, so was 1984!)
Murakami leaves many questions unanswered in this work, as in many of his other works. (Other questions, he answers to redundant levels of detail.) The result is possibly the same as events which occur in real life: there are unknowns remaining to speculate on, which will never be known for certain, but the process of speculating is the pleasure.
Ultimately, 1Q84 is an astounding work, creative and meticulous. It’s original, and yet still fulfills the name of a Murakami work.
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