Book review: ‘1Q84’ by Haruki Murakami


A Novel

Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel

Alfred A. Knopf: 926 pp., $30.50

Here’s an unorthodox suggestion: Try to read Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84" in as close to a single sitting as you can. It won’t be easy — the novel clocks in at 926 pages and is often densely allusive, if readable throughout. Still, there’s something about the book that requires the deep immersion, the otherworldly sense of connection/disconnection, that only an extended plunge allows. You want to get up from these pages feeling groggy, as if you’ve been wrenched out of everyday experience, drawn into a landscape where the boundary between reality and imagination has been rendered moot.

Indeed, that’s the point of “1Q84,” which takes place in a world much like this one but tweaked slightly: less an entirely alternate universe than a variant. “What the real world is: that is a very difficult problem,” a character known as Leader explains in the exact center of the novel. “What it is, is a metaphysical proposition. But this is the real world, there is no doubt about that. The pain one feels in this world is real pain. Deaths caused in this world are real deaths. Blood shed in this world is real blood. This is no imitation world, no imaginary world, no metaphysical world. I guarantee you that.”

For Murakami, such a statement establishes the stakes of “1Q84,” framing it as no mere fantasy but rather a multilayered narrative of loyalty and loss. Such issues have often marked Murakami’s fiction, most vividly perhaps in the densely beautiful “Kafka on the Shore” (2005) or the understated stories of 2002’s “After the Quake.” Yet in both heft and scope, in its sense of metaphysics and of metafiction, “1Q84" takes things several levels deeper, aspiring to more density, more depth of emotion, and for the most part pulling it off.

Make no mistake — this is a major development in Murakami’s writing; while I’ve generally enjoyed his books, only a few transcend a trademark mix of contemporary rootlessness, pop culture riffing and what I’ve come to think of as magical realism lite. Novels such as “A Wild Sheep Chase” (1989) or “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” (1997) come off as 21/2 dimensional, as if they don’t quite have a fully nuanced sense of life. With “1Q84,” however, Murakami evokes a fully articulated vision of a not-quite-nightmare world, in which reality goes its own way and we have no choice but to adapt.

“Principles and logic didn’t give birth to reality,” reflects a man named Ushikawa, a disreputable figure who nonetheless observes his surroundings with a certain tarnished clarity. “Reality came first, and the principles and logic followed.” At the center of this reality, at least in “1Q84,” is the question of love, of how we find it and how we hold it, and the small fragile connections that sustain us, even (or especially) despite the odds.

To highlight this, Murakami constructs the novel as a pair of interwoven narratives, the first about Aomame, a health club trainer with a dark sideline, and the second involving Tengo, a math teacher and aspiring novelist who has secretly rewritten “Air Chrysalis,” a speculative work by a high school girl named Fuka-Eri that has become a surprise bestseller. Aomame and Tengo knew each other in grade school and once shared a brief moment of connection; the memory has sustained them each for 20 years. It is Aomame who sets the story here in motion when, on an April afternoon in 1984, she leaves a cab on a congested Tokyo elevated highway and descends an emergency staircase to the street. By the time she reaches the ground, reality has subtly shifted, a change she notices because the police are wearing different uniforms and carrying different guns.

That’s a small but significant distinction, and in pursuing its meaning, Aomame slips through a set of wormholes in which the universe turns back upon itself. To say much more about the plot seems counterproductive, since among “1Q84’s” charms is its sense of the unexpected, but here are a few key points: “Air Chrysalis,” it turns out, is not fiction but a record of its author’s experience as an adept of a secret religious cult; Leader, who founded the cult, is Fuka-Eri’s father; and both have unleashed forces, physical and metaphysical, that fuel the tension of the book. Against that background, Aomame and Tengo function equally as characters and as embodiments of the novel’s larger themes, its essences — although it is to Murakami’s credit that, whatever else they are, we never lose sight of these characters as flesh-and-blood beings.

For all that, the truest pleasures of the book may be the most writerly, primarily its epic sense of structure (which functions as something of a fun-house mirror, endlessly reflective) and its many references to history and literature. Throughout these pages, Murakami offers real-world touchstones — the Russo-Manchurian War, the early Japanese epic “The Tale of the Heike,” the work of novelists such as Dickens and Orwell — which echo the action he describes. Most interesting is his homage to Chekhov, whom he invokes first in an account of the author’s 1890 visit to Sakhalin Island, and then again when Aomame is reminded, after taking possession of an automatic pistol, that "[a]ccording to Chekhov … once a gun appears in a story, it has to be fired.”

Murakami is clearly having fun here, using his narrative to comment on the art of narrative while also suggesting that his characters may not be so tightly bound. Five hundred and fifty pages later, he refutes his own argument: “I might end up never firing the pistol. Contrary to Chekhov’s principle,” Aomame declares, only to be told, “That’s fine.… Nothing could be better than not firing it. We’re drawing to the end of the twentieth century. Things are different from back in Chekhov’s time.… Somehow the world has survived the Nazis, the atomic bomb, and modern music. Even the way novels are composed has changed drastically.” It’s a telling moment, for this is and isn’t true of “1Q84,” which deploys its strategies in the service of what becomes the most traditional sort of story: the one in which love wins out over all.

None of this is to suggest that “1Q84" is perfect; in places, the coincidences line up too neatly, and a plot line involving the “Little People” — actual beings who may or may not have a spiritual agenda but mostly function here as agents of chaos — peters out like a neglected thread. But in the end, that’s minor stuff in the face of a vision, and an act of the imagination, this profound. “1Q84" is a big, sprawling novel, a shaggy dog story to be sure, but it achieves what is perhaps the primary function of literature: to reimagine, to reframe, the world. “There was a lot that remained unknown and mysterious,” Murakami writes at the end of the book, as if referring to his own process, “and the lines that constructed this story were complicated. Which lines connected to which others, and what sort of cause-and-effect relationship existed, was beyond him.… But he had a faint sense that this chaos was, ever so slowly, heading toward a denouement.”