Review: 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

>>Published: October 2011

>>Finally got around to it: December 2011

1Q84—that’s what I’ll call this new world, Aomame decided.

Q is for “question mark.” A world that bears a question.

Aomame nodded to herself as she walked along.

Like it or not, I’m here now, in the year 1Q84. The 1984 that I knew no longer exists. It’s 1Q84 now. The air has changed, the scene has changed. I have to adapt to this world-with-a-question-mark as soon as I can. Like an animal released into a new forest. In order to protect myself and survive, I have to learn the rules of this place and adapt myself to them.


Parallel universe-crossed lovers Tengo and Aomame—him, a cram school math teacher and modestly successful ghost writer/wannabe novelist; her, an athletic instructor, personal trainer, and enterprising young assassin—are the twin protagonists for Haruki Murakami’s 925-page, three-part epic of magical realism, 1Q84.

One day, embarking on a routine hit, Aomame is delayed by gridlocked traffic on Tokyo’s elevated Metropolitan Expressway. Unable to be late for her “appointment”, she abandons the taxi she was riding in and crosses the lanes of traffic to an emergency stairwell that will take her off the expressway and down to the city streets, where she is able to catch the subway that will take her the rest of the way to her target. In another part of the city, Tengo—Aomame’s fated lover, a man she has not seen in twenty years—is being coerced into the role of ghost writer for an unconventionally brilliant book by a first-time author, the mysterious and enigmatic Fuka-Eri. The novel, Air Chrysalis, has captivated both Tengo and his friend Komatsu, though Fuka-Eri’s writing is stilted and lacking the depth to turn the book into the classic both men suspect it is capable of becoming.

By straying from their paths—in Aomame’s case, as she climbs out of one world and into another via the emergency expressway stairwell; for Tengo, as he invests himself in Fuka-Eri’s impossible-yet-entirely-real tale of possibly mystical-in-nature cocoons, religious indoctrination, and the little people that crawl out of the mouths of dead animals—Murakami’s protagonist quietly abandon the Japan of 1984 for what Aomame dubs 1Q84—the world with a question mark. For the pair, it is an uncertain world of two moons, phantom NHK fee collectors, and the occasional immaculate conception. How they have fallen into this parallel world, and how they expect to extricate themselves from their individual-yet-intertwined situations, is 1Q84’s focus.

More through the looking glass than down the rabbit hole, 1Q84 is both an exercise in literary re-interpretation and a culmination of Murakami’s many interests and obsessive quirks. There are undoubtedly parts of the book that feel cobbled together from narrative strands and character traits in Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore. However, rather than feeling overworked or relied upon too much, these instances and many others—his obsessions with ears, philosophical literature, jazz and classical music, and the otherworldly influence of cats—are pulled together and expanded upon in ways that make some of Murakami’s previous works feel like working drafts of concepts not yet fleshed out. There is certainly a road-well-travelled feel to some of these underpinnings, but the narrative of 1Q84 remains fresh thanks to its protagonists.

Murakami’s approach to magical realism has always been perfunctory. Things simply are, no matter how weird or outside of reality they may appear to be. Convincing his protagonists of the mystical dual nature of their two-mooned world is something of a rote task by this point in Murakami’s career.

What separates 1Q84 from the rest of Murakami’s work is its somewhat obvious literary precedent: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Murakami holds a mirror up to Orwell’s dystopian future narrative. Big Brother becomes the Little People, an almost invisible force that may or may not impart a deified sort of wisdom unto a populace from within the carcass of a dead animal; the authoritarian political regime becomes a Jehovah’s Witness-style cult of dual-natured people—of perceivers and receivers; the two-mooned world of pursuing cult enforcers, false grant providers, and oversexed hospice nurses, is a prison of sorts for Tengo and Aomame and no one else.

It’s difficult not to wonder if some of the beauty of Murakami’s imagery is lost in translation, or if his abrupt descriptions of a world less than familiar to our own is simply his method of relaying the absurd and surreal with as little fanfare as possible. Because of this, some of his descriptions can feel anticlimactic or long in the tooth, but they paint an effective portrait of a world that is at once different and still very much the same.

1Q84 is a bit overwritten in parts, with deliberate language echoes and character repetition as garnish for the world outside of the norm. But what Murakami achieves in his otherworldly homage to Orwell’s masterpiece, Janácek’s Sinfonietta and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is an impressive feat of magical realism, social commentary, and long lost love. I can’t say whether or not 1Q84 lives up to the symphonic hype it accumulated in the months leading up to its release, but Murakami’s epic is a deep and compulsively entertaining work of fiction, with only the odd misstep in pacing and originality.