Two years ago my friend Vivike gave me Kafka on the Shore for Christmas, assuring me that I would like it—and she was right. I also found it confusing and daunting and knew that, in Haruki Murakami, I had found yet another author whose works I will continue to digest long after I devour them with all the tenacity my love of reading requires. So for this Christmas as I considered which book to inflict upon Viv, Murakami’s latest was a natural choice. And I prefer to give people books that I have already read, so that my recommendation is all that more genuine. Of course, when I went to buy 1Q84 last Thursday, I didn’t quite realize it was 925 pages. Since I planned to give it to Vivike when I saw her on Monday, I had an intense few days of reading to do. But I made it!
I liked 1Q84 better than Kafka on the Shore almost immediately. It might be owing to the more overtly science-fictional premise, this idea that Aomame might just have slipped into a parallel world. It might be that the mystery in this novel develops at a much less sedate pace than its impressive length suggests. It could be that, unlike the somewhat unequal relationship between Kafka on the Shore’s two main characters, Aomame and Tengo are a much more evenly-matched duo. Watching their stories converge, seeing the foreshadowing that Murakami uses, is one of the most delightful things about this book. I kept developing—then discarding—various theories as to what was going on. There were moments when I was so sure of an answer, only for Murakami to pull the carpet out from beneath my feet a hundred or two hundred pages later. Yeah, occasionally I was right—but who am I to keep score?
1Q84 is a mystery and also a little bit of a fairy tale. Aomame is the investigator, and she is also an Alice in a Wonderland that is uncomfortably similar to her own world. Quickly it becomes apparent that the cult at Sakigake, the Little People, and Air Chrysalis all have something to do with Aomame’s sudden transition to this alternative worldline—but what, precisely, is the connection? Meanwhile, Tengo struggles with the ethics of his role as the ghostwriter of Air Chrysalis; he has also begun to wonder how the novel relates to Fuka-Eri’s real experiences at Sakigake. It’s a rich and multi-layered mystery. Wanting to know the answers was definitely one reason I kept reading (aside from my self-imposed deadline!). But the style and substance in which Murakami steeps his mystery makes the experience all the more enjoyable.
1Q84 reminds me of Bridge of Birds in the way that many of its characters are less like actual people than they are like characters from a myth or a fable. (Alice in Wonderland has a similar quality to it.) The Leader, Professor Ebisuno, the Dowager, and even Fuka-Eri all have an advisory aspect to their personae. Even their names (Ebisuno is commonly addressed as “the Professor”, and while we do learn the dowager’s name late in the book, no one ever calls her by it) suggest the roles they play rather than people. The effect of this characterization is two-fold. Firstly, it supports the Jungian archetypes that Murakami explicitly employs throughout the novel. Secondly, it emphasizes the almost meta-fictional nature of the book—I say almost because 1Q84 never quite reaches the point where I would call it meta-fiction, but it comes very close. As novels that feature novelists as characters often are, it is a novel that is very keen to discuss and allude to various aspects of the conversation around literature.
And like Bridge of Birds, 1Q84 has a happy ending because it has something to say about the nature of happiness. Both Aomame and Tengo have solitary lifestyles that they believe have made them happy, so they must confront whether this happiness to real or merely a wishful delusion (and if it is the latter, does that matter as long as it feels real?). Aomame finds herself making a friend just as she learns her next assassination will result in her going underground and changing her face and name. The death of Tengo’s father, and his mounting foreboding over his relationship to Fuka-Eri and the Little People, make Tengo realize that he is not really close to anyone and that he has no one on whom he can rely. As someone who has few close friends and leads a sparse social life with an emphasis on solitude accompanied by tea and a good book, I appreciated seeing this nuanced and complex take on such lifestyles. Murakami doesn’t draw conclusions so much as present possibilities.
One person noted on my review of Kafka on the Shore that “the best authors (and I include Murakami here) do not set out to write a novel within the boundaries of a particular genre”. I would tend to agree, and 1Q84 is an excellent example where this appears to be the case. This novel flirts with so many genres but ultimately transcends them all. Much like China Miéville, Murakami seems very comfortable taking complete ownership of his story. He very clearly has influences (1984 being only the most obvious one, and perhaps the least significant). Yet like Miéville he seems less concerned with genre than with setting and character, as he should be. Yet Miéville and Murakami approach worldbuilding in totally different ways. Miéville is like the medieval artist who would sea serpents into the corners of maps: he describes his wonderful and terrifying new worlds to us with a level of detail that makes them come alive. Murakami, in contrast, is more minimalist, allowing the reader to build up a world through a relationship with the characters who traverse it. Aside from what Aomame learns, we don’t really know how 1Q84 differs from 1984—and it isn’t all that important. Although these two approaches are different, they achieve the same end: a work of fantasy that is not mired in the medieval tropes embraced by those who seek to emulate Tolkien and Vance. Both are extremely creative and talented authors with original voices.
Maybe it’s because I’m slightly more familiar with the theories of Jung than those of Hegel or Kafka that I preferred 1Q84 over Kafka on the Shore. That said, familiarity with Jung is certainly not a prerequisite to understanding or enjoying this book. There’s room to interpret 1Q84 through the lens of the Shadow and the Magus, but there are many additional layers of meaning. You will notice that this review focuses on the literary qualities of 1Q84 almost to the exclusion of other concerns. That’s just my particular hang-up, and I hope you won’t come away with the impression that this is a book only book-lovers can love.
There are so many other topics that 1Q84 covers. In general it’s a fascinating window into Japanese culture back in 1984. It deals with issues of abuse, of both women and children, and does not shy away from the ugly truths around this subject. It addresses the fine line between religion and cultism. Also, it’s an interesting example of a novel that wouldn’t work the same if it were set after the advent of the Internet. Murakami refers to computers a few times in the novel—Tengo notably buys a dedicated word processor—but I get the sense that if the novel were set in, say, the 2000s, its tone would be completely altered. The march of digital technology has changed us in ways that we don’t necessarily perceive until we read fiction written now about then.
I can’t quite bring myself to give this book five stars. Unlike some people I’m not going to criticize it for its length, and I was pretty satisfied with the pacing. However, some parts of the book did feel repetitive (and perhaps this was because the three books were published as separate volumes in Japan). For example, I’m not convinced that Ushikawa as a character adds enough dimension to the story to merit his own chapters. (Yet Murakami chose to introduce a third character to the existing duet, altering the structure of the narrative rather significantly, so there must be more to it.) Combined with the extremely compressed time frame over which I read it, this repetition meant that there were moments when I wished Murakami would just get on with it.
For each of those moments, however, there was definitely another moment when I was so invested in this story, so completely sold on its premise and determined to find out what would happen. Without a doubt, 1Q84 is a novel expansive in its philosophical and literary scope in a way that does not sacrifice the true core of any tale of fiction: the story. This is the second Murakami novel I’ve read, and it’s even more enticing than the first. With his careful eye for detail and for balance, Murakami is a first-class writer—and as always, kudos to the translators as well, for their dedication is responsible for helping Murakami’s voice cross the gap between our languages.