Arts book review

The other side of the world

Lives collide in Murakami’s alternate reality 1Q84


By Haruki Murakami,
trans. Jay Rubin and
Philip Gabriel


October 2011

1Q84 marks Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s 12th novel, and is considered by many to be his magnum opus. First published in Japan as a collection of three volumes, 1Q84 was just released in the United States in October under one cover. The book, which is over 900 pages, is quite different from his previous works, but as a long-time Murakami fan, I was not disappointed.

1Q84 takes place in Tokyo in 1984 — the title was inspired by George Orwell’s novel 1984. The novel details the stories of two individuals during the convergence of their lives towards each other: Tengo lives an ordinary life as a math teacher at a cram school and writes fiction on the side; Aomame is a fitness instructor involved in murdering men who have committed serious sexual abuse. Both characters live mundane, somewhat disillusioned lives. At the beginning of the novel, Aomame leaves a taxi on a congested highway, climbing down the emergency stairway to make her meeting. Through such a process she enters 1Q84, an alternate reality that exists alongside 1984. It is through this alternate reality that Aomame and Tengo meet after almost 20 years.

There were two literary references I found particularly meaningful and relevant. The first is a reference to Anton Chekhov’s concept that if a gun is present, it must be fired. The second reference, to Marcel Proust’s work In Search of Lost Time, is used to connect with the characters’ situations, and even seems to mirror the essence of 1Q84.

The genre of 1Q84 is relatively unclear. It contains elements of mystery and fantasy, such as those in Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and A Wild Sheep Chase. But it also is a love story depicting how the two main characters’ paths meet again after a surreal encounter in elementary school. In this way, the novel contains similarities to Murakami’s Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart, though the romantic aspect isn’t discussed in detail.

Murakami introduces social commentary through several angles. He discusses oppression and differences by describing a Spartan and ultraconservative religious cult that is an effective brainwasher. He covers family and sexuality issues through his depiction of Tengo’s broken family, though Tengo’s initial affair with another married woman ironically seems to mirror the situation with his own parents. The classic theme of disillusionment and dissatisfaction in modern society continually presents itself in Tengo and Aomame’s lonely, stagnating lives.

Murakami’s language use remains similar — elegant and not overly dramatic, with hints of sarcasm and wit. His characters are introverted, introspective, and imperfectly perfect — classic Murakami protagonists. In this novel, even relatively minor characters possess similar qualities.

Unfortunately, although many of the characters play such a deep role in the novel, their entrances and exits are abrupt. Eriko Fukada, the dyslexic girl whose novel Tengo translated, seems to be as deeply involved in the novel as the two main characters, but even her role in the story does not end conclusively. The dowager, who works with Aomame and manages a recuperation home for abused women, and Tamaru, the dowager’s gay bodyguard from Sakhalin, also leave their roles in the novel in a similar way. Apart from Tengo and Aomame, the only character to have the story told from his point-of-view is Ushikawa, a hideously ugly but highly competent inspector.

Like the rest of Murakami’s novels, 1Q84 explores isolation, loneliness, and delusion to describe the otherworldly ordinary. Similarly, the novel combines the mundane with the surreal, and merges Eastern and Western influences. 1Q84 is an ambitious work in that it combines several stories and ideas into one, unlike his other more specific novels. It doesn’t exactly have the dreamlike quality of Kafka on the Shore; the slow, contemplative roll of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle; the wistful coming-of-age romance in Norwegian Wood; or the sharp surrealism in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. But it has elements from many of his previous novels, which gives the novel a complex, but also less personal, feel. The novel moves slowly, taking even several hundred pages to set up the setting before the plot accelerates and unfolds as it reaches the end. 1Q84 is a long, worthwhile ride, but lacks the punch of his shorter works.

I disagree with critics who say that reading one Murakami book is almost like reading them all. If such a comment can be made about one author, it might as well be made about virtually all authors. While themes in his novel remain fundamentally consistent, each work has its own marked nuances, with some works being dramatically different from the others. It is true 1Q84 seems to merge themes and ideas from previous models into one major work, but the end result of combination is still completely different.

While 1Q84 was worth the read, I don’t recommend it for someone new to Murakami. It will likely be confusing and frustrating for new readers, and it isn’t representative of his work. Readers looking for a love story will be disappointed and should look elsewhere. For this purpose, Norwegian Wood does a better, more direct job. Kafka on the Shore, an intense page-turner, might be his best work for readers looking for introspection and surrealism. It is also virtually impossible to describe what 1Q84 is about to somebody who has not read it, but for those more experienced Murakami readers who are willing to discipline themselves and work through the convoluted beginning, I highly recommend 1Q84.