Review

1Q84

by Haruki Murakami

There's no denying that Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, which weighs in at 900+ pages, is an impressive achievement, both for its already accomplished author and for the two separate translators who took on the not inconsequential task of translating the book from Murakami's native Japanese into English. Equally impressive is the author's facility at working in this long form --- the story moves, it seems, effortlessly through hundreds of pages, and the reader, too, glides easily from page to page as if the book were a third of its length (although anyone lugging the hardcover version around in a backpack all day might quibble with any comments about the book's ease of use).

"[Murakami's] prose is both so cool and so confident and convincing that readers are likely to find themselves settling into it --- and its accompanying worldview and world-building --- without even thinking about the emotional and ethical implications until later."

The story is told consistently through two separate viewpoints: those of Aomame and of Tengo. At first, readers are unsure what, if any, connection exists between the two of them; as the novel progresses, however, we learn that they share a past and possibly even an uncertain, chaotic, and dangerous present and future.

It all starts when Aomame, on her way to a business appointment of sorts, decides to walk down the highway embankment rather than remain a captive in a taxi during a huge traffic jam. Her cabbie, who seems to have a philosophical bent, gives her some puzzling parting words: "The everyday look of things might seem to change a little. Things may look different to you than they did before. I've had that experience myself. But don't let appearances fool you. There's always only one reality." What Aomame encounters after she leaves the taxi and sets out on foot has her remembering the cab driver's words hours, days, even months later. The world surrounding her appears the same, but also different: people are abuzz about recent news events of which Aomame has no recollection, the police officers wear different uniforms and carry bigger guns, and --- most alarmingly of all --- two moons hang in the night sky.

Meanwhile, Tengo, a mathematics teacher and aspiring novelist, takes a little longer to develop a sensitivity to this new way of the world. He is caught up in a fraud of sorts: rewriting the text of a startlingly original but unpolished novel written by a taciturn young woman known as Fuka-Eri. As Tengo grudgingly participates in this massive deceit, he comes to realize not only that his participation in this project has far greater implications than he could have imagined, but also that Fuka-Eri herself is not precisely what she seems.

Soon, both Aomame and Tengo are coming at a particularly disturbing and dangerous challenge from two different angles, taking trajectories that may or may not intersect or even collide. Religious cults, abuse, violence, vengeance, forgiveness and love are at the heart of their story, but so is the process of storytelling itself, an act that involves both risk and reward.

Murakami's prose style may be an acquired taste, and chances are, if readers haven't developed a taste for his dispassionate, even chilly prose by the time they reach page 600, they probably never will. Murakami writes about intensely emotional subjects --- sex, child abuse, zealotry, murder --- with a kind of detachment that borders on numbness. His prose is both so cool and so confident and convincing that readers are likely to find themselves settling into it --- and its accompanying worldview and world-building --- without even thinking about the emotional and ethical implications until later.

What's most remarkable about Murakami's novel, however, is neither its prose style nor its accompanying emotional distance: it's its scope. Most so-called doorstopper novels contain multitudes of characters, conflicts, decades, or even footnotes. 1Q84, at its heart, is primarily a story of two separated lovers. It takes place in a short time frame and in a single city, but it’s enriched by Murakami's philosophical musings and his uniquely visionary form of fantasy.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 9, 2011

1Q84
by Haruki Murakami