1Q84 is at times a surreal, ambitious work that finds itself meandering through seemingly unimportant paths that distract the reader from the overall tapestry Murakami weaves. It is a strong narrative, very Japanese in style and tone, and is recommended reading for anybody who loves Haruki Murakami or enjoys Japanese fiction. Like 1984 by George Orwell, 1Q84 presents a dystopian future set in Japan and primarily follows two characters. The title is a play on words, with the Japanese word for “9” being kyuu, here represented by “Q” in 1Q84.
The book is filled with religious references and themes, as well as asides that evoke classical composers like Bach and Vivaldi. Murakami extensively quotes Russian author Anton Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island, leaving inferences for the reader to address. The events of the novel occur between April and December of 1984 in Tokyo, Japan and opens with Aomame, an assassin who becomes trapped in a traffic jam and, incidentally, finds herself trapped in an alternative reality.
She deduces this alternative reality’s existence through context clues that require the reader to pay attention because the differences between Aomame’s Japan, of which we know little, and the reality she calls “1Q84” are small, almost insignificant at first and are found in portions of text that a lax reader may miss.
Another major character is Tengo, a writer tasked with re-writing a promising manuscript from a young author known only as Fuka-Eri. The cult and religious themes evoked in these segments are as fascinating as they are unsettling and I found myself really enjoying these portions as this mystery was more immediately accessible to the reader than the Aomame storyline.
Fuka-Eri’s world is strange and is immediately so, evoking past tales by Murakami like Kafka on the Shore. Aomame and Tengo/Fuka-Eri’s story combines in a completely fantastical way that reminds the reader of Murakami’s power as an author. Though initially unsettling and slightly strange, it all begins to make sense one the reader connects Tengo’s re-writing of Air Chrysalis with Aomame’s alternative reality and assignment as an assassin.
There is moral ambiguity in Aomame’s assignments and lifestyle in general. The reader wants to cheer her on (and the author goes to great lengths to help in that regard) but, ultimately, she is a murderer and it is impossible to shake the unlikeable, sociopathic personality she exudes. Killing for a good cause is always tough to justify, and Murakami doesn’t let this aspect of the narrative bog anything down, particularly when things start to draw more from a true alternate, fantasy-realm much different from our own.
Again, the novel is best for the reader that enjoys Japanese fiction, as some of the resolutions are baffling and might leave the reader unsatisfied. Towards the end, as much of the masterful Japanese fiction does, it becomes laden with existential realizations and the almost requisite overstressing of the importance of small, ephemeral moments in one’s life. The connections between the main characters are tenuous and almost cosmological at this point and, indeed, to this point one of the defining features of the narrative is the night sky itself.
A beautiful book with crisp, clean language and a well-paced narrative, 1Q84 is the kind of novel that makes the reader work for its revelations – and that can be rewarding in and of itself. It is not, however, a quick read in which you can casually skim over the pages and expect enjoyment. The pastiche of the bizarre, the normal, the fantastical, and the consequential begins to blend into an unrecognizable, almost surreal experience that only begins to make sense when viewed in toto. If you love Japanese fiction, this book is a must read without a doubt.