“1Q84” by Haruki Murakami (Knopf, 925 pages, $30.50)
Murakami, whose previous novels include “A Wild Sheep Chase,” “Kafka on the Shore” and “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.” has been mentioned as a potential Nobel Prize winner. “1Q84,” his massive new novel, was published as three volumes in his native Japan, where the books were best-sellers.
Set in 1984, the reference to Orwell’s novel is made explicit in this novel, which combines elements of fantasy, science fiction, realism, romance and detective fiction.
Murakami tells his story through two main characters – Aomame, a 30-year-old woman, and Tengo, a man the same age – in alternating chapters. In the last third of the book, a third character becomes a narrator as well.
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The book opens with a stunning chapter as Aomame, whose unusual name (in Japanese) means “green peas,” is in a taxi stuck in traffic on a freeway in Tokyo. She says she needs to make an appointment, so the taxi driver tells her about an emergency stairway off the shoulder of the highway. When she reaches the bottom of the stairway, she has entered a different world, one somehow parallel with the one she left. She later calls it 1Q84, with Q standing for question mark. (This also involves a pun, since the English “Q” and the Japanese “9” are homophones.) She makes her appointment on time at a room in a hotel, where she assassinates a man who has repeatedly practiced violence against women.
Tengo teaches math at a cram school two days a week and works on a novel in his free time. A publisher shows him a novel called “Air Chrysalis,” written by a 17-year-old girl named Fuka-Eri. The publisher asks Tengo to polish the novel, to keep the story but rewrite it to make it more literary. Reluctantly, he agrees, and the ghostwritten book becomes an award-winning best-seller.
Soon we’re into a large, multifaceted plot that involves a secret cult that hunts down its enemies, and both Tengo and Aomame become targets. Fuka-Eri, we learn, is the daughter of the cult’s founder, and her novel, which appears to be a fantasy, actually reveals elements of reality in 1Q84.
Meanwhile, the novel Tengo is writing also reflects some of the reality of 1Q84, including the presence of two moons in the sky, something most people can’t see. At one point, Tengo asks himself, “What kind of reality mimics fictional creations?”
This metafictional theme plays throughout the book. Tengo takes a train to visit his father in a nursing home. On the way he reads a short story about a town of cats. (Cats appear in nearly all Murakami’s fiction.) Later he refers to this alternate reality as the cat town.
The book also includes many references to other works and to authors such as Chekhov, Shakespeare, Proust, Dinesen, Dostoevsky and Kafka.
It’s easy to see why Murakami is so popular. His prose is fairly simple, and he creates suspense while grounding his action in the mundane. He often includes details of what characters are wearing, what they eat, what their bodies look like. But then he’ll suddenly introduce a fantastical element, as when six “Little People,” 2 inches high, crawl out of a young girl’s mouth, then grow to a height of 30 inches.
And the whole narrative is carried by the concern of if or how Tengo and Aomame will get together. They hold hands once as 10-year-olds in elementary school, then do not see each other for 20 years. Will they find each other?
It takes a while – one of the problems with this book – but eventually Murakami gets around to saying more about this “different world.” At least, he offers hints, not a full explanation. The leader of the cult tells Aomame, “The most important thing with regard to this world in which we live is for there to be a balance maintained between good and evil.” It’s never clear how all this works.
While “1Q84” is a pleasure to read, it is unnecessarily long. At times it seems Murakami is padding the prose to make it longer. Some of the dialogue is pedestrian, and some scenes seem more designed to titillate than to move the story along.
He frequently uses similes that seem odd, such as: “Something in her small eyes caught the sunlight and glistened, like the glacier on the faraway face of a mountain.” Or: “his voice as hard and cold as metal ruler left for a long time in a fridge.”
The bigger problem with the book, though, is that it lacks moral weight. Despite references to Orwell’s Big Brother and describing men’s violence against women, Murakami seems more concerned about the shape of Aomame’s breasts than the rape of 10-year-olds. The light tone of the book makes it enjoyable to read but leaves one uninterested in pondering what it might mean.
Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in Newton.