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by Haruki Murakami

About.com Rating 2.5 Star Rating


1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
© Knopf
Haruki Murakami is one of those rare authors whose novels all seem to function as a whole. Each book can operate on two planes: one can read the surreal surface story and walk away dazzled and sated, but those looking for a deeper understanding can find a world of meaning lurking beneath the surface plot. It is at this depth where Murakami's books begin to feel inter-connected; a complicated theory of shadows and metaphorical twinning emerges and can be traced through each of the author's works. The parallel plots of novels like Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and Kafka on the Shore begin to feel like much more than just the product of a narrative decision; it's as if we constantly move in tandem with unknown forces. Whether it's movement with a fated, distant lover or movement within the depths of one's own pysche, each step is mirrored with another, somewhere in the universe. Each of Murakami's novels has a hinge, and an inquisitive reader can search for the hidden synapses and symmetries that lay stretched across the axis. But these depths don't need to be plumbed; they can be left to discover later, after multiple readings, or even not at all. Murakami's multifaceted craft allows readers of all sorts to enjoy and interpret his stories in their own way, as complicated or straightforward as they see fit.

Murakami's massive new novel, 1Q84, is his first to fully embrace these ideas of narrative symmetry and address them directly, but unfortunately, this long-awaited direction comes at the cost of that satisfying surface story. 1Q84 is such a dizzyingly theoretical novel that it is nearly impossible to synopsize without interpreting the book's themes. In traditional Murakami form, the stories of two protagonists, Aomame and Tengo, are told in alternating chapters but each thread possesses such a heavy influence over the other that it's difficult to separate the two and enjoy their stories independently. After 1Q84's initial setup, Murakami's grand ideas get the best of his novel and the foundation he'd previously established fades from below.
The novel opens in a traffic jam. Aomame is late for a meeting, and in an attempt to keep her appointment she makes a rash decision and steps out of character. Her driver warns her of what could happen if she acts out ("things may look different to you than they did before"), but she pays him no mind. Aomame exits her cab and is next seen jumping fences and illegally climbing down the freeway's emergency exit.

From its start, Aomame's story feels inappropriately sexual, nearly fetishized in its glib focus on Aomame's body and clothing. Despite difficulties with her expensive heels, short skirt and stockings, She makes it to her meeting on time, and is able to sneak into a businessman's hotel room with just enough time to shove an icepick into his brainstem. Later, she begins to notice some new peculiarities in the world around her, and concludes that leaving the cab in the way she did had caused her to slip into a parallel version of the 1984 Tokyo she'd once inhabited.

Meanwhile, Tengo has been embroiled into a complicated ghostwriting scheme by Komatsu, a publisher he assists by reading fiction entries to an annual young writer's award. When a novel called Air Chrysalis by teenage author Fuka-Eri catches Komatsu's attention, Tengo is hired to rewrite the fragmented surrealist fantasy into something more palatable and salable. With the Akutagawa Award seemingly in reach, Tengo rewrites Air Chrysalis into a bestseller, unaware of the conflict that would result: The content of Air Chrysalis contains sensitive information pertaining to the mysterious Sakigake cult, an agrarian organization that raised Fuka-Eri until she ran away.

Occasionally, wonderfully weird scenes occur which feature some of the bizarre (but real) characters from Air Chrysalis, specifically the "Little People" who build chrysalises by extracting "threads" from thin air. Through much convoluted expository dialogue later in the novel, these chrysalises are revealed to be a central metaphor for the 1Q84's conflict, but despite Murakami's best efforts, the task of interpreting these ideas and situating them in the novel is left up to the reader. And, once readers think they have a grasp of what an "Air Chrysalis" actually is, there's no indication of what to do with that knowledge and no clear way to connect it to the story.
Shortly after Fuka-Eri's book arrives at stores, the plot of 1Q84 begins to shake at its hinge. As if the ideas behind Air Chrysalis opened a blocked vein, Tengo begins work on a novel of his own about a peculiar girl from his childhood he's been infatuated with. That girl is none other than Aomame, whose exploits we've been reading every other chapter. In a particularly beautiful turn fairly early in the novel, Murakami reveals that Tengo's been writing the story of Aomame with hopes of connecting to the girl he's secretly loved his whole life. But, she's stuck in the year 1Q84, with no way to return and no way to find Tengo.

If Aomame's plot is a projection by Tengo, how does this affect the real Aomame, likely still living somewhere in Tokyo? Could Tengo's imagination actually have some influence over Aomame, and could he be the reason she's slipped into an alternate reality? Is contract-killer Aomame a figment of Tengo's imagination, or could she be the cool, sexy woman Aomame always wished she could be? Is an Air Chrysalis symbolic of authorial potential, and did each character's plot emerge from one, created by the other? Who's dreaming whom?

The phrase "somehow, he felt" appears with some frequency in 1Q84 and can represent a simplified reduction of much of the novel's functions. This is a book where the plot flows by convenience, where characters operate almost entirely on gut feelings and mysterious hunches. Much of Murakami's cast is staged to facilitate these developments, too: there is a slew of wealthy benefactors and anonymous tipsters, and their unquestioning support allows Tengo and Aomame to proceed through the various plots and complicated questions that Murakami strives to unlock.
Tonally, 1Q84 feels cluttered with detail, almost as if Murakami hoped this oversaturation would remind readers that his surreal novel was functioning in some sort of reality. In a scene where Tengo returns to his apartment, he "stood in front of his apartment door, pulled his key from his pocket, inserted the key in the lock and turned it." When Aomame gets a phone call towards the end of the novel, the phone rings "just past noon on Tuesday" while she is "seated on her yoga mat, legs wide apart, stretching her iliopsoas muscles", which is a "much more strenuous exercise than it looked." This amount of detail rarely leads to memorable scenes, and will certainly further exhaust those readers feeling the fatigue of 1Q84's page count.

1Q84 stumbles when Murakami attempts to overlay all his threads and themes into one single system. There are pockets of the novel that function so beautifully on their own (the story of Tengo's father, for instance) that they begin to feel cheapened when Murakami tries to explicitly connect them to other, more theoretical points in the novel. It's a task best left for his readers. In 1Q84, Murakami shows his entire hand, and instead of making thematic discoveries on our own, we're left to simply interpret the connections as he presents them.

Eventually, 1Q84 feels potentially dangerous for first-time Murakami readers. Its exhaustive attempt at opening literary wormholes sits appropriately within the author's canon, but Murakami's meandering ideas and odd pacing may turn off those readers who had not yet had the enjoyment of one of his earlier, tighter novels.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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