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Onyx reviews: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Fans of Haruki Murakami are touting 1Q84 as his magnum opus, and if by
that they mean that it's his longest work then they're right. At around 1000
pages, the novel outweighs the nearest contenders for the title by nearly two to
one. Is it his greatest work, though? It's probably too soon to tell.
The story is at once simple and
intricate. For such a large
novel, the cast is small. Most of the book alternates between two storylines. The first is that of a 30-year-old
woman named Aomame who, when introduced, is stuck in traffic on the expressway in a taxi
en route to an important business meeting. She will never make it on time, at least
not in the cab. The driver tells her that, though he's not supposed to do this, he
can let her out near an emergency pullout where she will find a secret staircase down to
street level and can take the subway the rest of the way. Then he says
something cryptic: remember, there is always only one reality. Aomame senses something
strange during her descent. The world that she emerges in at the bottom of the
stairs is different. At first the changes are subtle. Police
uniforms and weapons have changed. People talk about a famous raid at a religious
compound that she doesn't recall. Oh, and there are now two moons in the sky.
Aomame, whose name is written using the characters for "green peas"
for no apparent reason other than it makes her name unique, calls her
parallel world 1Q84. The novel is set in 1984 and "Q" is the Japanese
pronunciation of the number 9, though in Aomame's mind the "Q" also
stands for a question mark. In addition to her day job as a massage therapist at a gym, she is an assassin who works for the
owner of a women's shelter. Her targets are abusive men who are beyond the reach of the law. She has a
special way of killing that makes it appear they died of natural causes.
Other than the dowager and her bodyguard, Aomame has no friends. The
daughter of the Japanese equivalent of Jehovah's Witnesses, she ran away from her
parents when she was young. From time to
time she picks up a random man—always older and balding—for sex. During one of her
cruising evenings, she befriends a female police officer, a risky
proposal given her hobby. She finds herself thinking more and more about a boy she
met in school when she was ten. They never spoke, but she once held his hand. It
was a potent moment in her traumatic childhood and is, in fact, the central
event that drives the novel.
In parallel, a school teacher and aspiring writer named Tengo is hired by his
editor, Komatsu, to revise a manuscript that has been submitted for an important new-writer
award (Murakami is the winner of such an award). The author of Air Chrysalis is a mysterious,
beautiful 17-year-old girl who calls herself Fuka-Eri. She has no talent for writing but her
people" who emerge from the mouth of a dead goat and spin an "air
chrysalis" that creates an alternate version of a particular person that
allows them to communicate their message to the world—is compelling. Though Tengo
knows he is
embarking on literary fraud that could destroy him if exposed, he agrees to do the rewrite after meeting Fuka-Eri. She is
almost autistic and definitely dyslexic. The
daughter of the leader of the Sakigake cult (Murikami previously wrote about the
Aum Shinrikyo cult responsible for an attack on the Japanese subway), who escaped from their
compound when she was 10, she talks about the story as if it
really happened to her. In the world in her novella, there are two moons.
Like Aomame, Tengo has no friends, and his only romantic
liaison is with an older married woman who visits him once a week. His earliest
memory from childhood is of his mother with another man. He often asks people about their
earliest memories as if to see if his is to be trusted. It makes him wonder if the man who raised him was really his father. As a boy he
was isolated from his classmates because his mother died (or did she?) and
he had to accompany his father (or is he?), who collected radio license fees, on his
rounds on Sundays, when his friends normally socialized. His father spends most
of the novel in a coma, though his spirit may be haunting other characters in
the form of a persistent and belligerent NHK fee collector who is heard pounding
on doors but never seen.
Tengo's rewrite of Air Chrysalis wins awards and ends up on the
bestseller list for months. The
mystery surrounding the media-shy Fuka-Eri heightens interest. Murakami suggests—obliquely,
of course— that Tengo's revisions are what yanked Aomame
into the world of
1Q84. Tengo starts a new book set in the same
world as Air Chrysalis. Representatives of
Sakigake are displeased that Fuka-Eri's story reveals vital secrets about their
cult. They apply pressure on Tengo and Komatsu to deliver the girl to them and have
the book withdrawn from publication. Their emissary is a short, ugly and odious
man named Ushikawa who previously appeared in The Wind-up Bird Chronicles
As the pressure mounts, so
too does the imperative for Tengo and Aomame to find each other. The cult is also hunting for
Aomame. Their brief
interlude twenty years ago acquires monumental importance in their minds. They have never
loved anyone else, they realize. Because the book is set in a time before
cell phones and internet, though, tracking each other down is not easy. For hundreds of pages, their stories intertwine and their paths
converge but never intersect. There is also the hint that, as "perceiver" and
"receiver" (concepts from Air Chrysalis), something bad might
happen to the world if they are reunited.
The book is filled with Western allusions. Its soundtrack would be Janácek's
Sinfonietta, which is playing in the taxi before Aomame's trip down the
rabbit hole and is mentioned several times in the book. Other characters listen
to jazz, a Murakami favorite. George Orwell's 1984 is an obvious
touchpoint. Aomame struggles against Chekhov's edict, which states that it's a
fundamental rule that if a gun is shown in the first act, it must be fired in
the third. The theology that permeates the characters' lives, even those who are
atheists, is Christian, not Buddhist.
1Q84 was published as three separate novels in most countries, including Japan. Murakami
originally planned to stop after the second book but felt
compelled to continue. It's hard to image the book without its third
section, where everything that is set up in
the first several hundred pages pays off, insofar as Murakami is willing to
explain things .
To meet the book's publication schedule, the translation was executed by
two men, both of whom have worked on Murakami's novels before. Though
for the most part the transition between the second part and the third is
smooth, and Philip Gabriel was privy to word choices made by Jay Rubin for the
first book when he started on the third, it's not completely seamless.
Gabriel tends to use more
original Japanese words than Rubin, for example, instead of converting everything into
Though fascinating, thoroughly entertaining and compelling, the book is not without flaws.
The introduction of Ushikawa as a third point-of-view character late in the
more like a solution to a plotting problem than a necessary change to the book's
structure. It's as if Murakami needed a way to reveal things that weren't
observed directly by Tengo or Aomame; however, most of what Ushikawa reports can
be gleaned from other parts of the book.
including the women, are fixated on breasts. Aomame is forever dithering over
the fact that hers are somewhat small and noticeably asymmetric. And there is a lot
of repetition. Tengo's girlfriend
is always referred to as "older" or "mature," as if Murakami
doesn't trust readers to remember this detail. The third section is
especially prone to repetition. Because this part was published a year after the first two parts in Japan,
the author summarizes earlier events. When Tengo visits his
comatose father, he again rehashes everything that has come before. Murakami is also obsessed
with the minutia of day-to-day life,
including every detail of the books characters are reading, their exercise regimens
and all the steps required to prepare every meal.The novel could easily have been
reduced by a couple of hundred pages without losing anything vital.
To his credit, Murakami knows how to make the conventional seem surreal. As a character in another
of his novels observed, once the
ground drops out beneath someone, nothing is ever the same. Though the
appearance of a second moon is bizarre, the other details that trouble Aomame
are less overt. Readers are pushed
subtly off kilter, so that the mundane becomes suspect. Is the crow that appears
on Tengo's windowsill an omen or is it simply a crow? What does it mean for
someone to become irretrievably lost? What does the story that Tengo tells his
father about a man who gets off the train in a town of cats represent? Is it simply Tengo's name for what Aomame calls the world of 1Q84?
Not all of Murakami's mysteries are unraveled. As Tengo observes, "There was a
lot that remained unknown and mysterious, and the lines that constructed this
story were complicated. Which lines connected to which others, and what sort of
cause-and-effect relationship existed, was beyond him...he felt like he had been
living in a place where questions outnumbered answers. But he had a faint sense
that this chaos was, ever so slowly, heading toward a denouement." The same
could be said of 1Q84.
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