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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 wealthy 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 story—about "little 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 real-life 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 English analogs.

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 novel feels 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.

Characters, 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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