Aomame is stuck in traffic. She’s at a standstill on an expressway, on some kind of overpass, somewhere in 1984 Tokyo, and she’s about to do something strange. As if reality wasn’t strange enough (her cab’s too nice, the radio blares Janacek’s weird "Sinfonietta," her driver speaks in riddles) she now has to climb down a fire escape in a miniskirt. The appointment she can’t break is just too important, so she goes for it—miniskirt and all, everything over the railing and down, down, down into some other universe that, except for a couple of moons, looks fairly similar to her own.
Readers stepping into the world of the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami for the first time must be prepared to commune with both the mundane and the supernatural. And be ready to bear both the tangible and psychological weight of the magical, surreal and all too twisted world of Mr. Murakami. There are mystical and elementary burdens to carry, though they are sometimes lopsided and awkwardly packed. Normality will feel abnormally heavy, and the journey is long (900-plus pages). But, no need to fear—this is a Murakami novel, the journey will seem quick.
1Q84 is a love story—and it’s not. It’s a thriller—and it’s not. It’s about art and mysticism—but it’s also about immorality and humanity. Things in Murakami’s world are just this way. Where one thing exists, it also cannot exist. Things that are, are not, and things that aren’t, are. So is the case with 1Q84, where Tengo is, Aomame is not. Where love is, love is not. Where faith is present, faith is absent. Absence and presence are simultaneous happenings unable to be erased.
Tengo is a writer and teacher. Aomame is a personal trainer and assassin. They are forever linked by memories of an absurd relationship they had in elementary school, a hand-holding episode that has paralyzed their hearts. Somehow, though, they’ve both been held captive in the strange world of 1Q84, a world that is subtly different than its counterpart—1984 (an allusion to the Orwellian work). In this world, Tengo takes part in ghostwriting a novel with a slimy editor and Aomame takes orders from an elderly dowager who likes to send evil, abusive men to the next life. Of course, as fate would have it, both of these risky professions lead Aomame and Tengo falling deeper into the strangeness of their new world, where religious cults, Little People and air chrysalises are the norm.
Murakami novels are explorations, winding and bending around references to Western culture, the corners of Jazz melodies, the metaphysical and the existential, darkness and light. He always presents a world that subtly resembles our reality, yet startlingly bends its norms. Yet, there is aimlessness to this expedition. Imagine for a moment, you’re being guided by an alien, one who does not speak your native language, and you’re traveling throughout a planet he is also foreign to, and while he seems to say things regarding the cultural and philosophical nature of the planet’s inhabitants, he also stops to point out the price of IKEA kitchenware and the fact that he really loves Ryan Adams (minus that Rock n Roll album).
Are you lost? Me too.
Critics have pointed out that maybe something got lost in translation, as if after rendering so many previous Murakami novels with lucidity and clarity, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel somehow screwed this one up. Yet, this seems doubtful when considering Murakami’s writing process—locked in a room from 4 a.m. to 9 a.m. every day—and the fact that his English is almost flawless (Murakami has translated dozens of titles into Japanese).
Murakami spent three years writing 1Q84 and it shows. It’s a tight book. Chapters seem like movie scenes or short stories, each alternating between the lives of Aomame and Tengo, leaving each chapter hanging on the last and having one in between to keep you occupied. Inside these chapters are heaps of redundancies, menus, dishes, cafes and records, which cheapen the novel, leaving it flavorless and sometimes ugly (specifically, child rape as a metaphor). But then, just as you start to worry, these clairvoyant sentences jump off the page, transposing the interior lives of Tengo and Aomame beautifully into the physical universe that is 1Q84. Murakami spins and weaves their every whim into his own air chrysalises, gives them shape and color like only he can. Sadly, though, while his sentences may give the novel its tone and tenor, and while the air chrysalises are interesting, they can’t make up for its lack of substance. Where the characters are rich, deep and full, the narrative is weak, cryptic and void. Perhaps that is his point—where there is substance, there is also nothing—but it’s more likely that when you’re “99 percent fiction writer, and 1 percent citizen,” as Murakami stated this summer, it’s inevitable that you get lost in your own world.
1Q84 is reminiscent of a Dali painting. No matter the weirdness, you can’t help but wonder where you fit. 1Q84 is no different. This is what good novels do. They get you thinking about yourself and the world you live in. Great novels do that, plus some. This novel is a good one, nothing more, and it’s worth picking up. That is, if you’ve got the muscle.
Forrest Smith is a writer and teacher. He is the founder of www.aptchange.com , which showcases innovative, creative and progressive ideas that shape our future.