By Haruki Murakami
Originally Japanese Publication 2009-2010 (3 Volumes)
First US Publication Oct. 25, 2011
Translated to English by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
Review © 2012 by Stephen Roof
Genre: Modern Fiction, Literature, Thriller, Alternate Reality, Fantasy
1Q84 is a brilliant new novel from Japan’s Haruki Murakami. It was originally published as three separate books in Japan but the hardcover English translations were published in one volume in the US and in two volumes in England. However, the English softcover versions are being sold in three volume sets. In any format, 1Q84 does not fit conveniently into a standard genre. I would describe it as a literate Japanese thriller with a dash of surrealism in the form of a slightly altered parallel world. But no matter how you classify it, 1Q84 provides a superb reading experience.
The first two books of 1Q84 alternate between two 3rd person narratives that focus closely on the point of view of the main characters. One narrative follows a woman in her thirties named Aomome who is a fitness instructor with advanced training in self-defense that she isn’t afraid to use. The other narrative follows Tengo, a man of about the same age who teaches math by day and works hard at writing fiction during almost all his free time. There seems to be no connection between Aomome and Tengo except that they both have always been loners. However, it doesn’t take long before links start to appear between the two narratives. In the third book, a third narrative joins the first two which follows the activities of a strange private investigator who is ugly both inside and out.
The 925 page US edition may seem slightly intimidating as first glance but this is not a slow moving or difficult novel. Within a few chapters the main characters encounter perplexing mysteries and tense situations. The characters are also well developed, complex, and engaging. The novel takes a turn toward the surreal when Aomome takes a cab ride that is strangely peculiar, after which, she notices subtle changes around her that makes her start to think she has somehow transitioned into a slightly different parallel world. For example, she notices that the Tokyo policemen are carrying automatic pistols when she clearly remembers they always carried revolvers. Soon other subtle differences convince her that she is no longer living in the year 1984 that she was familiar with and she names the new world “1Q84” with the Q for “question”. The year 1Q84 is also a kind of Japanese/English pun because the number 9 in Japanese is pronounced just like the English pronunciation of “Q”. Of course, 1984 is also the year made famous by George Orwell’s famous dystopian science fiction novel.
Meanwhile, Tengo finds himself being asked to take a brilliantly imagined but poorly written story in terms of technique from a 17 year old girl and “ghost-write” it so that it will have a chance to win a literary contest for new authors. Tengo ponders the ethics and knows that if anyone finds out he could be in a serious amount of trouble. When he agrees to the assignment, against his better judgment, he soon finds everything spinning further out of control than he could have ever imagined. There is also an early assassination and mysterious connections to an extremely secretive religious cult. Soon, both Tengo and Aomome find themselves caught up in mysteries and danger. In addition, there is a strong and passionate love story that develops which I won’t describe to avoid spoilers.
With a novel of this length, you might be worried that there would be some tedious slow sections but while there are indeed some slower sections, I didn’t find them tedious in the least. In fact, there is nice variation in the pacing as it alternates from serious page turning tense thrills to more introspective reflections on past memories and experiences but you needn’t worry; the action never slows for too long. Murakami often ends the chapters and switches to another narrative just when the momentum of the story seems to be at its highest so there is a moment of disappointment that the story is being interrupted. However, within a few paragraphs the reader is fully engaged with the new narrative which is just as engrossing as the previous.
Murakami’s descriptions contain wonderful imagery and often contain highly lyrical qualities. Take, for example, this description of a cab driver, “Each time he finished a sentence, there was a tiny but meaningful lump of silence left behind. This lump floated there, enclosed in the car’s restricted space like an imaginary miniature cloud, giving Aomame a strangely unsettled feeling.”
And here is a longer passage where Tendo describes what he likes about math.
“Math is like water… Just as water flows from high to low over the shortest possible distance, figures can only flow in one direction. You just have to keep your eye on them for the route to reveal itself. That’s all it takes. You don’t have to do a thing. Just concentrate your attention and keep your eyes open, and the figures make everything clear to you. In this whole, wide world, the only thing that treats me so kindly is math.”
I give the translators high praise for making the English version a pleasure to read.
While the third person narration is generally consistently smooth flowing, the dialog sections exhibit drastic differences. Some dialog is very choppy and brusque to the point of occasionally sounding almost like poorly dubbed Asian cinema while other dialog seems much more natural but I think this is mostly due to the translators attempting to convey different styles of Japanese conversation in English. In any case, for me the dialog only highlighted the feeling of being immersed in Japanese culture.
One element of style or content that might be a bit controversial for some readers is the use of graphic sex scenes which include scenes of serious passion, scenes of raw lust, and some weird sex scenes that are more than a little creepy. There is also occasional graphic violence which only reinforces that this is not a novel for youngsters. I would guess that the strong sex and violence content is viewed a bit differently through the cultural lens of Japan.
I was a little bit worried that 1Q84 might contain too much fantasy elements for my taste but this was not an issue as the fantastic elements of the story do not overpower the strength of the story or the characters who are solidly realistic. On the other hand, fantastic elements are responsible for some of the largest mysteries of the novel and you shouldn’t count on any logical explanations.
1Q84 provides a unique reading experience and has just about everything I like best in a novel. It contains high quality writing with engaging characters, intriguing mysteries, tense psychological drama, a convincing love story, and intense scenes of sex and violence. It completely draws the reader into a fascinating world and keeps the reader engaged with high tension. It also provides an intriguing look into another culture. For adults looking for a highly enjoyable reading experience that contains a tremendous mixture of mystery, action, and thinking, I can’t recommend 1Q84 highly enough.