'1Q84': A magical journey to a parallel world

Haruki Murakami draws his readers into a world that is an entrancing mixture of the fantastic and the mundane.
Haruki Murakami draws his readers into a world that is an entrancing mixture of the fantastic and the mundane.
Posted: November 13, 2011

By Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel

Alfred A. Knopf. 925 pp. $30

Reviewed by Dan DeLuca
Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 is a love story and a detective story. It's a philosophical novel about the power of storytelling, the nature of reality, and the shifting balance of good and evil.

It's also about 1,000 pages long. OK, only 925, to be exact. The 62-year-old Japanese rock star of a writer's 12th novel is such a capacious, shaggy-dog story - it was published as three separate books in Japan - that it has plenty of room to explore the full range of Murakami's interests, from Sonny and Cher to Carl Jung and Charles Dickens to Steve McQueen.

The book is set in both 1984 and 1Q84, an alternate world - the "Q" stands for "question" - where two moons hang in the sky and leprechaunlike "Little People" emerge from a goat's mouth to make mischief in a world that may or may not be more "real" than their own.

1Q84 features an exploding dog, a stiletto-heeled vigilante who exacts revenge on abusive husbands, and a World War II veteran and retired public-television fee collector who is able to harass customers despite lying comatose in an old folks' home.

In other words, it's a Murakami novel, only more so. Like his previous epics, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore - which were published in English in 1997 and 2005 and seem small-scale and lacking in ambition in comparison - IQ84 is transporting in more ways than one.

Reading Murakami is an immersive experience. He takes you away, all right, enveloping the reader in a world where cult leaders have the power to make alarm clocks levitate and married girlfriends of aspiring young novelists talk about the virtues of jazz clarinetist Barney Bigard during vigorous afternoon sex sessions.

Murakami, a former jazz club owner who decided to become a novelist while at a baseball game in Tokyo in 1978, is highly skillful at drawing the reader into a world that is an entrancing mixture of the fantastic and the mundane.

1Q84 nods to George Orwell's 1984, but it is more concerned with its own not-quite-dystopian set of magic realist card tricks than pulling off a by-the-book literary homage.

Not that Murakami isn't keen to allude to his cultural heroes. His characters read and discuss Marcel Proust, Isak Dinesen, and the 13th-century samurai saga The Tale of the Heike. They listen to Bach and the Rolling Stones.

The key piece of music that weaves together the alternating-chapter tales of the protagonists - Aomame, the exercise-instructor assassin whose name means "green peas," and Tengo, the scribe who rewrites Air Chrysalis, 1Q84's novel within a novel, penned by a precocious 17-year-old girl named Fuka-Eri - is Czech composer Leos Janacek's 1926 Sinfonietta.

That's the music playing as the novel begins with Aomame stuck in traffic on an elevated Tokyo expressway. The petite, physically fit heroine - who, this being a Murakami novel, spends a lot of time thinking about the shape and size of her slightly disproportionate breasts - is in danger of being late for a contract killing.

So she gets out of the car and climbs down the emergency exit, keeping in mind the driver's warning that once she gets on the ground "the everyday look of things might seem to change a little. Things may look different to you than they did before."

So they do. There are subtle changes - the cut of a passing policeman's uniform looks strange, and he's carrying an automatic weapon instead of a revolver. When did that happen, she wonders? It's the first hint she has passed through a portal to the place where IQ84's often head-scratching but always involving action will take place.

For all of its unsettling otherworldliness, 1Q84 is grounded in quotidian detail. When a watchdog is blown to bits with no apparent cause, it doesn't evoke disbelief because the way the characters puzzle out the weirdness remains so relentlessly rational. The alt-Tokyo of Murakami's mind-blowing imagination is also filled with banal descriptions - of Aomame's stretching routine or Tengo's daily dinner preparations - that make the strange things happening every day believable.

1Q84 is expertly paced. It takes a while to be fully pulled in - particularly by the side of the story told through Aomame, a super-skilled killer and Dostoyevsky reader who is sexually attracted to balding middle-age men. That's a Murakami-by-way-of-Tarantino male fantasy figure for you.

But once the narrative begins to pick up, you have no desire to put the book down; 925 pages don't seem too many.

The power of fiction to create a world that transforms the "real" one around it is a principal 1Q84 theme. There are two moons in Air Chrysalis, and soon after the book is released, characters in 1Q84 start seeing a second orb, too. That includes Tengo, who suspects he's now living in the world he and Fuka-Eri created.

"Could this mean then - Tengo asked himself - that this is the world of the novel? Could I somehow have left the real world and entered the world of Air Chrysalis like Alice falling down the rabbit hole? Or could the real world have been made over to match exactly the world of Air Chrysalis?"

To read Murakami is to experience that transporting sensation. And just as Tengo's questions remain unanswered, so do the reader's. Just who are the Little People, and what do they signify? The heck if I know. And, more troubling, I'm guessing that Murakami, who eventually brings his opus to a satisfying conclusion but doesn't bother trying to tie up all the loose ends, hasn't worked it out, either.

In such ways, Murakami relies too much on improvised, enigmatic whimsy. It's fun while it lasts, but the "what's it's all mean?" of 1Q84 is nebulous at best.

Murakami, though, has a built-in answer for such criticism. Early on, we learn that Tengo was a child math prodigy. As he entered adolescence - and after reading Oliver Twist - he found himself less drawn to "the utterly safe hiding place" represented by mathematics. Instead, he felt himself being pulled into the "deep, magical . . . forest of story" in Dickens' fictional world.

When he returns, he knows he will never be armed with solutions to real-life problems, unlike when he found answers by applying lessons from the world of math. But that's OK by him - and his creator. The description of what coming back to the real world from an artfully fictitious one was like for Tengo would just as aptly apply to the reader who finishes off 1Q84 and reluctantly leaves Murakami-world behind.

"No matter how clear the relationship of things might become in the forest of story, there was never a clear cut solution," Tengo thought. "It was like a piece of paper bearing the indecipherable text of a magic spell. At times it lacked coherence and served no immediate practical purpose. But it would contain a possibility. Someday he might be able to decipher the spell. That possibility would gently warm his heart from within."

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, deluca@phillynews.com, or @delucadan on Twitter. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.

comments powered by Disqus