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Book Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

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1Q84, Haruki Murakami’s oft praised and just as often panned epic, is now available in a three volume paperback set from Vintage Press. To be clear from the start, I come not to praise; I come not to pan. I come to do both. 1Q84 is the kind of book that must inevitably generate controversy. But before taking a look at what the book is about, let’s discuss length.

Back in the day, a professor of mine suggested a simple rule of thumb with regard to making critical judgments about extra long works of literature: is the reward the reader gets, worth the time and effort the reader has to put in to read it. He was talking about James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book he felt clearly offered riches worth not only hours of reading but hours of study as well. Murakami’s three volumes run to 1,157 pages in this new edition. It creates a fictional world that can be fascinating at times. It tells a story that can catch readers up in its tentacles and even get them turning pages to see what happens next. It has a resolution that will satisfy some, and leave others scratching their heads. Clearly whether it was worth the time and effort will vary with the individual reader. Be warned before you embark; 1Q84 is no Ulysses.

The narrative in the first two volumes follows the fortunes of two characters seemingly unconnected. Aomame is a 30 year old woman who works as a fitness instructor and personal trainer. She is involved with a safe house for battered women run by a rich dowager and her personal security aide. Tengo is a 30 year old math teacher and writer who gets himself involved in ghost writing a story originally written by a 17 year old girl who has run off from a religious cult. In the third volume, a third narrative point of view is added, that of an older agent from the cult, a somewhat shady character who had been introduced in the second volume. Chapters alternate between Aomame and Tengo in the first two volumes, and between the three in the last.

The novel begins in the fall of 1984 when Aomame, in a taxi rushing to an important appointment gets caught in a traffic jam on a highway. The driver tells her about an emergency stairway she can use to get off the road while making some cryptic remarks about the nature of reality, remarks that turn out to be central to the metaphysics of the novel. Aomame descends the staircase and eventually discovers she is in a world that seems like real world, but is not. She is sure about it when she discovers that in this world there are two moons. The ‘Q’ in the novel’s title means questionable. It is no longer 1984; it is a new world, a questionable replica. The rest of the novel takes place in this replica. The significance of this particular year with its allusion to the George Orwell novel suggests the dystopian nature of the questionable world.

Part fantasy science fiction, part noir crime story—the novel deals with religious cults, murder, and little people with magical powers that emerge from the mouth of a dead goat. It is a story told with intriguing simplicity. Murakami manages to spin off some weird scenarios with enough verisimilitude and emotional investment in the characters to keep readers happy. Add to the complexities of plot a bit of mystical speculation about the nature of reality and you have a tale that many will find enthralling. If nothing else he can tell a story.

Somewhere in the middle of the novel, Tengo picks up a book of stories to read while traveling on a train. He reads a story about a city of cats. A man gets off a train and finds an empty town. Intrigued, he begins to explore as the train leaves. No other train due until the next day, he continues to explore. When night comes, the town begins to fill with cats, cats that seem to act the way ordinary human inhabitants would. Morning approaches and they disappear. The narrator stays around for a few days and then when he decides to leave, he discovers he’s stuck there. Once Tengo reads the story, the city of cats becomes a theme that runs through the rest of the novel. In a sense it is a metaphor for 1Q84, just as they narrator in the story is stuck in the city of cats, Aomame and Tengo, it seems, are stuck in IQ84.

If like me, you are able to accept the strange world that Alice enters when she falls into the rabbit hole, more than likely you’ll find the journey through Murakami’s three volumes more than worth your time. Although you may find yourself less enthusiastic about the journey’s end. If speculative fantasy turns you off, don’t bother with 1Q84, you’d probably do better with some other three volume tome.

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About Jack Goodstein