Review published on April 10, 2012. Reviewed by Brendan Wright
At the heart of the novel is a simple love story, with its two main characters meeting briefly at school then parting for twenty years, but still holding a flame for each other. There are echoes in this premise of other Murakami short stories and novellas – South of the Border, West of the Sun for example – where he has previously posed the question of what would happen if two people loved each other but were pushed apart by forces beyond their control. The answer to this question in 1Q84 is never in doubt, but it is the diversions and sidesteps that mark the 1000 page journey and lift this above a standard love story.
Tengo, like many of Murakami’s protagonists, is an ordinary guy, almost 30, and teaching Maths in a private cram school several days a week, while writing stories and novels in his free time. He lives alone in a sparsely furnished apartment, seeing his girlfriend, an older married woman, once a week, but is satisfied with his life. Aomame is a fitness instructor, teaching classes and taking private sessions with rich clients, one in particular known only as the Dowager, with whom Aomame forms a strong personal and professional relationship that brings a different side to her character. These two provide the narrative for the tale, telling their stories in alternate chapters. This is broken only in the third volume, where another character is introduced as a narrative voice.
As with all of his novels, there is an obvious soundtrack running throughout the novel. Lines from ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’ give the leitmotif for the story:
It’s a Barnum and Bailey world,
Just as phony as it can be,
But it wouldn’t be make-believe
If you believed in me.
Things are not what they seem, a taxi driver tells Aomame, before she descends down the emergency staircase of the expressway. This action and phrase is what drives the novel, as the subtleties of the world Aomame find herself inhabiting – which she terms ‘1Q84’ – slowly reveal themselves. This is a novel that challenges the concept of what is normal, using a parallel world – the magical realism that Murakami is known for – to juxtapose two realities. In some respects it recalls Hard-boiled Wonderland and the end of the world, with its real- and shadow worlds, but 1Q84 differs in that almost all of the story takes place in this alternate world.
Many of the usual themes that Murakami deals with appear in the novel, such as love and loss, the passing of time. He also broaches the subject of cults, one which he first touched upon in Underground, his account of the Aum cults gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. There are several instances of this, with Tengo is convinced to edit a manuscript of a novel called Air Chrysalis, written by 17-year-old Fuka Eri. She is a runaway, having escaped from Sakegake, a self-sustaining community that has slowly built up its power and now heavily influences the local area and government. Through his involvement in ghost writing this novel, Tengo finds himself drawn into the sinister web of its workings, both followed and threatened by The Little People, around whom the community has been built. The two protagonists also have
At times this does not feel like a usual Murakami novel. The slightly off-kilter narrative is there, through the parallel realities, and all of the standard pop culture references and the leitmotis of cats, ears and food are there, but it still feels slightly alien. In part this is due to the third person narrative, rather than first person that is the normal fare of his novels. But it is also because there are moments where the writing seems too clever or intrusive – the constant references to material things – the brand names of the suits, the cars – is cutting and can jolt the reader out of the story, leaving them slightly uncomfortable and feeling as if the book is concerned with surface rather than depth. The elements of meta-text too, unavoidable with Tengo being a writer and discussing both his processes and the workings of the publishing industry, can seem too knowing, as if the author is trying to show how clever he can be. The book manipulates the reader, subtly hinting at where the story is going before twisting unexpectedly in a new direction. This is exciting and intriguing the first few times, but these diversions become slightly absurd and tangental as the story draws to a close, as Murakami tries to stall the inevitable conclusion.
It is a huge, sprawling novel, yet unusually for Murakami, at times it lacks drive. The first volume moves at a sedate pace, building up background for the two main protagonists, and positioning the story for the action to come. There is a slight jarring of the two translations too, from volume two to three, but on the whole it is a seamless transition. However, it feels that the novel is several hundred pages too long, with the ending telegraphed very early into the story. The various twists and turns hold this off, but when it comes around, it is more soppy than touching, and can leave the reader slightly disappointed. It seems somewhat like a ‘Hollywood’ ending, too obvious and easy. For those new to Murakami, the novellas or short stories would be a better place to start, providing the essence of the author in an assured and concise style, with his themes reduced to their purest form. Those who are more aware of the author’s oeuvre will find 1Q84 at times slightly bewildering and uncumbersome; while there is a much to enjoy, it doesn’t quite have the impact of The Wind Up Bird Chronicles or Kafka on the Shore.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson