Guest review: Andrew Wrathall on 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Harvill Secker, 2011
(hardcover, ebook: books 1 & 2book 3

by Andrew Wrathall

Aomame is warned: ‘Things are not what they seem,’ before she leaves a taxi on a backed-up freeway in Japan and walks down an emergency stairway, which causes her to slip out of 1984 and into the alternate reality of 1Q84. Aomame is a gym instructor, who has lived alone since leaving her family of doomsday proselytizers as a girl. She is also contracted to kill the husbands of women who’ve escaped domestic violence.

There’s also Tengo, a mathematics teacher at a cram school, whose love for literature leads him on a dubious path as a ghostwriter. While reading manuscripts for a literary award, Tengo is intrigued by the story Air Chrysalis, written by a strange young girl called Fuka-Eri. When asked to rewrite the story, the offer is far too compelling to turn down. The rewritten book wins the literary award and becomes a bestseller, with the media lapping-up the story of Fuka-Eri as a gifted 17-year-old emerging writer.

Fuka-Eri’s story is about mysterious beings known only as the Little People, who enter the world through the mouth of a dead goat. The metaphysical Little People are a manipulative entity with an unknown agenda and originally exist as fiction within Fuka-Eri’s novel, then later appear within the world of 1Q84.

Murakami’s idea of the Little People, as an invisible and malevolent controlling force, is juxtaposed against the idea of Big Brother from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, as the totalitarian force that causes people to rewrite history so often that they forget which history is the true history. One character says that upon arriving at the year 1984, ‘There’s no longer any place for a Big Brother in this real world of ours,’ because Big Brother would be too obvious to people since the concept is universal. The Little People, however, are unheard of, and can easily remain hidden.

The characters identify the world as an alternate reality by the change in news stories which places the cult of Sagikake into the world, and by the appearance of two moons—a large one and a smaller moss-green one.

The three-part book is an epic 925 pages and is a slow-going read, but rewards the reader with richly painted scenes that border between the real and surreal. At times Murakami’s fantasy elements can seem incomprehensible, but readers should allow the narrative to unfold rather than attempt to decrypt the fantasy. Readers may question whether the original Japanese had other meanings, but certainly the prose in the translation (by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel) is flawless.

The story contains an adolescent connection between the main characters that drives the plot as a love story. There are sexual depictions that tread the line between erotic and disturbing. While Aomame is a tough and highly sexual character, she can easily be seen as an action hero born of male fantasy.

The narrative contains stories within stories, which inwardly explain the direction of the plot, then outwardly and self-reflexively reveal the motives of Murakami in writing the narrative. For example, Tengo explains why he thinks Anton Chekhov went to Sakhalin Island in Japan, as though Murakami were explaining why he created the world of 1Q84.

Murakami most likely bases Tengo on himself. Aomame at one point says, ‘Are you telling me that I was transported to this other world of 1Q84 by Tengo’s storytelling ability […] ?’, which can be viewed as a metafictional reference to the author.

In reference to Air Chrysalis the story reads, ‘Her readers followed along, very naturally adopting her point of view, and before they knew it, they were in another world—a world that was not this world,’ which could refer to the readers of 1Q84.

Murakami also seems like he is mocking the literary community when he writes sentences like, ‘More than a few of the reviewers seemed perplexed by—or simply undecided about—the meaning of the air chrysalis and the Little People […] “we are left in a pool of mysterious question marks. This may well be the author’s intention”.’

There are few references to Japanese ideas within the book, but very many Western references, which may be designed to appeal to Murakami’s Western audience. 1Q84 does appeal to a wide audience, but the fantasy may scare some mainstream readers away.

Andrew Wrathall is publishing assistant at Bookseller+Publisher and enjoys a quick trip to fantasy-land via the pages of a book before bed.

7 thoughts on “Guest review: Andrew Wrathall on 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

  1. What a strange sounding story! and wow, 900+ pages? Maybe it feels a little like Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, where there is an overarching plot-driven story, but lots and lots of little stories and such?

  2. I have just finished 1Q84 after a month of reading as my first Kindle book! Glad I didn’t have to haul around 900 pages on the train each day! I feel like I have emerged from a surreal fog, a little confused, and a little dreamy but overall very satisfied with Murakami’s latest offering. I found myself looking I wonder how long it took him to write it – it’s incredibly detailed but not densely written – I always find his books disarmingly easy to ready but rich in layers of meaning which is why I keep going back for more!

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