1Q84

Title: 1Q84
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上 春樹)
Translators: Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2011 (America); 2009-2010 (Japan)
Publisher: Knopf
Pages: 944

This review contains mild spoilers. Some might argue that warning for spoilers is missing the point, but I think that gradually figuring out what’s going on in this novel is one of the main pleasures of reading it. With that in mind, allow me to summarize the conclusion of my review for anyone trying to decide whether or not to start reading: 1Q84 is an engrossing book, and you more than likely won’t be able to separate yourself from it once you begin. It might be a good idea to save it for when you anticipate having lots of time on your hands. However, if you’ve read Murakami’s work before and don’t particularly like it, this book won’t turn you into a fan. The novel contains several graphic depictions of rape and child abuse. If you imagine that such descriptions might function as triggers, consider yourself warned for both the novel and this review.

IQ84 is about Kawana Tengo, a would-be writer who pays the bills by working as a math teacher at a cram school, and Aomame Masami, a semi-professional assassin who pays the bills by working as a personal trainer at a private gym. Tengo’s story kicks off when his literary agent, an eccentric editor named Komatsu Yuji, drafts him into rewriting a fantasy novella called “Air Chrysalis” written by a seventeen-year-old named Fukada Eriko. Fuka-Eri, as she calls herself, is a beautiful yet incommunicative girl who claims to have actually experienced the things she’s written about. When Tengo meets Fuka-Eri’s guardian, a retired academic named Ebisuno, the man explains that the girl’s biological father had founded a politically radical farming commune called Sakigake that has since reshaped itself into a religious compound closed to the outside world. Unfortunately for Tengo, when Fuka-Eri’s novella is published and becomes a bestseller, Sakigake takes notice. Meanwhile, Aomame works with an older woman referred to as “the Dowager,” who runs a battered women’s shelter called The Willow House. When no other recourse can free the women who take refuge there, the Dowager calls on Aomame to assassinate the men who have made their lives hell. The Dowager ends up rescuing a girl who has been horribly abused by the leader of Sakigake, and she requests that Aomame perform a job so dangerous that it may well be her last – the assassination of this powerful religious figure.

Alternate chapters are told from Aomame and Tengo’s perspectives, and their stories gradually become interwoven even though they never meet or interact with each other. They knew each other briefly as children, however, and it turns out that their bond runs deeper than mere casual coincidence. As the novel progresses, other characters with connections to Aomane and Tengo are introduced, such as Tengo’s strict and conservative father, Aomame’s gentle but romantically unlucky childhood friend Yasuda Kyoko, the Dowager’s personal bodyguard Tamaru Kenichi, an under-the-law private investigator named Ushikawa Toshiharu, and a diabolically relentless NHK fee collector. All of these secondary characters are interesting enough to be the protagonists of their own novels, and their stories and conflicts and motivations are just as engaging as those of Tengo and Aomame.

The novel is divided into three books, which are each characterized by distinctive plot developments and themes.

In the first book, Tengo meets Fuka-Eri. As he edits her novella, he learns more about and is drawn into the strange world she represents. Meanwhile, Aomame accidentally travels from 1984 into an alternate reality (in which two moons hang in the sky) that she calls 1Q84. As she attempts to figure out what happened to her, the reader learns about her daily life and her relationship with the Dowager. This first book is overtly political in its attitude concerning such issues as protest movements, new religions, publicly sanctioned sexism, and the business of literary publishing.

In the second book, both Tengo and Aomame are plunged headlong into the strange business with the Sakigake group. Even as the two characters are thrust forward into an uncertain future, the reader learns more about their pasts and the experiences they had as children. The second book seems primarily concerned with the unknowability of large swaths of reality and the challenges facing moral judgment and action in the face of absurdity. In my mind, this was the most “Murakami-esque” section of the book in that it revisited many of the themes and narrative devices present in the writer’s earlier work.

The third book concerns the aftermath of Aomame’s involvement in the Sakigake affair. Aomame has gone into hiding, and Tengo leaves Tokyo to tend to his catatonic father. Despite their adverse circumstances, the two have begun searching for each other. A chillingly aggressive NHK fee collector threatens Tengo’s neighborhood, and the private investigator Ushikawa stakes out Tengo’s apartment as Fuka-Eri comes and goes. The themes of the third book are fate and love or, more appropriately, the denial of coincidence and the belief that even the most tenuous bonds between people can be extraordinarily powerful. Because of its sentimentality, and because of the way in which the multiple pieces of the complicated plot all begin to fit together, I almost felt as if I were reading a Stephen King novel at certain points towards the end of 1Q84.

“Reading a Stephen King” novel is not necessarily a bad thing, however. One of the aspects of King’s writing that I admire most is his ability to get into the heads of even the most loathsome characters, and one of the most surprising and interesting developments of the third book is that the reader is now offered chapters from Ushikawa’s perspective. While Tengo and Aomame are being irrationally idealistic and swooning over their memories of each other, Ushikawa adds humor, realism, and a sense of tragedy to the novel’s conclusion. As he describes himself:

Maybe I am just an ugly, middle-aged, outdated man, Ushikawa thought. Nope, no maybes about it. I am, without a doubt, one ugly, middle-aged, outdated man. But I do have a couple of talents nobody else has. And as long as I have these talents, no matter what weird world I find myself in, I’ll survive.

But will he really survive if the happiness of the protagonists depends on him not surviving? Ushikawa keeps the novel from becoming too cut-and-dry towards its inevitable conclusion, and I felt that his sections allowed the reader to see the world of 1Q84 from the perspective of a true outsider.

Although 1Q84 is set in a time when most people went about their lives without knowing that computers existed, the novel clearly reflects the concerns of the digital age. Like George Orwell’s 1984, 1Q84 handles issues of identity formation and information control in a world that is unstable and confusing under its placid surface. Cult leaders, lines of power, rapidly shifting worldviews, and the creation and co-existence of multiple histories all factor into the novel, which ultimately questions what sort of agency an individual can have in an environment silently controlled by invisible systems. The subjective viewpoints of Aomame, Tengo, and Ushikawa allow the reader to approach this problem from different angles, and Murakami himself never seems to align his novel with any one political or philosophical perspective. Like Orwell, Murakami also exploits the dark humor implicit in any dystopian situation. For example, the NHK fee collector, who might be seen as a direct allegorical representative of Japanese postwar social control, is just as comic as he is frightening. When he positions himself outside of a victim’s door and starts ranting, his diatribes are gleefully malicious:

“Miss Takai, let’s not play hide and seek anymore, okay? I’m not doing this because I like to. Even I have a busy schedule. Miss Takai, I know you watch TV. And everyone who watches TV, without exception, has to pay the NHK subscription fee. You may not like it, but that’s the law. Not paying the fee is the same as stealing, Miss Takai, you don’t want to be treated as a thief because of something as petty as this, do you? This is a fancy building you live in, and I don’t think you will have any trouble paying the fee. Right? Hearing me proclaim this to the world can’t be much fun for you.”

And so on, and so on and so on, for pages. This character frightens and upsets the characters whenever he appears; but, as a reader, I couldn’t wait for him to show up again. Since he appears so often and at such length, I get the feeling that Murakami enjoyed writing the character as much as I enjoyed reading him.

Like most Murakami novels, 1Q84 is fairly dude-centric. The Aomame chapters alleviate the dudeliness to a certain extent; but, as Aomame is almost continually thinking about how in love with Tengo she is, the sex she wants to have with random men, and the sex she has had with other women, it’s difficult to completely separate her from her role as a female sex object and the object of Tengo’s sexual energy. Aomame may be a hard-boiled ninja assassin, but the reader is constantly reminded that she has a vagina. Then again, we hear a great deal about Tengo’s penis and scrotum, so the repeated descriptions of Aomame’s breasts and public hair may simply be par for the course in 1Q84. This is not to say that Aomame isn’t a fascinating character, but the way the author treats her is markedly different than the way he treats the Dowager (who is old, and thus not a sexual being) and Tamaru (who is gay, and thus not a sexual being).

1Q84 contains descriptions of underage rape and incest, which the text pardons and eroticizes. When Aomame is alone with the Leader of Sakigake, who is clearly guilty of child abuse, it turns out that he is not such a bad guy after all. Furthermore, he explains that, due to the workings of mysterious otherworldly beings known as “the Little People,” his body is sometimes completely paralyzed, at which point the pre-pubescent girls who attend him have sex with him. He can’t move or speak during these times; he can only ejaculate. The sexual activity is spiritual, and it is initiated by the girls. When he penetrated his ten-year-old daughter, the same thing happened: she had sex with him, and the bodies of both parties were controlled by the Little People. The reader finds out several chapters later that he is not lying, as an event occurs in which Tengo finds himself physically paralyzed and, as part of some ritual, mounted by Fuka-Eri (who at seventeen has never had her period and never developed sexually or mentally).

I’m not upset by the deviant sexual lives of fictional characters, and this is one of the more interesting and original plot devices I’ve encountered in serious literary fiction (although I can’t claim to have never seen it before in fan fiction). Still, I found the erotic descriptions of the young girls in question to be off-putting. For example, Tengo thinks Fuka-Eri’s hairless vagina is so beautiful and her lovely ears look just like her vagina and, as he thinks about the flat-chested ten-year-old Aomame while having sex with the childlike Fuka-Eri, he comes so hard and feels so good. It’s kind of gross.

There is a fair amount of sex and sexuality in 1Q84, and these themes are narrated from a perspective that is subtly yet undeniably male. To draw a parallel with a series I happened to be reading at the same time as 1Q84, in A Song of Fire and Ice, the narrative tone changes when the author switches between the perspectives of different characters. In 1Q84, it absolutely does not. The limited third-person narrator of the novel is definitely a heterosexual man, and this does not change when he narrates the story from the perspective of a female character or describes the rape of a young girl. However, I don’t think this type of narration ruins the story, and it’s quite interesting when accepted for what it is.

Issues of sex and gender aside, there’s a lot going on in this novel. The descriptions of Tokyo are wonderful. The descriptions of the suburbs and countryside surrounding Tokyo are also wonderful. The secondary characters are sympathetic and vividly portrayed. I loved Komatsu, and Ushikawa, and Professor Ebisuno, and Aomame’s friends Tamaki and Ayumi. The Dowager and Tamaru are a novel unto themselves. The allusions and parallels to political revolutionaries and religious cults in postwar and contemporary Japan are striking. The novel’s challenge to conventional notions of reality are intriguing. The connections between Murakami’s 1Q84 and Orwell’s 1984 (and in particular the transformation of “Big Brother” into “the Little People”) are fascinating.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, if you’re not a fan of Murakami’s writing, 1Q84 won’t change your opinion. The Murakami tropes established by his earlier novels – disappearing women, unsolvable mysteries, perpetually loose plot threads, passive protagonists, close descriptions of genitalia, endless references to jazz records, men cooking alone in sad bachelor kitchens – all appear in force in this novel, which is more of the same, except further up and further in.

If you haven’t read 1Q84 yet, then you definitely have something to look forward to. It’s an incredible novel that will give you the sort of reading experience that the word “spellbound” was created for. This a book that will make you wish your two-hour jog on the treadmill, your fourteen-hour plane ride, or your week-long illness were actually longer. Since 1Q84 will consume your life until you’re done with it, it might be good to save it for an occasion when you can take some time off so that real life doesn’t get in the way of this book.

By the way, the cover image I used for this review was designed by Cory Schmitz.

11 thoughts on “1Q84

  1. Kathryn says:

    I apologize, but I can’t resist adding a little gender-related criticism of the novel. It seemed mean-spirited to disrupt the flow of the main review in order to continue expatiating on the phallocentric narrative perspective, so I will put one of my snarkier observations in an endnote.

    When I said that Murakami waxes political about the business of literary publishing in the first book, what I meant is that he sets himself up as a literary martyr fighting The Establishment. It’s like his short story “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes” (the moral of which is “literary criticism is bullshit”), except taken to an even higher level of vindictiveness.

    For example, this is what the editor and literary agent Komatsu says to Tengo regarding the risks of publishing a rewritten version of Fuka-Eri’s novel:

    I’d be glad to leave the company. Management doesn’t like me, and they’ve never treated me decently. Finding another jib would be no problem for me. Besides, I wouldn’t be doing it for money. I’d be doing it to screw the literary world. Those bastards all huddle together in their gloomy cave and kiss each other’s asses, and lick each other’s wounds, and trip each other up, all while spewing this pompous crap about the mission of literature. I want to have a good laugh at their expense. I want to outwit the system and make idiots out of the whole bunch of them. Doesn’t that sound like fun to you?

    Much later on in the book, Tengo tells Fuka-Eri a story about Chekov during one of the many instances in which the pair talks about one thing by talking about something else:

    “Chekov felt uncomfortable living as a literary star in the city. He was fed up with the atmosphere of the literary world and was put off by the affectations of other writers, who were mainly interested in tripping each other up. He was disgusted by the malicious critics of the day. His journey to Sakhalin may have been an act of pilgrimage designed to cleanse him of such literary impurities.”

    There are a number of passages like this throughout the novel, and every time I encountered one I wanted to be like OKAY MURAKAMI WE GET IT.

    Even a casual reader can tell that Murakami is writing Literature, however, since he repeatedly uses one of the oldest literary devices in recorded history, namely, taking a psychologically complex female character and reducing her to her body.

    For example, this is one of the earliest descriptions of Fuka-Eri in the novel:

    Fuka-Eri was a small girl, small all over, and her face was more beautiful than in the pictures. Her most attractive facial feature was her deep, striking eyes. Under the gaze of two glistening, pitch-black pupils, Tengo felt uncomfortable. She hardly blinked and seemed almost not to be someone who had drawn each individual strand with a ruler, and the shape of her eyebrows matched the hair perfectly. As with many beautiful teenage girls, her expression lacked any trace of everyday life. It was also strangely unbalanced – perhaps because there was a slight difference in the depth of the left and right eyes – causing discomfort in the recipient of her gaze. You couldn’t tell what she was thinking. In that sense, she was not the kind of beautiful girl who becomes a model or a pop star. Rather, she had something about her that aroused people and drew them toward her.

    And this is Tengo’s attitude towards Fuka-Eri towards the end of the novel:

    Still, Fuka-Eri was hiding a secret, a critical code hidden away inside this lovely girl, a code he had to crack.

    So he cracks her with his penis.

    And in the process somehow impregnates Aomame through MAGIC.

    Yay literature!

  2. Did the English version get a serious editing job? I read this in Japanese, and found it to be unbearably redundant, to the point where the wordiness and Murakami’s obvious unwillingness to trust his readers detracted from any other pleasure I might have gotten from the story or the more well-written, well-edited passages. Not to mention the many problems I had with every woman, except possibly the Dowager (although I feel like there are passages which discuss her body, in particular during her workouts with Aomame) in the story being reduced to “boobs!”. For me, 1Q84 had the underpinnings of an interesting story that could really have been polished up into something fascinating and beautiful under the hand of a good editor, but which sadly did not get that treatment.

    • Kathryn says:

      That’s an interesting question. When I tried to read this monster in Japanese, I only made it though about two hundred pages of the first book, and that was several years ago. The two translators and their editor are world-class, though, so I would imagine that they were able to make certain passages flow more smoothly. My completely subjective and unsubstantiated opinion is that the translation of Murakami’s prose feels slightly less juvenile than the original Japanese (probably because a lot of the slang is translated away). That being said, there are still many passages in the translation that essentially read like “boobs boobs boobs pubic hair boobs boobs ear fetish boobs.”

      As a lifelong reader and writer, I strongly believe that just about everything can be improved by editing cuts. It doesn’t matter whether it’s War and Peace or The Stand; once a novel starts creeping above 800 pages, I begin to question whether all the verbiage is strictly necessary. I absolutely agree with you that 1Q84 could have been polished into a much stronger work. I think a good place to start would have been to cut about 80% of the passages describing Aomame and Tengo pining for each other. It’s like, okay, we get it, you don’t need to keep reminding us.

      I genuinely enjoyed reading the book, so I feel a bit guilty when I complain about these things. Since the reviews I’ve read have tended to be overwhelming positive, however, I feel like someone should say something. I’m really, really looking forward to reading your reviews and comments.

      • The translators and editor are definitely world-class, to the point where I considered reading the English just so I could see what they did with it. I think you’re right about Murakami feeling less juvenile in English, which always makes me wonder how much of what I’ve liked about him in the past is the translator and how much is actually the man.

        Either way, I am with you on the editing. I think it does sometimes take that many pages to tell a story, but you need to be keeping a careful eye on it and getting rid of anything extraneous. “I get it already!” was my chant while reading 1Q84.

        I enjoyed the book to a certain extent, but its many flaws just sunk it for me. And most of the reviews I’ve read have had a “yes, but” kind of quality to them, like the reviewer would like to acknowledge those flaws, but it’s Murakami! For a well-written review that is not positive, but not the grumbling that I do about the book, check out the London Review of Books’ take.

        • Kathryn says:

          Thank you for the link! This passage especially was made of gold:

          As for Aomame, though it’s perhaps fair enough, in a novel themed around fantasy, for the female lead to be a part-time assassin in a designer suit who only kills abusive husbands, making her ‘an invincible sex machine’ might be asking too much. Her obsession with breasts exceeds even the narrator’s: remembering a friend, dead by suicide, with whom she had a lesbian experience as a schoolgirl, she’s pierced by the thought of ‘those beautiful breasts … gone forever’.

  3. Tony says:

    I think you are a lot more positive about this than many people – in fact, there’s been a bit of a Murakami backlash on the blogosphere! I am a huge Murakami fan, and I liked it a lot, but I can see a lot of flaws, and it’s not going to win any prizes. And yes, it was a bit soft-porn…

    If you’re interested, my (multiple!) takes on the novel can be seen here:

    http://tonysreadinglist.blogspot.com.au/search/label/1Q84

    Three very stupid posts, followed by three relatively more sensible ones ;)

    • Kathryn says:

      Thank you for the link! I really appreciate it, and I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts.

      Perhaps because I didn’t go out looking for this sort of indie review, in my mind, criticism of the novel suffered from what I’m going to call the “Amazon syndrome,” which is when positive reviews are lengthy, intelligent, and well written, while negative reviews are short, poorly organized, and poorly edited. (One might also call this the “Goodreads syndrome,” which might actually be more appropriate.) If nothing else, professional book reviewers (in the United States at least) seemed to have been tripping over their own feet in a rush to praise the novel as much as possible. When the book first came out in translation, the number of positive reviews was overwhelming.

      For what it’s worth, the reception in Japan seems to have been a bit more balanced. There is a good collection of links to book reviews on the Japanese Wikipedia page for the novel, if you’re interested…

  4. Tony says:

    I think the initial rush of positive comments gradually became a stream of negative reviews, partly to counter the initial over-praising of the novel! This has had the effect of actually persuading many readers in the English-speaking world to be wary of trying it – although that also has to do with the length ;)

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