Author: Murakami Haruki (村上 春樹)
Translators: Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2011 (America); 2009-2010 (Japan)
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.