The moonlight wreaked havoc on her mind. It changed the tides in inlets, stirred up life in the woods.
— Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 pg. 176
1Q84 is a fictional novel published in three separate parts from 2009 to 2011. It's the work of acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami, written in Japanese and translated into English by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. The only other work of Murakami that I've ever read, or rather listened to, was an audiobook of his semi-biographical treatise on running called "What I talk about when I talk about running". It was a nice thing to listen to while running— a calm voice extolling upon the Zen-like benefits of long distance running. This audiobook certainly didn't prepare me for any of his works of fictional, but I had become interested in reading something of his recently, so I chose 1Q84. I found out later that 1Q84 is actually his latest novel; I'd assumed it was older because of how well-known it seemed to be. Murakami has been writing for over 30 years and is considered by many to be one of the greatest Japanese authors of all time. As such, he has garnered a world-wide following throughout his writing career.
It Was All a Dream
Reading 1Q84 felt like being transported into someone else's dream, but the dream was collectively shared and experienced by several people. It was certainly weird enough to be a dream, but I also think it hovered perfectly in that realm of almost having a deeper meaning that you can't really understand at the time. Vague symbolism and strange reoccurring events leave you with a sense that there is a message you can't see just yet, hidden within the story. I'm convinced that Murakami wanted to impart this dream-like feeling intentionally.
Despite the story's magical and imaginative theme, I found myself caring just as much about the characters' and their struggles as if they were rooted within our "familiar" world. I think this is a beautiful form of fiction that Murakami has developed—he explores very real themes and character driven stories that do not need to be bound to our reality in order to be effective.
Despite this, I don't think 1Q84 would fit well within the genre of "magical realism", which is a claim Murakami himself has refuted before. Instead, the magical and supernatural elements of the story are fully recognized as being so by the characters. When something extraordinary or abnormal happens to a character, they generally are just as confused and skeptical as the reader. But it appears to me that Murakami is a materialist and he believes in empirical reasoning, so the characters he created also share this philosophy—they accept the existence of two moons in the sky as being a component of reality, simply because they can observe them in the sky. I believe that the basis of reality is being challenged and questioned by Murakami in 1Q84. From the very first chapter, we are issued a warning from a mysterious taxi driver explaining to our protagonist, Aomame, the consequences of her decisions:
Things may look different to you than they did before. I’ve had that experience myself. But don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.
— Murakami, pg. 9
As fate would have it, things do look different to Aomame after she climbs down the interstate emergency staircase. Police officers wear different uniforms, important news events are talked about by others that Aomame cannot recall ever happening, and a second moon has appeared in the sky. Aomame doesn't know whether to trust the reality within her head or the one she finds herself in—it's hard to say which one is more trustworthy. Aomame, being the utilitarian she is, decides to simply demarcate the two realities with a naming convention. 1984 is the reality she remembers, and 1Q84 is the world she began to occupy once she climbed down the stairs. This prevents her having to fully believe in either:
1Q84—that’s what I’ll call this new world, Aomame decided. Q is for “question mark.” A world that bears a question. Aomame nodded to herself as she walked along.
Like it or not, I’m here now, in the year 1Q84. The 1984 that I knew no longer exists. It’s 1Q84 now. The air has changed, the scene has changed. I have to adapt to this world-with-a-question-mark as soon as I can. Like an animal released into a new forest. In order to protect myself and survive, I have to learn the rules of this place and adapt myself to them.
— Murakami, pg. 111
Despite Aomame's laissez-faire attitude towards this dramatic shift in her world, I think it's expected that readers would be curious about whether this alternate reality was "real" or imagined. Murakami, no doubt on purpose, never explicitly reveals this in the book. I believe that he considered this inconsequential to the story—maybe he wanted to illustrate how reality stems from the mind. Aomame needed the world of 1Q84 in order to reunite her with Tengo, the other protagonist, so the question of whether it exists is not important in aiding her towards her goal.
I found the experience of this book to be quite interesting. I believe Murakami wanted to draw the reader in to the story, including the fantastical parts, in such a way so that we may be convinced of the reality in the same way the characters are. In order to understand the story, the reader must suspend their disbelief and invest themselves in the outcome of the story, despite it taking place in a world with two moons and supernatural beings called "little people". This teaches us to accept the inherit strangeness of the world around us, whether it be within the pages of 1Q84 or the world we all co-inhabit. At one point in the story, Aomame is told of a cult leader who is apparently raping prepubescent girls. Aomame is a professional assassin, so this man is to become her next target. Walking home after learning about this next mission, Aomame is struck by a moment of introspection. She ponders how things so strange and terrible can exist in the world—and why they do, from an evolutionary standpoint:
Aomame kept thinking about the strangeness of the world. If, as the dowager had said, we are nothing but gene carriers, why do so many of us have to lead such strangely shaped lives? Wouldn't our genetic purpose—to transmit DNA—be served just as well if we lived simple lives, not bothering our heads with a lot of extraneous thoughts, devoted entirely to preserving life and procreating? Did it benefit the genes in any way for us to lead such intricately warped, even bizarre, lives? [...] how could it possibly profit the genes to have such people existing in this world? Did the genes merely enjoy such deformed episodes as colorful entertainment, or were these episodes utilized by them for some greater purpose?
Aomame didn't know the answers to these questions. All she knew was that it was too late to choose any other life for herself. All I can do is live the life I have. I can’t trade it in for a new one. However strange and misshapen it might be, this is it for the gene carrier that is me.
— Murakami, pg. 258
I thought this was some insightful commentary, and it enforces what I believe is a core lesson in 1Q84 which is acceptance of one's reality—no matter how strange or imperfect it is. The two protagonists in the story, Tengo and Aomame, are not striving simply to find each other, but also to find happiness within the lives they find themselves in. Tengo knows little about the circumstances of his early childhood, including what happened to his mother. This lack of foundation in his life affects his character greatly; he struggles to find motivation and he is unsure of his place in the world. Aomame was brought up by strict and dogmatic church-worshiping parents and as a result she focuses on every imperfection in her life and struggles to maintain a perfect order. However, there are intrinsic things about herself she cannot fix (including her breasts, which are two different sizes) and as such she doesn't ever feel truly happy.
1Q84 is a love story, technically, but it actually contains no romance or courtship. It's a pretty strange plot when looked at from a bird's eye view:
- boy meets girl
- girl holds boy's hand
- boy and girl don't see each other for 20 years but never forget that one moment
- boy and girl realize 20 years later that they must meet again to save their lives and restore reality.
Not exactly a stereotypical love story arc. Although the story is driven by Tengo and Aomame's goal of reuniting with each other, the overarching theme of 1Q84 is loneliness. Both Tengo and Aomame are very much alone in their own realities, unable to love or be loved. Ushikawa, the disliked and unattractive private investigator is so lonely that even his two young daughters have no desire to see him. Ushikawa is featured prominently in the book's third act in an effort to move the story along, but also for Murakami to sketch another portrait of loneliness and isolation. I actually enjoyed Ushikawa's storyline the most out of the entire book; he was a clever and self-aware character that lived a sad and poignant life. His eventual death at the hands of Tamaru was an especially powerful scene: the collision of two worlds that initiates the final climactic reuniting of Tengo and Aomame
I find it difficult to articulate any concrete lessons or ideas that 1Q84 imparted on me after reading it. I'm not sure I was supposed to either. By all accounts, it sounds like Murakami does not write with this intention, he simply wants to tell a good story. In a interview last year with The Guardian, Murakami balked at the idea that the elements of his stories need to be tied to explicit metaphorical meaning. He uses a scene from his novel Kafka on the Shore where fish begin to fall from the sky, as an example of this:
People ask me, ‘Why fish? And why are they falling from the sky?’ But I have no answer for them. I just got the idea that something should fall from the sky. Then I wondered: what should fall from the sky? And I said to myself: ‘Fish! Fish would be good. And you know, if that’s what comes to me, maybe there’s something right about that – something from the deep subconscious [that resonates with] the reader. So now the reader and I have a secret meeting place underground, a secret place in the subconscious. And in that place, maybe it’s absolutely right that fish should fall from the sky. It’s the meeting place that matters, not analyzing the symbolism or anything like that. I’ll leave that to the intellectuals.
I think this remark highlights an interesting question about what, if anything, fiction writing needs to accomplish. Does the quality of a work of fiction diminish if an author admits that they simply "wrote it without thinking"? Does its value actually change or is it just our perception of the book that changes? Moreover, I think the more important question is whether a story needs to say something in order to mean something. Does Murakami need to provide a metaphorical meaning to falling fish in Kafka on the Shore? Does he need to provide an explicit thesis about loneliness in 1Q84, or can he simply illustrate it and show us what it feels like?
1000 Pages of Solitude
My overall sentiment towards 1Q84 is a little mixed; I'm not sure whether I would recommend it to someone. On one hand, I enjoyed Murakami's writing and found it entertaining and clever. I think Murakami's writing style was what I enjoyed most about the book, which might be surprising since it is actually a translation. However, I read that Murakami's English translations are especially faithful to the original Japanese editions. This is because Murakami actually writes a lot of his work in English first, and then self-translates it to Japanese, so it generally lends itself well to accurate translations. Indeed, a common criticism of his Japanese writing is that it feels like a translation of an English novel. Either way, Murakami is known for this terse, straightforward prose that characterizes his writing.
Even the greatest, most captivating writing in the world cannot save a bad story; a 1000 page novel also needs a well structured plot that will keep the reader interested. The stories of Tengo and Aomame were both immersive and captivating in their own way—I was genuinely curious to find out what happened next. However I'm not sure the story really warranted its length. The pace was rather slow in certain sections and I felt like the story contained lots of repetition that didn't really add to the story in any significant way. Many of these events left several questions open that were never answered. I suppose some could be inferred or left open to the reader and I understand the value in that but it still left me with an unsatisfied feeling after. For example, I don't think Murakami left enough clues to infer why little people crawled out of Ushikawa's mouth, or why Tengo's mother and Aomame's friend Ayumi suffered a similar death, and if they were connected.
My other main gripe with the book was the ending itself. I think it was too neat and a little bit cheesy. If you asked most readers to guess the ending after reading the first 2/3 of the book, I believe most would be able to describe how 1Q84 ended. In other words, if this book is adapted into a movie someday then the end would already be Hollywood ready. It felt a little bit rushed, and the scale of the story should warrant a more fleshed out resolution, in my opinion. With all that said, it was definitely still worthwhile to finally experience the emotional and long-awaited reunion of Tengo and Aomame, after almost 1000 pages of building tension.