Thursday, March 21, 2013

Book Review: "1Q84" by Haruki Murakami

1Q84 (2011)
Haruki Murakami (1949)

Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel

932 pages

How strong are the ties that bind? Can a momentary encounter in childhood leave such a strong attraction between two people that many years later reality can literally be bent from its course in such a way as to bring them together? These are among the questions that Haruki Murakami raises in his novel 1Q84.

The story opens in the spring of 1984, as a young woman, Aomame, sits in the back of a taxi listening idly to the music from the radio as she heads into downtown Tokyo. When traffic jams up on an elevated section of an expressway, threatening to make her late for an important appointment, the driver surprises her with an unexpected option: climb down to the road below using an emergency ladder at a nearby turnout and continue on by subway. Once over her initial uncertainty Aomame abandons the cab and makes her way down the ladder to the street. Though she arrives on time to her appointment, over the subsequent days she begins to notice that the world has changed, in subtle but distinct ways, and that she has entered a new reality she eventually refers to as 1Q84.

Across town a young writer, Tengo, sits in a cafe talking with an editor-friend who tries to convince him to re-write a novel submitted to a writer’s contest by a teenage girl. Though they both find it a compelling story, they also agree that it suffers from the lack of writing experience of its young author. Though initially reluctant to take on the clearly unethical task of ghost re-writing the piece, Tengo is deeply drawn to the story the girl has told, and eventually agrees to work on it. When his completed revision not only wins the contest but is published and becomes an overnight success, Tengo too finds that the world has changed, in ways oddly related to and paralleling the story he has just re-written.

Though Aomame and Tengo experience this new world independently, each faces unexpected challenges from the slightly altered world which they have entered, each becoming enveloped in a deepening web of problems. Unable to understand what has occurred, and with no one to confide in --- for everyone else the world appears ‘normal’ --- they each struggle to fight back against the forces that have suddenly arisen against them.

Haruki Murakami has written other novels in which the main characters seem to inhabit a world ever so slightly outside the reality experienced by the balance of the people going on about their daily lives, such as in his earlier work After Dark. In 1Q84, however, he creates a world that clearly exists in the realm of science fiction, as the new reality includes the occasional appearance of beings less than a meter tall, and has two moons hovering in the sky. The science fiction aspects of the novel are central to the creation and existence of the altered reality, but at times they also feel like an awkward plot device that adds an unnecessary layer of complexity, distracting the reader more than enhancing the story.

At its heart though, this is a love story, revealing the connections between Aomame and Tengo, connections both physical and metaphysical, as the events that begin the process of re-uniting them straddle a nearly invisible line between apparent coincidence and fate.

The novel takes place over nine months, with chapters alternating between the points of view of Aomame and Tengo for the first two thirds of the book, until in the final section a new character enters the scene, one who unwitting acts as a kind of midwife for their relationship. Murakami develops the characters and their stories gently and unhurriedly; brief periods of drama alternate with longer sections of the characters reflecting on their lives as they struggle to make sense of the suddenly alternated reality. Through their reflections Murakami not only reveals how their childhoods led to the seemingly listless and generally disconnected lives they lead as the novel opens, but also the singular event that binds them together, if at first only imperceptibly. In a kind of variation on the idea of the one true love, Murakami seems to be telling us that such a connection can be so strong that it can bend reality to the purpose of allowing the bond to be completed.

Read quotes from this book

Other reviews / information:

The novel was originally published as three separate books.
The first and second books were translated by Jay Rubin.
The third book was translated by Philip Gabriel.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION