Those of us who know what to listen for start any Haruki Murakami book the same way, with our ears pricked for it—the rich, ineffable, operative it, that semi-transcendent metaphysical scenario at the source of so many of his stories, the thing for him that makes things happen—and 1Q84 is 925 pages of it. The word ambitious appears all over the marketing copy, and it’s no exaggeration; never before has the author committed so persistently to building and exploring the images that haunt his body of work, and to omitting anything in the way. Despite its length, or because of it, the book becomes an essential and deeply personal experience, dependent on a curated worldview and surprisingly telling. There is little build-up here, and hardly any reflection, and the result, though not always artful, is certainly the most immersive it Murakami has written.
The book opens in the middle of a traffic jam in the year 1984, but it’s only a matter of pages before Aomame, one of two main characters, leaps out of her cab in frustration and unknowingly into a slightly alternate world she later comes to know as 1Q84. Tengo, the male half of the book, similarly enters into this new world after agreeing to ghostwrite a novel conceived by a spooky teenage girl with an occult background. Though they live particularly different lives, one constantly on the run, one as routined as a housecat, the two of them navigate the busy world of 1Q84 in each other’s direction, beneath the gaze of religious factions, hired watchmen, NHK fee collectors, and a sky with a second moon, misshapen and greenish and off to the side. Not exactly parallel but not quite the same, the possibility of overlapping worlds hovers at their every turn, and the occasional discovery of these overlaps creates the friction for the book’s ecstatic moments, of which there are many. It’s familiar territory for Murakami, a menacing infrastructure in which the threat of lasting isolation propels disparate characters in search of connection, but the thrill of following his career is less in the repeated establishment of these elements than in finding out what happens next.
The word ambitious appears all over the marketing copy, and it’s no exaggeration; never before has the author committed so persistently to building and exploring the images that haunt his body of work, and to omitting anything in the way.
Despite this familiarity, 1Q84 stands out as a bold and stark novel next to Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the two other Murakami books against which it will most likely draw comparison. The great emptying The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’s protagonist comes to is a disassociation of identity, stuck at the bottom of a well after leaving his job and losing his marriage, and his return to the surface world arrives courtesy of a “prostitute of the mind” who specializes in connecting with clients beyond the confines of their bodies. The protagonist of Kafka on the Shore further extends this exploration, beginning the novel with a disassociated identity he continually forlorns about; like the prostitute, he too touches another character despite being miles apart, but in his case the stain he washes off his clothing afterward didn’t come from his own body. Doing away with formalities and offering only a cursory attempt at context, 1Q84 takes for granted that the individual self has no identity, and assumes that worlds can be traversed and selves can connect with even mundane apparatuses (descending a stairwell, or entering a vacant hospital room), and the consequences of those encounters are here nothing if not real and bodily.
The focus in 1Q84 is so clearly on better understanding the bending points and limitations of Murakami systems that it can be read as a sort of mission statement, or, more practically, a text on writing. Though a number of Murakami’s other books feature authors and discussions of favorite books, this is the first one whose own story unfolds as a result of the act of writing. Appropriately, the author in question is a divided entity: Fuka-Eri, a beautiful girl who recalls a childhood memory on the remote property of the cult Sakigake, involving her being locked in a room with a dead goat and a vision of creatures emerging from its mouth, and Tengo, who volunteers to rewrite the story despite his own better judgment. As such, the act of writing becomes a two-fold process made up of recollection and clarification—the part of the brain responsible for transcribing in as accurate a manner as possible the truth of how a story appears to oneself and the part responsible for the more workmanlike task of shaping it into something with the potential to impart its initial effect on others. In Murakami’s work, the relationship between the two is murky and not always so clear, but whenever Tengo isn’t sure what something in their joint effort means, he simply defers to Fuka-Eri’s descriptions. This may explain why readers will probably leave 1Q84 wondering what exactly an “air chrysalis” is, despite its importance to the story, despite the range of characters involved in its creation, and despite the author’s numerous attempts to describe it.
Late in the book, Tengo is cryptically told, “If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation.” It’s less a didacticism than a sad kind of fact that all of the characters, and probably anyone who’s read anything by Murakami, will have to come up against at some point—that what once seemed to hold fast no longer does, and that the essential mystery at the heart of this disconnect can’t be beaten by logic. As the characters of 1Q84 spend their nights with their necks tilted, searching for meaning in the dark new sky, the things of this world fall to the side, including the words that built them, and what remains through the book’s adventures and tragedies is the image of two hands, small and persistent under the cold green light of the two moons.
Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 was released on October 25 by Knopf. To purchase it, click here.