My rating: 5 of 5 stars
1Q84 (2009) by Haruki Murakami is a book you’ll probably only read once since the narrative consists of 1,157 pages (with additional extra pages before, between, and after sections the total page count comes to 1,184 pages, and doubtful this is a coincidence).
1Q84, however, was first published in three separate volumes by Shinchosha Publishing Co Ltd in Japan and finally as a complete book by Vintage Books in English in 2011 (Book One and Book Two were translated by Jay Rubin, and Book Three was translated by Philip Gabriel).
Book One and Book Two were published in Japan on May 29, 2009, and Book Three was published in Japan on April 16, 2010. By far, Book Three is the best of the three books for its close parallelism to the story of Macbeth, and resembles the closest thing (out of the three books) to high drama and to “Classic Murakami.”
Murakami does showcase his awareness and knowledge of Joseph Campbell by structuring 1Q84 according to Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” and Murakami further makes direct mention of Campbell’s mentor James G. Frazer when he has one character (the Leader, pg 555) speak about Frazer’s book, published in 1890, called The Golden Bough (a must read for any who are interested in mythology, actual history, storytelling, and/or Joseph Campbell’s “mythic-hero structure” made legendary in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949). Murakami also directly references Anton Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island (1893) and Out of Africa (1937) by Isak Dinesen (whose real name is Karen Blixen).
The general outline and organization of 1Q84 (which remains closer to Fantasy than it does to Science Fiction) includes 79 chapters throughout the three volumes. Book One (2009) includes the first 24 chapters and runs precisely from pages 3 to 387 for the months April to June; Book Two (2009) includes the next 24 chapters and runs from pages 391 to 739 for the months July to September; Book Three (2010) includes 31 chapters and runs from pages 743 to 1157 for the months October to December, and this section concludes the three volumes of 1Q84.
The cast for 1Q84 is multitudinous (and multifarious) but has two primary protagonists (the chapters take turns between these two characters): Tengo Kawana and Masami Aomame.
Tengo and Aomame have a special encounter with one another, as ten-year-old children, in 1964 at Ichikawa Municipal Elementary School (pgs 600-601), and the beginning of 1Q84 takes place 20 years after that magical moment between the two children (Tengo & Aomame) inside the classroom as they stare, in the daytime, through the window at the moon. Aomame reaches out and holds Tengo’s hand before she runs out of the classroom and out of Tengo’s childhood. This event binds the two characters even though they become lost and separated from one another for the next 20 years. 1Q84, in many ways, is a love story that reveals the two journeys Tengo and Aomame (who are now thirty years old and still single) must make to be reunited.
“The next thing he knew he was ten years old and in an elementary school classroom. This was real time and a real place. The light was real, and so was his ten-year-old self. He was really breathing the air of the room, smelling its varnished woodwork and the chalk dust permeating its erasers. Only he and the girl were in the room. There was no sign of other children. She was quick to seize the opportunity and she did so boldly. Or perhaps she had been waiting for this to happen. In any case, standing there, she stretched out her right hand and grasped Tengo’s left hand, her eyes looking straight into his” (pg 600).
The first chapter of 1Q84 begins in 1984 with Aomame, who is a personal trainer by day and an assassin by night, in a cab on the Metropolitan (elevated) Expressway listening to Janáček’s Sinfonietta (which is referenced and repeated numerous times by both Aomame and Tengo throughout their narratives).
Aomame, however, is on her way to kill someone when there’s a traffic jam and she gets out of the taxi and climbs down an emergency stairway and, somehow, into a parallel world/universe where there are two moons, not one, in the sky (much like in the sci-fi novel Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert). Aomame quickly calls this alternative world “1Q84,” which is also a reference to the book 1984 (published in 1949) by George Orwell.
The Leader (Chapter 13) explains to Aomame about this new world: “That’s it. 1984 and 1Q84 are fundamentally the same in terms of how they work. If you don’t believe in the world, and if there is no love in it, then everything is phony. No matter which world we are talking about, no matter what kind of world we are talking about, the line separating fact from hypothesis is practically invisible to the eye. It can only be seen with the inner eye, the eye of the mind” (pg 577).
The second chapter of 1Q84 begins with Tengo, who is a math tutor by profession at a cram school in Tokyo and a struggling, unpublished novelist in his free time in his small apartment in the Koenji District.
“When he was home, Tengo usually wrote from first thing in the morning until the approach of evening. All he needed to satisfy him was his Mont Blanc pen, his blue ink, and standard manuscript sheets, each page lined with four hundred empty squares ready to accept four hundred characters. Once a week his married girlfriend [Kyoko Yasuda] would come to spend the afternoon with him. Sex with a married woman ten years his senior was stress free and fulfilling, because it couldn’t lead to anything. As the sun was setting, he would head out for a long walk, and once the sun was down he would read a book while listening to music. He never watched television” (pg 28).
One day, Tengo receives a call from his friend Komatsu, who happens to be an editor of literary magazines and who had “a certain reputation as one of the top people in the industry” (pg 24). Komatsu has a plan to have Tengo rewrite a manuscript called “Air Chrysalis” which was poorly written by a mysterious, yet attractive, seventeen-year-old named Eriko Fukada, who has large breasts and goes by the name of Fuka-Eri. Komatsu plans to enter the rewritten manuscript into a new writers’ prize or the much bigger Akutagawa Prize, publish the book, and make it a best-seller so the three of them can make lots and lots of money.
Komatsu explains further: “Besides, I wouldn’t be doing it for the 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 the 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 of the whole bunch of them. Doesn’t that sound like fun to you” (pg 31).
And Komatsu’s plan begins to pull Tengo into a relationship with Fuka-Eri and into the world of 1Q84 which Tengo happens to call “Cat Town,” referencing a short story he reads to his dying father.
Murakami, as usual, includes lots of sex and erotica in 1Q84 and he doesn’t shy away from the graphic details, so this particular book of his is recommended for readers over the age of eighteen.
“Aomame and Ayumi [Nakano] were the perfect pair to host intimate but fully erotic all-night sex feasts. Ayumi was petite and cheerful, comfortable with strangers, and talkative. She brought a positive attitude to just about any situation once she had made up her mind to do so. She also had a healthy sense of humor. By contrast, Aomame, slim and muscular, tended to be rather expressionless and reserved, and she found it hard to be witty with a man she was meeting for the first time…
“Whenever they encountered suitable men, first Ayumi approached them with her natural cheer. Then Aomame would join them at an appropriate moment, creating a unique atmosphere that was part operetta, part film noir. Once things got to that point, the rest was simple. They would move to an appropriate place and (as Ayumi bluntly put it) ‘fuck like mad.’ The hardest thing was finding suitable partners” (pg 358).
“He was naked when he awoke, and so was Fuka-Eri. Completely and totally naked. Her breasts were perfect hemispheres. Her nipples were not overly large, and they were soft, still quietly groping for the maturity that was to come. Her breasts themselves were large, however, and fully ripe. They seemed to be virtually uninfluenced by the force of gravity, the nipples turned beautifully upward, like a vine’s new tendrils seeking sunlight. The next thing that Tengo became aware of was that Fuka-Eri had no pubic hair. Where there should have been pubic hair there was only smooth, bare white skin, its whiteness giving emphasis to its utter defenselessness. She had her legs spread; he could see her vagina. Like the ear he had been staring at, it looked as if it had just been made only moments before. And perhaps it really had been made only moments before…”
“It seemed inconceivable that his adult penis could penetrate her small, newly made vagina. It was too big and too hard. The pain should have been enormous. Before he knew it, though, every bit of him was inside her. There had been no resistance whatever. The look on her face remained totally unchanged as she brought him inside. Her breathing became slightly agitated, and the rhythm with which her breasts rose and fell changed subtly for five or six seconds, but that was all. Everything else seemed like a normal, natural part of everyday life.
“Having brought Tengo deep inside her, Fuka-Eri remained utterly still, as did Tengo, feeling himself deep inside of her. He remained incapable of moving his body, and she, eyes closed, perched on top of him like a lightning rod, stopped moving” (pgs 597-598).
Murakami, however, is at his best when he reaches into the deepest parts of himself to reveal the most intimate sides of humanity. When he does this, there’s no mistaking “Classic Murakami.”
Here’s an example from Book Three, Chapter Three:
“Sometimes he would read what he himself had written that morning. After he had read it, he would rewrite in ballpoint pen the parts he wasn’t satisfied with, and reread the parts he had edited. If he still wasn’t satisfied at the way it sounded, he would rewrite it again, and then read the new version…
“The continual afternoon rain made the pine windbreak dark and heavy. He couldn’t hear the waves at all. There was no wind, just the rain falling straight down from the sky. A flock of black birds flew by in the rain. The hearts of those birds were dark, and wet, too. The inside of the room was also wet. Everything there, pillows, books, desk, was damp. But oblivious to it all—to the weather, the damp, the wind, the sound of the waves—his father continued in an uninterrupted coma. Like a merciful cloak, paralysis enveloped his body. After a short break Tengo went back to reading aloud. In the damp, narrow room, that was all he was able to do…
“Things cultivated over such a long time don’t just vanish into nothingness” (pg 779).
Reading Murakami’s 1Q84 is a great investment of time and should not be taken lightly, because once you start reading into the diurnal lives of Aomame and Tengo you will not want to stop until you finish the book and know exactly what happens to them and to this strange world that has elves climbing from a goat’s mouth, mazas and dohtas, and an enchanting cast that interconnects along the way to make for a modern-day fairy tale.
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of the Hemingway Society, Club Med, and the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America: A Look Back (2020); and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
You can follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 400,000+ followers