1Q84 is an extremely unusual novel. I notice that the blurbs about it don’t reveal much about the plot, but I have chosen to describe the incidents in the beginning of the book because I found it difficult to decide whether to read it (I prefer book covers that give some indication of the plot or subject matter instead of just quotes) and probably wouldn’t have were it not for all the buzz.
1Q84 was originally published in Japan as three books, so it is very long. It is sort of a combination of a fantasy novel, a romance, and a mystery, but it is not by any means a genre novel.
In 1984 Tokyo, Aomame is on her way to an important meeting with a client when traffic becomes gridlocked on an elevated expressway. The taxi driver, who has Janáček’s Sinfonietta playing on the radio (which Aomame is surprised that she can recognize), tells her that there is an emergency staircase nearby that will allow her to exit the expressway and catch the train. He mysteriously reminds her that there is only one reality. Aomame climbs down the stairway–and enters a world on a slightly different track from her own.
Aomame is a physical therapist who works occasionally as an assassin, murdering men who have repeatedly abused women. Her appointment is with a victim, whom she murders. When she emerges from his hotel, she notices there are two moons in the sky and realizes she has entered a slightly different world, which she decides to name 1Q84.
In a parallel story also set in 1984 Tokyo, Tengo is a part-time math instructor who wants to be a writer and happens to like Janáček’s Sinfonietta. He is approached by Komatsu, a publishing company editor who is familiar with his work, to rewrite a novel that has been submitted to a competition. The story is unusual and imaginative, he says, but poorly written, and Komatsu believes that with help it can become a sensation. This suggestion is highly unethical for a submission to a literary competition, and Tengo is reluctant, but once he begins working with the material, he can’t resist it.
Tengo finds that the novel, named The Air Chrysalis, was written by a teenage girl named Fuka-Eri, who is a fugitive from an idealistic commune that has become a secretive religious sect. The novel is about Little People who weave a chrysalis out of the air and live in a world with two moons. Fuka-Eri tells Tengo that the Little People exist.
I was driven to finish the first book to try to figure out the connection between the stories of Aomame and Tengo. There are many echoes between the two stories, but the two characters seem to be living in different worlds, as tracked by the number of moons.
In the second book, the connections become clearer. By the third, I was reading to see if Aomame and Tengo are finally able to meet and emerge from danger.
Reviews of this novel are mixed, and I find that I feel the same way. I have seen 1Q84 compared to Ulysses, which is absurd, and on the other end of the spectrum, completely dissed. Certainly, Murakami has written a story that compels you to finish, but I found the mystery of the Little People to be lacking any internal logic and even a bit silly. I also have a sneaking suspicion that if The Air Chrysalis was really published, it would not be a publishing sensation but more likely a publishing joke. And don’t get me started on Cat Town.
Moreover, although Tengo as a character seems attractive and convincing, I found Aomame much less likely. To mention one detail, yes, many women are unsatisfied with their own appearance, including their breast size, but they don’t think about it constantly. After about the twentieth mention of Aomame’s breasts, this repetition becomes tiresome.
Tengo also has an obsessive memory of his mother’s breasts. In fact, the sexual context of the novel is definitely peculiar, with lots of odd descriptions of pubic hair and references to intimate body parts. The physical focus is just one facet of Murakami’s use of repetition as a thematic technique.
My prediction is that if you choose to read this novel you will want to finish it, but you may find parts of it absurd.