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The book jacket for 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Knopf 2011)

At 925 pages, Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84” is a beast of a book.  The pacing is mostly glacial, with occasional spurts of excitement.  The story meanders through a series of fantastical elements, many of which are ultimately unexplained.  And it is full of Murakami’s favorite tropes: attention to the shape of ears, meticulously detailed accounts of food preparation, and the mysterious habits of cats, to name just a few.

But unlike Murakami’s other novels, which are mostly critically adored in his native Japan and around the world, 1Q84 is polarizing.  A New York Times review by Janet Maslin panned it, calling it “stupefying”.  A sizable portion of Amazon customers and Goodreads readers were turned off by it as well, with several vowing never to open another Murakami novel again.

Nevertheless, I still recommend this book… with reservations.

1Q84 takes place in Tokyo in the year 1984, but it quickly shifts into an alternate timeline dubbed “1Q84” by one of the characters.  In Japanese, the word for “nine” sounds like “Q”, so there’s some wordplay which is lost on Western readers.  The intended meaning is that it’s a year with a question mark, which is an apt symbol to describe the whole book.  As in most of Murakami’s books, there are strange, powerful forces at work in this world which draw the main characters into deeply confusing, highly perilous situations.

The protagonists are Aomame, a fitness instructor and sometimes assassin (but for a good cause), and Tengo, a writer who takes on a shady ghostwriting assignment.  The point of view switches between the two throughout the novel, so we see how both sides of their stories play out for several chapters before they each find themselves endangered by a violent religious cult with connections to a group of mysterious supernatural figures called the Little People.  It gets more and more ridiculous from there, as Aomame and Tengo struggle both to understand what’s going on and figure out how to survive.

Unfortunately, the book does leave many questions unanswered, which can be very frustrating.  As the plot moves along, events become progressively illogical, but only by our own standards of reality.  By the internal logic of 1Q84, it seems to make sense, and I could not find any holes in the complicated plot.  I found that the best way to deal with all the unexplained phenomena was just to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the ride.

1Q84 is very long, and perhaps several chapters could even be cut entirely.  In the last third in particular, it seems to drag on, when the action should be building more quickly.  However, I enjoyed the writing so much that I did not mind the length.  The characters’ personalities are deep and complex, and the style is clear and vivid.  I read the book slowly, in fits and starts, over the better part of the year.  Generally, I read a few pages, maybe a chapter, before bed.  To me, the experience was less about seeing how the plot resolved, but more about the feeling of being transported inside that world.  A common theme is solitude; almost all of the characters are alone, and they thoughtfully consider their situations as they go about their lives.  Murakami describes in detail how they prepare food, what they wear, how they schedule their days, etc.  Some readers have called this out as boring and repetitive, but I found it deeply enchanting.  There is something profound about the mundane.  After all, it’s how we spend most of our lives.  I greatly appreciated how this book kept its tone very grounded and contemplative, even as this seemingly normal world grappled with magic and fantasy.

By all means, give 1Q84 a try, especially if you have read other books by Murakami.  For those who haven’t, I recommend starting with one of his earlier novels, such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, to get a sense for what he’s all about.  His genre is hard to describe; it’s sort of a postmodern blend of magical realism, urban fantasy, and science fiction.  That’s part of what draws me to his novels again and again.  Since he defies easy classification, and his plots are always completely off the wall, you never quite know what’s lurking on the next page.

Happy reading!