1Q84 has been all the rage in the literary world this Fall. Along with The Art of Fielding and whatever Stephen King most recently shat out, I can’t read a book blog or walk into a bookstore without seeing the cover. Compound that with having spent most of November (and a week of December) reading it, and watch my brain slowly turn to mush. Uh, you know, in a good way.
Murakami’s latest novel is a behemoth of a book, clocking in at 925 pages. Originally published as three novels in Japan, 1Q84 tells the dual stories of Tengo and Aomame, two thirty-year-olds residing in the year 1984 – or so they think. Tengo is a big guy with a steady job as a cram school math teacher who dabbles in writing. Aomame is a fit lady working as a sports club instructor who dabbles in killing domestic abusers. At some point in their less-than-normal lives, they enter what Aomame calls “1Q84,” a different version of reality, where two moons inhabit the sky and creatures known only as “Little People” make chrysalises out of thread found in the air. In this world, modeled on the world of the novel within the novel, Air Chrysalis, Tengo and Aomame find themselves facing some pretty incredible things.
Despite taking me a while to read this novel, I did enjoy it. Though much emphasis is put on what a strange new world the characters find themselves in, Murakami’s attention to detail and his tendency to rewrite scenes from different characters’ perspectives make the novel utterly realistic. The length adds to the realism as well. Does it matter to the plot what Tengo ate for dinner, or what Aomamae thought about the weather? Certainly not, but it adds that much more depth.
Speaking of depth, you will close this novel knowing all of the intricacies of most every character’s life. You will know Aomame’s muscle stretching routine, every book that Tengo’s read throughout the duration of the novel, and Ushikawa’s – a complicated antagonist’s – misshapen head, inside and out. Even secondary characters shine due to how much information Murakami gives you. This book does not fall short if you are the type of person who loves to know absolutely everything about the characters you’re reading about.
That said, the length would definitely be off-putting for some. While I never found the novel tedious or (too) repetitive, I did find myself putting it down more often than I would a 300-ish page novel. 1Q84 isn’t a novel; it’s a commitment.
As compared to some of Murakami’s past works, the novel falls short in some departments. For instance, 1Q84 was nominated for a Bad Sex in Fiction Award, and though it didn’t win, it deserved the nomination. While you might need a cold shower after reading the likes of Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, 1Q84‘s sex scenes are so sub-par, it’s embarrassing. Here’s an example:
A freshly made ear and a freshly made vagina look very much alike, Tengo thought.
If you say so, Tengo.
Another sex-related problem stems for the character of Aomame. While she is and acts pretty cool for most of the story, her sexual encounters and fantasies read, like, well, male fantasies. Which shouldn’t be so surprising as a man wrote the novel, but it’s pretty blatant. Aomame often thinks about the time during high school when she and her then best friend Tamaki got naked and “explored each other’s bodies.” There are various other allusions and scenes in which Aomame is put in same-sex situations, though she later point blank denies being a lesbian and loves to have “wild nights” with random men. Which, of course, should be no problem; a woman deserves some fun, especially to kill the stress of being a hired gun. But her taste in men is embarrassingly transparent. Aomame likes older men with “well-shaped heads”, preferably balding.
On the (rather fragile) dust jacket, it looks like Murakami still has a decent head of hair, so I’ll just quietly side-eye that particular character trait and move on.
And speaking of the dust jacket, Chip Kidd’s design for the American release of the novel is stunning. The photography on the front and back cover, the use of bold block letters on the cover (see above), the illustrations of the moon(s) and even the page numbers manage to be exciting; they seem to be playing a game of Pong with one another, in which they bounce from the top to the bottom of the page, and then flip in the opposite direction once they reach either end. The dust jacket (reminiscent of the jacket for Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things) allows the cover photos to be seen in their entirety, and when taken away, removes parts of the models’ faces. Perhaps it is a subtle nod to the theme of duality that runs through the novel; perhaps it’s just really cool looking. Whatever it is, Kidd really outdid himself.
Overall, the novel has everything you want from Murakami: magical realism, weird sex, music & literature, young people looking for meaning, life in Japan, cats and a really clever title (if you know how to count to ten in Japanese). Though I wasn’t thrilled with some of her characterization, I loved seeing Murakami write a woman who wasn’t just a love interest, but a main character who makes her own decisions. And while many of Aomame’s decisions are often fueled for her desire for Tengo, many of Tengo’s decisions are made for the same reasons. Not only is duality a theme in 1Q84, but egalitarianism could be considered one as well.
1Q84 is an amazing, lengthy, frustrating and beautiful novel. Just make sure you have the time and patience before you give a decent amount of your life to it.