(This review was published on 11/2/11 in the Washington Independent Review of Books.)
On January 22, 1984, in what has become an iconic moment in advertising history, the first Apple Macintosh computer was introduced to the world. Striking a cinematic blow against an Orwellian Big Brother figure haranguing a grey and faceless army of brainwashed drones, an attractive and athletic young woman eludes pursuing stormtrooper guards and heroically hurls an iron hammer that shatters Big Brother’s huge black and white telescreen, ending oppression, freeing everyone—changing the world. The voiceover intones—“1984 will not be like 1984.”
1984. You know—the dystopian novel by George Orwell written in 1948 that depicts a nightmare no-hope future where everything is rotten and nobody ever has a nice day.
Rewind your cassette tape. On an average spring day in central Tokyo, April 1984, an impeccably attired, attractive young woman, Masumi Aomame, late for a very important appointment but marooned in a taxi on a hopelessly jammed elevated expressway, takes an extreme measure. At the suggestion of her slightly odd driver, she escapes the highway using a little-noticed rickety emergency exit to street level underneath a prominent Esso put-a-tiger-in-your-tank billboard. Before departing the cab, the driver cautions that if she does this, “Things may look different to you than they did before. I’ve had that experience myself. But don’t let appearances fool you. There is always only one reality.” And with that, while Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta booms ominously on the taxi’s high-end FM radio, Aomame enters a world where there are two moons in the night sky and everything she knows is wrong—to her 1984 will not be like 1984, it will be 1Q84. Magic.
With this bravura and memorable opening, Haruki Murakami’s vast, ambitious but flawed novel of everything, 1Q84, leaves the flat earth world of conventional fiction and begins the long, sometimes thrilling and entertaining, slog to the far distant end of some nine hundred beautifully written and translated pages. Not unlike flying to Tokyo on the Concorde, taking the long way around with the airbrakes on.
So, the title: 1Q84. The Japanese word for the number nine is kyu. The year 1984 is thus spoken sen kyu-haku hachi-juu shi-nen. The use of the English letter Q is a multilingual pun, signifying to the Japanese reader (and should to anybody else), “we ain’t in Kansas anymore.”—Reality has changed, old rules don’t necessarily apply. We see that a weird novella named Air Chrysalis is rewritten, conspiracies are hatched, passions explode, people die, lovers are lost, puzzles and questions posed. While 1Q84 is indeed a novel of everything, probing notions of reality, truth, death, religion, identity, time, connections, pop culture, anger, duality, mirrors and strange sex, (the novels of Thomas Pynchon or David Foster Wallace and the stories of Jorge Luis Borges come to mind), it is not an envelope-pushing, hard to follow postmodern pyrotechnical fizz-fest. At its heart, it is a love story, sometimes achingly romantic.
Our two protagonists, Aomame (a tough, outwardly cold chick who happens to be a very capable assassin of abusive men—think a Japanese Lisbeth Salander) and Tengo Kawana (a blandly quiet math teacher, novelist and ghostwriter), are both outsiders, both lonely. They are disconnected from each other and much of the world and have been since a long ago innocent grade school encounter was indelibly etched on their souls. They must traverse nine months in a strange new world filled with weird characters and baffling events, where, as in 1984, good days don’t happen. Stand-ins for Orwell’s Big Brother, the so-called Little People are maybe real, maybe unreal, and bizarre obstacles and complications must be overcome. Whether they know it or not, Tengo and Aomame are in love, and, like lovers everywhere, they must connect. Will they find each other? That is the venerable V-8 engine of the novel—though it is in much need of a slimmed-down tiger in its nine hundred-page tank.
But how does one edit a Japanese National Treasure, an acknowledged master of world literature, a writer perhaps in line for a Nobel Prize? How? Slashing lines, cutting entire episodes—go from here to there, eliminate that back-story, do we really need to know that? Or how about the long passages of half-baked arcana of that sinister religious cult—you lost me there. Let’s off-load some unnecessary baggage, fly higher.
Murakami, though, is a wizard. Using a technique familiar to his loyal readers around the world, Murakami, developing his theme of duality and reflected identities, alternates the narrative’s point of view chapter by chapter. He is convincingly inside Aomame’s head, then Tengo’s, and in Book 3 adds the dogged and froggish detective Ushikawa—only then does the novel finally achieve lift off. Murakami carefully braids the threads of the story, gradually tightening them like a Chinese finger trap, ultimately permitting the reader differing views of the same event, resulting in our seeing the action from a higher altitude, a crafty cinematic device. Throughout, each chapter’s title is a fragment of a line in the narrative—a delightful motif that prompts an engaging bit of paging back and forth as the reader works to decipher Murakami’s narrative trail of bread crumbs.
With a painstaking Japanese, perhaps Apple-like, attention to detail, the book itself is beautifully designed and produced. Fine paper, a lovely binding and a translucent moon grey rice-paper dust jacket with haunting frontispiece images of the twin moons of the story add to the proposition of the presence of a new world. Page numbers alternate, printing backwards, sometimes left hand, sometimes right. And the book’s logo, 1Q84, is mirrored across facing margins, reflecting itself, helping to produce an effective and unique coherence to the novel as a complete package.
And yet. The magic and promise of the opening chapter, the image of the elegant Aomame descending that fragile stairway into the heart of a gritty new Tokyo, is not sustained over the many miles in the long distance flight of this novel. The slim and beautiful Concorde flew fast and high. But the fat and beautiful 1Q84 aspires to do more, to fly us to the moon—too bad it staggers under its own weight, never quite leaving the orbit of this flat earth.