Murakami Magic: A Review of 1Q84
Posted November 3, 2011on:
He’s a child prodigy and judo champ turned math tutor, aspiring novelist, and improbable chick magnet. She’s a martial arts teacher and masseuse who moonlights as an assassin. On the cusp of 30, both are lonely as hell, but terrified of commitment. So in 1984 – twenty years after they bonded in grade school—they find themselves compelled to revive their childhood crush.
So goes the love story at the heart of 1Q84, the masterful new novel by prolific writer, music maven, and marathon runner Haruki Murakami. At 925 pages, it’s one of the year’s longest novels–and one of the most hyped. International fans have been salivating for the English translation since its 2009 publication in Japanese. The New York Times Magazine recently put Murakami on the cover. (The headline Anger and Violence and Disaster and Weird Sex and Strange New Realities resembles the iconic Japanese John & Paul & Ringo & George T-shirts.) And when IQ84 finally dropped on Oct. 19, bookstores had midnight release parties. Take that, Harry Potter.
1Q84 is more sprawling, more ambitious, and more satisfying than Murakami’s recent output, which includes the novella After Dark, the career-spanning short story collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman and the mini-memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. With its quests for love and self-discovery, it’s most similar to two of his masterpieces: Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
Technically, IQ84 is a postmodern novel, a meta-tale of stories within stories and blurred boundaries between fiction and reality. Yet the book avoids the postmodern pitfalls of preciousness and pretentiousness. (There are no footnotes or authorial asides, and the only typographical hijinks are the page numbers). Instead, the author of such stories as “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning” still wears his heart on his sleeve, walks the line between earnestness and sentimentality, and insists that the only true source of salvation is love.
Now 61, Murakami keeps his protagonists forever young and stays in his wheelhouse of young adults, teenagers, and children. As in his previous work, the heroes of 1Q84 are mundane people thrust into a surreal world. Tengo is a classic Murakami male: a mild-mannered book and music nerd who could pass for a Nick Hornby hero. His counterpart, Aomame, is a classic Murakami female, confident and competent, yet vulnerable, somewhere between Lara Croft and Bridget Jones. The cast of characters includes: a telepathic teen writer, religious fanatics, a gay Korean bodyguard, a bi-curious policewoman, a fantastical race of “Little People,” and a vengeful dowager. (Take that, Colin Meloy).
While most of Murakami’s work is written in the first person, IQ84 is written in the third person; the chapters alternate between the point of view of Tengo and Aomame, and later, a grotesque, yet sympathetic, private eye. Throughout, the intertwined storylines propel the action and lend the novel richness and depth. As always, the prose is clear, crisp, and direct: like a Zen handbook written by Raymond Carver, and the sensibility is both lowbrow and highbrow; the plot owes as much to fairy tales, mystery novels, and detective movies as it does to the works of Dickens, Chekhov, and Borges.
That said, the literary works referenced in IQ84 serve as shorthand to the novel’s disparate elements, which include the dystopian paranoia of Orwell’s 1984, the grandeur of Tolstoy, the serial style of Dickens, the economy of Chekhov, and the Dostoevskian struggle between nihilism and faith. A brief mention of Alice in Wonderland speaks to novel’s alternate realities and obsession with the magic and wonder of youth.
Murakami also references his own work. IQ84 begins with the heroine listening to Janacek’s Sinfonietta in a taxi before she stumbles into an alternate reality. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle begins similarly, with the narrator listening to Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie” before he receives a mysterious phone call that leads him to a world of intrigue.
Beyond the recurring Sinfonietta, 1Q84 references so much music that it should come with a soundtrack. Characters listen to Bach, Brahms, Schumann, and Vivaldi, bond over Louis Armstrong, and complement each other like Sonny and Cher. The epigraph, a verse from “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” speaks to the larger exploration of the thin line between reality and fantasy.
Ultimately, 1Q84 continues Murakami’s longtime theme of reconciling the past and the present to shape the future. Or as one character observes: “That’s what the world is after all: an endless battle of contrasting memories”
Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. His book reviews for FP include The Central Park Five, Iphigenia in Forest Hills, The Death of the Liberal Class, and The Pale King. He studied Japanese in college and worked in Tokyo for a summer. He has forgotten hundreds of kanji, but some people still call him Meatto-san.