An unnervingly silent teenager captivates Japan with her mystical literary debut. Two long-separated lovers hurtle towards each other through the discontinuity of time and space. A second moon appears in the sky. Nothing is as it seems in “1Q84,” Haruki Murakami’s 2009 genre-bending novel. Released in English this October, this metaphysical saga explores identity, power, and truth through the lens of an altered past.
Part mystery novel, part love story, and imbued throughout with magical realism, the novel begins in 1984 Tokyo and alternates between the life of Aomame, a fitness instructor and part-time assassin, and Tengo, a math teacher and struggling writer. Their isolated, austere existences take a rapid turn for the abnormal when Tengo agrees to ghostwrite and revise “Air Chrysalis,” the debut novel of Fuka-Eri—a precocious and extremely peculiar 17-year-old girl. Aomame and Tengo are hurtled into a subtly strange and different world, a sort of parallel universe that Aomame dubs “IQ84,” reasoning, “Q is for ‘question mark.’” Identical to 1984 except for a few marked differences in history, 1Q84 plays host to the conflicting and dangerous fallout that results from the mass publication of “Air Chrysalis.”
Murakami’s vivid descriptions enliven a world that is frequently bleak and unforgiving, where the machinations of the universe and his character’s own flaws often destroy their burgeoning possibilities of fulfillment and happiness. Through his evocative language, atmospheres full of foreboding, anticipation, and surrealism emerge. “The sky remained dark, as if covered with a lid, and the world wore a heavy dampness,” Murakami writes at one point, conjuring up a dismal, unsettling mood. His characterizations, which are likewise unique in their attention to analogy and detail, draw out a reality that is arrestingly realistic—until one begins to dig too deep.
The undercurrent of 1Q84 thus becomes its persistently ambiguous, dreamlike quality. Though Tengo and Aomame quickly realize that their new plane of existence has equally “real” repercussions as the real world, subtle nuances of language and description emerge to lend 1Q84 its most disturbing elements. While Murakami’s writing often relates a straightforward narrative, he also strikes a far deeper, more disquieting chord through his exploration of the nature of reality. “Things are not what they seem,” a mysterious cab driver warns Aomame moments before she enters 1Q84, “but don’t let appearances fool you. There is only one reality.” Tengo and Aomame individually notice subtle differences in the world they thought they knew, and once these holes emerge, it is only a matter of time before their conceptions of their new world begin to unravel.
Remarkable as well is Murakami’s incorporation of dozens of famous authors and their novels into his own sphere of imagination. “IQ84”—the title, the place, and several of the premises—is a clear reference to George Orwell’s “1984,” and with good reason: themes from “1984” form the basis of many of the situations in “1Q84,” from a controlling cult to an alternate world where small but seminal aspects of history have changed. As Tengo explains to Fuka-Eri, “history is our collective memory. If our collective memory is taken from us––is rewritten––we lose the ability to sustain our true selves.”
Murakami seems not to view previous literature as a constraint on his own authorial creativity. His references to literary compatriots like Orwell, Lewis Carroll, Anton Chekhov, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky flow freely and with purpose, serving not only as descriptive tools but also as a way to temporally ground—and ultimately confuse––the reader. Another ingenious aspect of the novel is Murakami’s exceptional self-reflexivity as an author. Describing the process of writing “Air Chrysalis,” the novel-within-a-novel structure sheds light on Murakami’s own struggles to bring this fantastical world to fruition. “When you introduce things that most readers have never seen before into a piece of fiction,” one character explains to Tengo, “you have to describe them with as much precision and in as much detail as possible. What you can eliminate from fiction is the description of things that most readers have seen.”
Though the plot is intriguing and the creativity behind it astounding, the most memorable and affecting aspect of “IQ84” is its haunting and ambiguous language concerning the nature of reality. “The line separating fact from hypothesis is practically invisible to the eye,” the cult’s leader says to a confused Aomame; later, while explaining the complex relationship between Tengo, Fuka-Eri and mysterious beings called the “Little People,” he utters the cryptic line “all things are arranged as mirrors set face-to-face.”
Disorientation is the name of Murakami’s game. Through his convoluted plot, complex temporal landscape, and indiscernible reality, this novel functions more as a discussion of deep, disturbing ideas than a traditional narrative. It is a rare feat, indeed, for an author to weave a story this complex while leaving so much up to the imagination. The book reads as both an allegory and a straightforward story, one of cosmic importance placed in an individual scale. The blending of these elements creates the triumph that is “1Q84”—“A world that bears a question.”
—Staff writer Leanna B. Ehrlich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.