Colliding realities in Murakami’s genre-defying novel 1Q84

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami. 624 pages. Harvill Seckor. $18.

Fantastical, realistic fiction often struggles to find a place in the canon of literary greats, but Japanese author Haruki Murakami breaks that trend with his simple prose that treats taboo subject matter with tasteful indifference. 1Q84, Murakami’s second-latest novel, shatters genres, and reads like a pop fiction thriller infused with fantastical elements. And, despite the novel’s commercial vibe, it harbors a quality of writing and level of originality worthy of the Nobel Prize in literature. Not that Murakami wants the prize, anyway. His fans have long hoped that he’ll be so honored, but to him, the award is a “nuisance.”

1Q84 is a play on George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. The novel is set in the year 1984. The characters refer to the year as “1Q84,” because “Q” is the Japanese pronunciation for the number “nine,” and also the English letter “Q,” representing “question” and encompassing  the characters’ deep pondering over their exceedingly bizarre circumstances.

1Q84_International Cover1Q84 describes the collision of two individuals: Tengo, a 30-year-old mathematical genius and closeted literary prodigy, who teaches math at a cram school, and Aomame, a chiropractor who grew up in a cult. She also makes a habit of murdering powerful, untouchable men who systematically abuse women, staging them as heart attacks using a unique, pseudo-scientific method that involves impeccable senses on the part of the murderess and an ice pick. The pair live in parallel universes in Tokyo, Japan. When an otherworldly, verbally hesitant 17-year-old girl, Fuka-Eri, enters a novel-writing contest, she catches the attention of Tengo, and their interaction begins the unravelling of a Japanese netherworld that involves the mutilation of the known world, the inner horrors of a government-protected cult, and the universe-altering consequences of the coming together of two people in a meeting forged by destiny.

Oh, and there’s the Little People. They mess things up in the universe, and account for 90% of the fantastical elements that ribbon throughout the novel.

Murakami is an intensely Japanese modernistic author; his numerous works focus on issues from a uniquely Japanese perspective, and the inner lives and thoughts of his characters are startling reflections of Japanese society. The novel seamlessly alternates between unceremonious sexual passages, normalized in Japan through manga, television, and 24/7 advertising campaigns; the rather painless social isolation the characters acknowledge; and the narrative’s emotionally removed outlook on everything from murder to sex to the understated exhaustions that comprise everyday existence.

While Murakami patches together a hybrid novel that  paints a haphazard portrait of life in Tokyo–one that makes those who’ve lived in the insomniac city homesick for the crowds and 500-yen ramen sets–readers might find trouble with the deceivingly nondescript text and occasionally rambling passages that go off on quasi-intellectual, quasi-literary tangents.

Murakami does not craft sentences with the pretentiousness of the late literary great David Foster Wallace, but he does put together lines that beg to be devoured, and his creativity and storytelling skills make his novels not only readable, but ones that force readers to think.

Some Americans embrace Murakami’s prose, as seen in his novels’ unprecedented success overseas. Other Americans, however, find the author’s descriptions of Japan disorienting. Pick up his novel to see which camp you’ll fall into.

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