In "1Q84," award-winning Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami skips between alternate worlds, offering readers a moving love story in what is perhaps his most ambitious novel yet.

1Q84 By Haruki Murakami Translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel Knopf Doubleday 944 pp.

Set in a world just “a fraction of a centimeter off from our own,” Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, 1Q84, is populated with scenes of gruesome violence and reckless sexuality. At nearly 1,000 pages, it is also the 62-year-old Japanese writer’s most ambitious novel yet – an unstoppably readable, deeply moving love story that cements Murakami’s reputation as a uniquely compassionate and imaginative novelist who’s among the leading voices of his global generation. 

Murakami – who has said that he begins writing his novels with a single image in mind – opens “1Q84” in a traffic jam on an elevated expressway in Tokyo. It is the year 1984 and beautiful 30-year-old Aomame sits in a taxicab, anxious that she’s going to miss an important appointment. The driver senses Aomame’s unease and suggests she climb down from the expressway using an emergency stairway. It’s an odd suggestion but Aomame is desperate. On her way out of the cab the driver warns her, “please remember: things are not what they seem.”

And indeed they’re not. Aomame makes it to her appointment, which turns out to be a “hit” on an oil executive who abuses his wife, but soon after completing the job she notices that the world seems askew. She hears people talking about news events she’s never heard of, including a recent massacre at a religious compound, and when she looks up at night she sees two moons hanging in the sky – the familiar moon and, alongside it, a smaller moon, “slightly warped in shape, and green.”

Aomame calls the world she’s stepped into “1Q84” – in which the “Q” stands for “question” – and her strange surroundings throw into relief the central problem of her life: that with the exception of a single childhood experience, Aomame has always been lonely. That experience took place in 5th grade with a student named Tengo Kawana, who is the other main character in “1Q84.”

As the story opens, Tengo confronts a unique situation of his own. He is an aspiring novelist and his editor asks him to rewrite a manuscript called “Air Chrysalis” that was submitted to a prestigious amateur fiction contest by a dyslexic 17-year-old girl named Fuka-Eri. Tengo’s editor thinks that with some polishing “Air Chrysalis” could win the prize and he cajoles Tengo into doctoring the manuscript. 

Tengo hesitates because he doesn’t want to perpetrate a fraud, but he can’t resist the strangely powerful story about a religious cult and a tribe of spirits called the “Little People” who emerge from the mouth of a dead goat in a world where two moons hang in the sky – just like Aomame’s 1Q84.

Murakami likes to blur the boundaries of reality, and in this sense “1Q84” is his most intricate work. The novel alternates between Tengo’s and Aomame’s stories and as the plot progresses, events draw the two of them together. Yet throughout the novel the line between 1984 and 1Q84, and between Aomame’s story and the fictionalized story of Air Chrysalis remains ambiguous, making it unclear whether it’s even possible for the two characters to meet.

In “1Q84” Murakami makes several direct statements about the nature and methods of fiction, which begin to explain why he chooses to layer worlds on top of each other (and also add to the sense that “1Q84” is intended as the definitive work of the author’s career).

Before Aomame carries out the central killing of the book, she acquires a gun (for self-protection, not to commit the murder; her M.O. is more original than a bullet to the head). As she picks up the gun, Aomame thinks of Chekhov’s edict that a gun that appears in a story must be fired. However, the man selling her the weapon tells her not to feel beholden to old rules: “Chekhov was a great writer but not all novels have to follow his rules. Not all guns in stories have to be fired.”

In “1Q84,” a lot of guns go unfired which might frustrate some readers. The novel is full of suggestions that flare but don’t burn and characters, like Tengo’s older paramour, who disappear as if vanishing from a dream. Murakami seems to be saying that because life isn’t orderly and knowable, novels shouldn’t be, either.

But Murakami intends his fiction to do more than mirror the uncertainty of life; he wants it to suggest a way forward, too. In “1Q84” he speaks through Tengo, who, like Murakami, did not begin writing fiction until he was almost 30 when he entered (and, in Murakami’s case, won) an amateur fiction contest. As Tengo reflects on how as a child he used literature to escape, he may give the reader Murakami’s view of the purpose of fiction:

“The role of a story was, in the broadest terms, to transpose a problem into another form. Depending on the nature and the direction of the problem, a solution might be suggested in the narrative. Tengo would return to the real world with that suggestion in hand. It was like a piece of paper bearing the indecipherable text of a magic spell.”

So what is the problem “1Q84” seeks to transpose? It is loneliness, maybe – the loneliness Tengo and Aomame felt at the time a second moon appeared in the sky. The world of “1Q84” feels cold and forbidding but at the same time it provides an opportunity their other lives did not: to find each other again. And as Aomame tells her friend Ayumi, “If you can love someone with your whole heart, even one person, then there’s salvation in life.”

There may not be salvation in reading “1Q84,” but there is something quite powerful.   

Aomame and Tengo work their way towards each other and out of the year 1Q84 like divers straining for the surface. Finishing the book I felt as if I, too, were coming to the surface; days later the world still does not feel the way it used to.

Kevin Hartnett is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He blogs about fatherhood and family life at growingsideways.net.

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