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Thursday, October 27, 2011

"1Q84" by Haruki Murakami (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Haruki Murakami at Wikipedia
Order 1Q84 HERE
Watch Clips Related to 1Q84 at NYT
Watch The English language book trailer for 1Q84

INTRODUCTION: "The year is 1984 and the city is Tokyo. A young woman named Aomame follows a taxi driver’s enigmatic suggestion and begins to notice puzzling discrepancies in the world around her. She has entered, she realizes, a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84 —“Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.” Meanwhile, an aspiring writer named Tengo takes on a suspect ghostwriting project. He becomes so wrapped up with the work and its unusual author that, soon, his previously placid life begins to come unraveled.

As Aomame’s and Tengo’s narratives converge over the course of this single year, we learn of the profound and tangled connections that bind them ever closer: a beautiful, dyslexic teenage girl with a unique vision; a mysterious religious cult that instigated a shoot-out with the metropolitan police; a reclusive, wealthy dowager who runs a shelter for abused women; a hideously ugly private investigator; a mild-mannered yet ruthlessly efficient bodyguard; and a peculiarly insistent television-fee collector.

A love story, a mystery, a fantasy, a novel of self-discovery, a dystopia to rival George Orwell’s—1Q84 is Haruki Murakami’s most ambitious undertaking yet."

While I have owned pretty much all the major works of the famous contemporary Japanese author Haruki Murakami for some time now, I have to confess I only browsed several of them along the years, always with an "I plan to read them some day" thought. So when I read about 1Q84 and the considerable hype surrounding it, I thought, well I will take a look and maybe get it for later, but to my considerable surprise, once I opened the book I just could not put it down until I absolutely had to. Some 900+ pages later I have to say that for once hype (masterpiece, Nobel book, genius, etc) is utterly warranted.

1Q84 has been translated by Jay Rubin (books 1 and 2) and Philip Gabriel (book 3).

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: I will talk here about 1Q84 from a sff reader's perspective, while if you want a more "mainstream" discussion, you can check this NYT article. I am making this distinction because when reading 1Q84 I was struck by how much some elements mentioned in the above article - and in a few other similar places - as strange or outlandish seemed to me just regular sffnal stuff, as did a lot of the plot twists and turns, all quite typical of the better secondary world fantasies or space operas out there.

Conversely, 1Q84 brings a very adult attitude to its main characters, attitude which is most of the time missing from sff which either shies away from the topic or goes to the other extreme essentially for shock's value.

The content of 1Q84 is well summarized in the blurb above, so I will refer to it when discussing the structure and highlights next. The novel is divided into three books that each cover three months from 1984 starting in April, when Aomame starts her adventure in the parallel universe with two moons, magic and "the little people" that she calls 1Q84.

In the other thread, former "boy wonder"
Tengo, now living an obscure but fulfilling life as a math teacher at an elite school and aspiring novelist, is so compelled by the fantasy story in a manuscript written by a 17 year old girl, that he accepts a dodgy proposition from his editor, which starts his adventure as the "fantasy story" soon starts looking like it could be real...

The first two books were published simultaneously in Japan and alternate chapters from Aomame and Tengo, each with a subheading that is both appropriate and subtle. These two books are very tightly woven and they twist, turn, amplify and scale down the story perfectly, while ending in a way that would have been maddening were not the third book available immediately.

The last book that is both a prologue and an epilogue, introduces a third viewpoint which at first seems out of place, but it soon integrates well with Tengo and Aomame's. This third pov is crucial to the structure of this part as it provides both the back story and most of the narrative tension, while Tengo and Aomame take a detour so to speak.

As noted above, while the story twists and turns a lot, the experienced sff reader will most likely figure it out well ahead of time with motifs like the destined ones, parallel universes and portals, magical links and prophecies, though here all happens in Tokyo 1984, so we have the mundane world of subways, cars, bars, news, a secretive cult etc. And it works perfectly, while the magic is slowly introduced, first in the "fantasy novel" of Fuka Eri that Tengo ghost rewrites into a masterpiece - though in a nice touch that should resonate, it is snubbed by the main Japanese literary prize as bestselling and genre - and later in revelation after revelation.

Another thing I really appreciated about 1Q84 was that it kept away from the pitfalls of solipsism. Parallel universes, portals and the existence of those special few who know/use them always invite this immediate breaking of the suspension of disbelief by un-substantiating the "real world" but the author is clearly aware of this and discusses it quite a few times:

"Komatsu considered this for a long time, wrinkles forming on either side of his nose. Finally he sighed and glanced around. “What a strange world. With each passing day, it’s getting harder to know how much is just hypothetical and how much is real. Tell me, Tengo, as a novelist, what is your definition of reality?”
“When you prick a person with a needle, red blood comes out—that’s the real world,” Tengo replied."

The novel also keeps things ambiguous enough to allow us to speculate, while the ending adds one extra twist which for once I did not quite see and which deepened my appreciation of Haruki Murakami's genius.

1Q84 contains so much that even enumerating things that are of note in the book would take quite a lot of space and while I think that the novel is one than can be read many times and still fully enjoyed, I will mention only the "levitating clock" that startled quite a few early (mainstream readers) as it marked in a way the clear dividing line where the novel fully moves into the sff-nal space so no one can deny it is a work of speculative fiction anymore, two moons or not...

Overall 1Q84 (A++) is simply the best novel released in 2011 so far.


B. Justin Shier said...

Great news. I was hoping that Murakami's newest would live up to all the hype. I can't wait to see how he handled all the parallel time streams. It's a challenge I'm currently facing, and it would be helpful to see how such a master handles it. I'll have to pick up a copy pronto.


JonSnow said...

Liviu,thanks for the review,will definitely be reading this ASAP.

If u are thinking of reading another Murakami book whenever u have the time to do so,then may i recommend 'Kafka on the Shore' (World Fantasy Award),i think u will like the fantastical/metaphysical elements of the book along with a dash of suspense although the plot can get confusing at times.In the end it is a rewarding book,hope u will enjoy it as much as i did.

Liviu said...

Thank you for the kind words; I was wondering which book of Murakami to read next and i think Kafka on the Shore is a great choice.

I started now another October 25 door-stopper, the 1150 page Parallel Stories which while not sff is as strange as it gets too - and I have several more current conventional sff novels that I want to read and review, but in maybe a week or two I will give a try to the Murakami novel since 1Q84 was so great

Harvee said...

I enjoyed your comments on reality versus fantasy in the novel. I'll be glad to link your review to mine! My thoughts on 1Q84

Anonymous said...

Q is not for question mark - it is an apparently common pun on the japanese word for 9, which is "kyu"

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