Fiction can inspire many emotions, but when the object at hand tips the scales at nearly 1,000 pages—not to mention the added years of restless, where’s-the-English-translation-already anticipation weighing on its shoulders—the best feeling a reader can hope for is, ultimately, relief. A book like that is just asking to disappoint you.
Good news, then: upon turning the final page of 1Q84, the shelf-buckling new novel from Japan’s Haruki Murakami, I breathed a heavy sigh of equal parts satisfaction and lightening. He got there. The book holds together. It might even deserve its attendant hype. In short, Murakami’s mind-bending saga of parallel worlds, life creepily imitating art, and religio-magical cults is very, very good.
I’m no devotee of the man, either. Murakami’s high points do indeed shine bright (my favourite remains the early story “Sleep”), but his oeuvre is littered with the same cheap tricks and gassed-up metaphysics, repeated over and over again. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a novel of his that didn’t collapse into a hazy, supposedly postmodern fog in the third act.
Until now. The heroes of 1Q84—Aomame, a physical trainer who moonlights as an assassin, and Tengo, a math teacher who also struggles with a career in fiction—each find themselves alone in a world that looks a lot like the real Earth circa 1984, but with some critical minor differences. Most obvious is that there are two moons in the sky; unfortunately, they’re both too embarrassed to get anyone else to confirm this. But even as their surroundings steadily turn sideways, they look at things straight on, and we get to stay perched atop their sturdy shoulders. If this novel is a dream, it’s an eerily lucid one.
Murakami also makes smart use of his page count, opting for depth rather than breadth. There’s no tedious table-setting; instead, Tengo and Aomame, in alternating chapters, each plow through at least three novels’ worth of twists and turns. Aomame begins by climbing down a hidden staircase on the highway to avoid gridlock. Tengo, meanwhile, discovers a bizarre but weirdly compelling manuscript that everyone except its author describes as science fiction. They both proceed to tumble down so many rabbit holes that these initial problems start to seem quaint, not to mention distant.
What’s most disorienting is that nobody seems to know just how detached from reality they might become. As one character puts it, “There has to be an end somewhere. It’s just that nothing is labeled, ‘This is the end.’ Is the top rung of a ladder labeled, ‘This is the last rung. Please don’t step any higher than this’?”
The parallel world Aomame and Tengo wander through is full of doubled-up images: cats, rubber plants, sinister door-to-door salesmen that feel plucked from an early draft of Lost Highway. Oh, and aliens. The uncanny is everywhere. Yet, 1Q84 is, in the end, a love story. All that outlandishness swirls around a core that is calm, solid, and true.
And if it takes Murakami 1,000 pages to get all of his ducks in a row, I guess we’ll have to live with that.
Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. Bond Street Books, 944 pp, $35, hardcover
(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, October 27, 2011)