At the beginning of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, a taxi driver in 1984 Tokyo suggests that his passenger, a young woman late for an appointment, beat the traffic by stepping out of his cab and walking to the nearest emergency pull-off. He follows his advice with a warning: “After you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little. Things may look different to you than they did before. But don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.”
“There’s always only one reality” isn’t something you’d expect to hear in a novel containing telepathic cult leaders, multiple moons, and prescient crows. But within the first few pages of Murakami’s mysterious novel, the sentence appears twice, and once in bold type. The words form a seemingly impossible law that the rest of the novel dares us—and its characters—to contradict.
We often take for granted that there are multiple realities. The notion that my experience, your experience, the bottom of the ocean, and the far side of the moon all exist in the same reality is hard to swallow. At the end of a long day, we pick up a novel with the expectation that we are entering another world, or at least another version of this one. But Murakami’s taxi driver is not the last character in this book to warn against the ease of parallel worlds. “This is no imitation world, no imaginary world, no metaphysical world,” says another.
After the young woman, Aomame, descends from Inbound Expressway Number 3, she does indeed begin to sense a change in the everyday look of things. Some of this change is small (the police carry different guns); some of it large (there are now two moons in the sky). Unable to comprehend her new experience, Aomame simply calls it 1Q84, a pun on the Japanese pronunciation for the number nine and a term that signifies a year of questions.
This is not to say that 1Q84 is that much stranger than 1984. After all, the appointment Aomame was late for was a hit job. She had been hired a few years prior by a wealthy dowager to assassinate abusive husbands. All of this is carried out in 1Q84 exactly as it would have been in 1984. Aomame enters the target’s hotel room posing as a hotel employee, asks to see a spot on the back of his neck, then stabs him with an ice pick, instantly stopping his heart and leaving only a small puncture wound.
It’s the kind of movie-trailer drama that poses questions of genre in the reader’s mind. Is this a thriller? A mystery? Science fiction? And while 1Q84 doesn’t follow the rules of any one genre, its characters and plot points all share the same dime-novel overstatement. The prime example of this comes long before the flow of time has switched from 1984 to 1Q84, when a ten-year-old Aomame silently reaches out to hold the hand of her classmate Tengo, an experience, we are told rather flatly, that changed their lives forever and set this story in motion.
In alternating chapters, the novel focuses on Tengo and Aomame separately. Murakami leaves the reader guessing far into the book how and whether the two characters are connected. Tengo is as outwardly unassuming as Aomame. He teaches math part time, works on a novel part time, and keeps one day a week open for his married girlfriend. Like Aomame, he has a vague sense of purposelessness, despite his comfort. Both characters feel their lives have ended before really beginning, and so they both nonchalantly take on assignments that threaten their lives. Aomame agrees to the most complicated assassination of her career, killing the leader of a powerful cult, while Tengo secretly agrees to rewrite a manuscript by the cult leader’s seventeen-year-old daughter.
Each of these assignments comes with a surreal hitch. The novel Tengo rewrites, which becomes a bestseller, is about a set of malevolent beings called Little People, who crawl from the mouth of a dead goat and spin doppelgangers out of the air. But it turns out to be a memoir, not a novel. The Little People are indeed a force in this world, and all goes well as long as they are countered by an equal, less malevolent force in a kind of Manichean equilibrium. But whether these forces are fictional or nonfictional is less important to Murakami and his characters than whether they make for a good story.
Storytelling is the active ingredient in the year 1Q84. Both Tengo and Aomame carry with them little personal mythologies, just as we all do, detailed landscapes made of memory. The trick is to line up all the narratives you encounter—yours and everyone else’s—in a way that gets you what you want, which, in the case of Tengo and Aomame, is to find each other.
Murakami’s richness of allusion—his comparison of everything and anything to a great Western novel—reinforces the idea of scattered, miniature worlds, but the novel nearly sinks under the weight of so much portentous reference. Just when we are beginning to understand that the book we are reading about could also be the book we are reading, Aomame picks up a copy of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; another veil drops between us and the main plot. Murakami’s dialogue suffers from the opposite problem: it is too direct, unnaturally efficient. Characters speak only to get what they want. The false starts, insecurities, and inconsequential playfulness of everyday speech are absent.
In 1Q84, Murakami presents some fascinating ideas about the nature of narrative—and, in particular, about the way well-told stories lure us with the promise of other worlds, even when we know all along there is really only one. But Murakami fails to dramatize these ideas properly in his own narrative. We see characters consumed by tales of Little People and strange moons, but by the end of 1Q84 we are neither here nor there.