Of course it's all just a hypothesis, Aomame told herself as she walked. But it's the most compelling hypothesis I can produce at the moment. I'll have to act according to this one, I suppose, until a more compelling hypothesis comes along. Otherwise, I could end up being thrown to the ground somewhere. If only for that reason, I'd better give an appropriate name to this new situation in which I find myself. There's a need, too, for a special name in order to distinguish between this present world and the former world in which the police carried old-fashioned revolvers. Even cats and dogs need names. A newly changed world must need one, too.
1Q84 – that's what I'll call this new world, Aomame decided.
Q is for "question mark." A world that bears a question.
Aomame nodded to herself as she walked along.
Like it or not, I'm here now, in the year 1Q84. The 1984 that I knew no longer exists. It's 1Q84 now. The air has changed, the scene has changed. I have to adapt to this world-with-a-question-mark as soon as I can. Like an animal released into a new forest. In order to protect myself and survive, I have to learn the rules of this place and adapt myself to them. (pp. 158-159 e-book edition, Ch. 9)
I first read Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 soon after its US release in late October 2011. At the time, I found it difficult to summarize my thoughts on this sprawling book (it is nearly a thousand pages in hardcover and just over 1200 e-book pages on my iPad), as it covered so many things, some that I thought were done excellently, others that I thought were underdeveloped, and a few that just flat-out baffled me. So I eschewed writing a formal review then, thinking that a re-read might provide a clearer picture of the story (stories?) being told. Now that this novel is up for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize, it was a good time to re-read the book and see if my initial impressions had changed.
1Q84 is the most "speculative" of the shortlisted books. It transpires in 1984 Japan and then in a place, pointedly noted as being non-parallel, of two moons, Little People, and a story that seems to travel through a semi-permeable membrane that separates the two worlds. It is the story of a former child member of a religious cult-turned-assassin of abusive men, Aomame, and her search after twenty years for a man, Tengo, who once shared a mysterious moment with her when they were ten. There are events such as a mysterious pregnancy, an Exxon Tiger billboard, and an unusual murder-mystery that make 1Q84 one of the most visible weird fictions to be released in the past five years.
The novel is divided into three chronological sections that span roughly the Spring through Autumn of 1984. There are alternating chapters presented in limited third-person PoV that focus on Aomame and Tengo's experiences in both the "real" world and in the world of 1Q84. Murakami makes copious use of literary and cultural symbols to make symbolic and (mostly) literal connections between the worlds. One particular reference that may be more obscure to Anglo-American reasons is the "town of cats." Seen from Tengo's perspective, the alternate world is not Aomame's "1Q84" but instead a place that reminds him strongly of pre-World War II writer Hagiwara Sakutarō's "Town of Cats" (readers wanting to read this story can find it in the anthology The Weird, which incidentally lists Murakami as being influenced by his work. That note coincidentally was written some months before the US publication of 1Q84). For Tengo, this "cat town" world was a strange, alienating place in which the "Little People," who are mentioned in the novel Air Chrysalis that he has ghostwritten for a 17 year-old girl, Fuka-Eri, lurk behind a series of mysteries.
There is certainly an aura of menace in the novel's last third, as Aomame and Tengo come closer to identifying the mysteries that have invaded their lives. Murakami ambitiously attempts to meld a weird, metatextual setting with elements taken from thrillers and for most of the time, this unusual pairing succeeds. The slower, more contemplative pace of the first two parts gives way to a quicker-tempo, more action-packed final section. Although not all of the mysteries are explained (if anything, explanation in a story such as 1Q84 would serve to dampen its appeal), there certainly is a nice tying-together of several symbolic objects within the course of Aomame and Tengo's eventual reunion. Yet it is almost too little, too late, as there are some lengthy longeurs in the middle chapters that almost derail the novel.
1Q84 is one of those "too much" novels, at least for sections lasting sometimes longer than a hundred pages. There are too many interesting and quirky characters for each individual one to have the impact that similar characters had in some of Murakami's earlier work. There are a plethora of mysterious objects whose symbolic purpose in regards to the plot remain to be deciphered, perhaps too many for the narrative to handle adequately. The pasts of both Aomame and Tengo are intriguing, but sometimes too much backstory had to be introduced for it to be as effective as it otherwise could have been.
Yet despite this sense that there is a surfeit of things that in moderation would made for great narrative elements, 1Q84 is a very good work. Although at times it labors under the weight of its massive narrative, ultimately the reading experience belies that earlier sense that it is at times bloated and turgid. Murakami manages to strike a precarious balance between exposition and leaving tantalizing mysteries for the readers to puzzle out at their leisure. Although it is not quite at the level of his best-known works, 1Q84 is one of the better 2011 releases and its inclusion on the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize shortlist does not stick out like a sore thumb. If this is damning with faint praise, there are a whole host of fictions that could wish to be so damned.