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Haruki Murakami is not an author I would recommend to everyone, but he is an author whose work I love to fall into. It's sometimes magic realism, sometimes fantastical, sometimes just outright other-worldly.

His characters live quiet lives of routine, their sadness just beneath the surface. They carry on without giving the impression of having given up. Some have secret wishes or desires, reasons to continue on.

Such are the two main characters in 1Q84, Murakami's three-part work of fiction with two moons, Little People and either one reality, or not.

Tonight's diary is about Book 1, which takes place from April through June in the year 1984. Possibly. In the opening chapter, a young woman named "green peas", or Aomame, is in a cab stuck in a traffic jam on a bridge, recogizing a piece of classical music she realizes she shouldn't know. As she prepares to climb off the bridge at the cab driver's suggestion, he tells her that she should use her own eyes and her own judgment, and that "there's always only one reality".

The driver repeats this "slowy, as if underlining an important passage in a book" which I, of course, highlighted. For a writer who deals in alternate realities and visits from characters that cannot possibly exist, Murakami is quite honest in his dealings. He doesn't try to trick readers. If a character repeats something that the reader is told is important well, then, it's important.

But before learning more about Aomame, the next chapter instead focuses on a young man named Tengo. He teaches math at a cram school three days a week but otherwise works at writing. His own work hasn't been published, but his editor, Komatsu, a powerful, behind-the-scenes man in publishing, thinks he has potential.

Komatsu has a fradulent scheme in mind that he needs Tengo to bring about. A short story for an upcoming contest has come to his attention that needs rewriting. The story itself, about Little People, captures Komatsu's interest, but he says it should have been written better. Pooling their resources will make the story a winner.

In alternating chapters, it is revealed that Aomame is an assassin with a cause. Tengo's cause becomes that of the short story writer, Fuka-Eri, a quiet, determined teenager whose parents disappeared into a cult.

The professor who has become Fuka-Eri's de facto guardian tells Tengo about his old friends, the girl's parents, and a cult within a cult that broke apart from the main commune group and which is shrouded in secrecy. Murakami has written about the cult that released Sarin gas into the Tokyo underground, and it could well be that group and its effect on Japanese culture is addressed here as well. (The nonfiction book is Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche).

In their conversation, Tengo and Fuka-Eri discuss the difference between math and literature, and reality. Their words are a hint of what the plot might be, especially for readers of Murakami's earlier novel, After Dark, After Dark, but they also are a distillation of what writing can bring to nourish a soul:

"When I'm writing a story, I use words to transform the surrounding scene into something more natural for me. In other words, I reconstruct it. That way, I can confirm without a doubt that this person known as 'me' exists in the world. This is a totally different process from steeping myself in the world of math."

"You confirm that you exist," Fuka-Eri said.

"I can't say I've been one hundred percent successful at it," Tengo said.

This idea of creation gains more importance when the reader learns that Tengo and Aomame knew each other as children. She was the lonely little girl raised by parents in a church much like Jehovah's Witnesses, apart from the other children. He was a big, smart, athletic boy who told other children to not pick on her one day. She grasped his hand but otherwise stayed remote. And one day moved away.

Now in their early 30s, they both still think of each other, placing the other up on a pedestal.

Based on the plots of other Murakami novels, I have an idea about what is going on and what may happen. When Komatsu tells Tengo that in rewriting the young girl's story, he will "be the go-between -- connecting Fuka-Eri's world and the real world we live in," I have an idea. But whether I'm right or wrong doesn't matter overall.

Iin Aomame's narrative, she is trying to remain a lone wolf. The fitness trainer does have a private client, the dowager, who set her up in the assassin business to dispatch men who abuse women. The dowager has a silent bodyguard/butler, but that's about all for Aomame when it comes to human interaction. Until Aomame meets another woman, a police officer, and they befriend each other to make meeting men casually easier.

She drifts along until she notices there are two moons in the evening sky. When did that happen? And, in the pre-internet days, how can she look this up without appearing bonkers? Aomame has forgotten a few other key events in the recent past as well. Trying to figure out what has happened, she starts rationalizing:

It's not me but the world that's deranged. ...

At some point in time, the world I knew either vanished or withdrew, and another world came to take its place. Like the switching of a track. In other words, my mind, here and now, belongs to the world that was, but the world itself has already changed into something else. So far, the actual changes carried out in that process are limited in number. Most of the new world has been retained from the world I knew, which is why the changes have been presented (virtually) no impediments to my daily life -- so far.

But the changes that have already taken place will almost certainly create other, greater differences around me as time goes by. Those differences will expand little by little and will, in some cases, destroy the logicality of the actions I take. They could well cause me to commit errors that are -- for me -- literally fatal.

What those differences and errors may become are not revealed in this first book. What is revealed is how noticing the two moons has awakened Aomame. She no longer appears to drift; no matter how precisely she conducts herself, she has been drifting. Instead, she begins to open up, even if only inside, in beautifully translated prose:
How long had she been thinking? She seemed to have lost her grasp of time at some point while she was deeply absorbed in her own thoughts. Only her heart continued to tick off the time in its hard, fixed rhythm. Aomame visited several little rooms she possessed inside her, tracing time backward the way a fish swims upstream. She found there familiar sights and long-forgotten smells, gentle nostalgia and severe pain.

Suddenly, from some unknown source, a narrow beam of light pierced Aomame's body. She felt as though, mysteriously, she had become transparent. When she held her hand up in the beam, she could see through it. Suddenly there was no longer any weight to her body. At this moment Aomame thought, Even if I give myself over to the madness -- or prejudice -- here and now, even if doing so destroys me, even if this world vanishes in its entirety, what do I have to lose?

Again and again, the idea of constructing a world and the idea of the world not being real are brought up in the narratives of both Tengo and Aomame.

In addition to the concept of two moons and a world that may or may not be real, with two narratives joined only by the childhood encounter of the two protagonists, 1Q84 has the cult where Fuka-Eri's parents were last seen and overt references to Orwell's classic. Tengo says that Orwell's point is that:

Whenever a new history is written, the old histories all have to be thrown out. In the process, words are remade, and the meanings of current words are changed. What with history  being rewritten so often, nobody knows what is true anymore. They lose track of who is an enemy and who an ally. It's that kind of story." ...

"Robbing people of their actual history is the same as robbing them of part of themselves. It's a crime." ...

"Our memory is made up of our individual memories and our collective memories. The two are intimately linked. And history is our collective memory. If our collective memory is taken from us -- is rewritten -- we lose the ability to sustain our true selves."

In the context of Murakami's world, new and old histories aren't political. They are personal. And they may determine what is real for what character, especially when finishing the rewrite of Fuka-Eri's story unlocks writers block for Tengo. He begins writing a novel with two moons. Speaking with his lover, an older woman, the dual nature of Murakami's story is once again brought up:
"So in the world that isn't here, people do pretty much the same things as those of us who are in this world. If that's the case, then, what's the point of its being a world that isn't here?"

"The point of its being a world that isn't here is in being able to rewrite the past of the world that is here," Tengo said.

"... What I'd like to rewrite is the present, here and now."

"But if you rewrote the past, obviously, the present would change, too. What we call the present is given shape by an accumulation of the past."

The present, the sustaining of true selves, may well be literal. Murakami quotes the classic song, It's Only a Paper Moon, in an epigram:
"But it wouldn't be make believe/if you believed in me."
This could be the key to the novel. Especially in a story where the reader learns in this first book whether Fuka-Eri is correct that the Little People in her story are real, and Tengo's new story has two moons.

Next week, Book 2, covering the months of July through September.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Sep 18, 2012 at 07:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Murakami is probably my all-time fav author, but (7+ / 0-)

    1Q84 is definitely not where I'd start a new reader.  I'm also a bit ambivalent about this book in general -- in some ways it appears to be a synthesis of Kafka on the Shore and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but I'm not sure it ends up with the strengths of either.  

    However, it's hard to have that kind of conversation until we're through all three parts :-)   You certainly do a beautiful job of laying out Part 1 here.  

    •  Thank you! I agree this is not the book (5+ / 0-)

      to start with. I'm seeing echoes of Kafka as well and, now at the Town of Cats story, expect to see more.

      Do you think the short stories in Blind Woman, Sleeping Willow or the earlier novels such as Wild Sheep Chase, or even Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart would be better starting places?

      •  Great job Bookgirl (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Portlaw, bookgirl

        1q84 is not my fav, but I loved your synthesis. I always tell people to start with Hardboiled Wonderland. Its engaging, smart, fun, and easy to read, and introduces you to the world of Murakami. I then tell people to read his short stories, starting with the Elephant Vanishes.

      •  I do really like those early novels, and usually (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Portlaw, bookgirl, Louisiana 1976

        recommend Wild Sheep Chase to people who I think might appreciate the genre-fiction (and specifically detective fiction) anchor to start.  But Norwegian Wood and Sputnik are both gorgeous, and if someone seems more of a 'romantic' I'd go with one of those.  If they're coming out of Sci-Fi I would consider Hard-Boiled Wonderland.

        What a versatile writer he is...

        The major rap against 1Q84 among established critics is that it's just too big and baggy -- it doesn't earn all of its pages -- and for some of them its also too blurry ultimately in its narrative and its thematics.  I dunno.  I'll reread it eventually and we'll see.  But first I'm going to reread Wind-Up Bird which really knocked me out the first time.  

        •  Windup Bird Chronicle is his masterpiece (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Louisiana 1976, bookgirl

          Kafka is 2nd best and I liked After Dark a great deal, highly underrated imo.  In fact, After Dark being a shorter book, might be the best one to start with, though, you couldn't go wrong with Windup either.  The earlier novels are not as strong, though I did enjoy Sputnik Sweetheart.

          IQ84 is bloated, and I found the ending too sentimental.

          "If you tell the truth, you'll eventually be found out." Mark Twain

          by Steven D on Wed Sep 19, 2012 at 07:17:44 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  I'll agree with that criticism (too big...) (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          bookgirl

          1Q84 creates an interesting world, and Aomame and Tengo are interesting characters, as well as many of the supporting characters.  I feel like this book could have been incredible with some judicious editing.  I understand Murakami intentionally is slowing down the pace in many portions of the book, but there were many points in this novel where I could clearly see where things were headed, but knew that it would be quite some time before we got there.

          Once again, this is likely intentional pacing (perhaps to increase the impact of certain sections of the novel), but I think it detracts overall.

    •  Couldn't agree more! (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Portlaw, bookgirl, Louisiana 1976

      Murakami is my favorite author, and I too felt this book left much to be desired. It almost felt like he wrote this a long time ago before he polished his talent. But great job bookgirl synthesizing part 1.

  •  I loved 1Q84. (5+ / 0-)

    But here's the thing about this novel. When you take it apart, as you're doing here, it becomes far more linear than Murakami intended. Because you're retelling the story. Or part of it. And you'll retell some other parts next time. So you have to tell it in a linear way. That in some ways is a disservice, because if you took it all together the margins between what's real and what's magical, between the real world (one moon) and the other one (two moons), the stairway from the freeway to the junkyard below (and back), etc. would all merge into one world. And that merge is what Murakami is after. Or another way: what the merge does to "reality." How much of ordinary reality is there, and how much other reality lives in it? It doesn't so much matter whether the LIttle People are real (or aren't) as that in this Murakami world, the one with two moons (or one moon), the one with the assassin and the dowager, the one with the bodyguard, there ends up being a merger, the worlds embed themselves in each other. They fuse. And, in my view, that fusion is the thing that makes this book a work of genius.

    I loved 1Q84. I hope others read it. And better yet, allow it to get to them.

    Please read and enjoy my novella, Tulum, available in soft cover and eBook formats.

    by davidseth on Tue Sep 18, 2012 at 07:39:03 PM PDT

    •  Because 1Q84 is such a massive work, (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      pico, davidseth, Portlaw, Louisiana 1976

      I didn't want to write about it in just one diary. The details are so worth savoring.

      That fusion also was evident in Kafka on the Shore. That's a work I adored but which I'm not sure would hold up to the scrutiny this one can handle. It was definitely one to just hang on and enjoy the ride while experiencing it.

  •  If you're interested, I wrote an intro (6+ / 0-)

    to his work way back in 2007 (obviously out of date now).   Not sure if IQ84 is for me: I think I burnt out on his fiction around After Dark, and readers have suggested it's just another (long) retread of his usual work, which is a pity.

    For my money his masterpiece is still Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, in part because it's so compactly designed and executed.   I've liked most of his books, though.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Tue Sep 18, 2012 at 07:40:31 PM PDT

    •  I don't care how long ago you wrote (4+ / 0-)

      it; that diary is on my hotlist.

      After Dark originally was a letdown after Kafka. But as part of the whole of Murakami, I can see where it was a bridge to this next work.

      Perhaps instead of a retread, 1Q84 is more a culmination of his writing. At least, that's my position this week.

    •  Gawd, was it that long ago? (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      bookgirl, pico, Owlet, Portlaw, Louisiana 1976

      I remember that LfK - proud to say that I rec'd it, back in the day.  

      'Fraid I haven't really come around vis-a-vis Murakami - I get frustrated when an author strings me along for a couple of hundred pages' worth of plot, then just...kinda stops talking about it.  Grrr, y'know?

      •  Another reason, then, that I'm glad to (4+ / 0-)

        not read primarily for plot. I tend to be more propelled by character-driven fiction or, in crime fiction terms, whydunits rather than whodunits.

        •  My background's in history, (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Portlaw, bookgirl, Louisiana 1976, No Exit

          so yeah, I guess I gotta cop to having a weakness for a story that gets into long- and short-term causes and effects and all those other details that make historical narrative so yummy.  I like to think I can appreciate character-driven stories as much as the next moonbat, but 900 pages...wow.  It's like reading Dreadnought all over again!

          We may not agree on the need for storyline resolution, but that doesn't diminish my respect for the diary you've written here - it's a beautiful review (enough so that you got Spotlighted), and I'm looking forward to reading your take on Book 2.  Really nice work!

      •  We're getting old, UM! (3+ / 0-)

        And that was already the 13th installment of the series.

        Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

        by pico on Tue Sep 18, 2012 at 08:21:32 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  No plot, no fun (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Portlaw, Louisiana 1976

        I bought the book last year at Amazon, and have to
         admit to being more than a little mystified at all of the reviews with 4 and 5 stars until it came to me: I was reading an entirely different book! Obviously I and other 1 and 2 star reviewers live in an alternate universe, and instead of receiving the wonderful, magical, breathtaking creation got the plotfree, boring, lifeless tome. No wonder the characters in my version of IQ84 seem two-dimensional: they ARE two-dimensional, which makes perfect sense since they live in..another...dimension.

        OK. So much for trying to be cute about this. IQ84 is easily the worst book I have picked up in some time. The 'plot' is infantile, the sex scenes adolescent and the premise simply doesn't work. This book can't decide if it wants to be a pretentious literary work or a science fiction potboiler. In the end it fails on both counts. No, I take that back: I didn't get to the end. After 600 or so pages my eyes glazed over and I quit.

        Fortunately, I was reading this thing on a cruise, and, as we all know, reading is a major part of cruising - right up there with dining. Resisting the urge to hurl IQ84 over the side, I padded off to the ship's library and traded it in for, not one, but two books in Martha Grimes "Emma Graham" series.

        I think that was a pretty good deal.

        •  At least there were the Emma (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Louisiana 1976

          Graham books for you. I haven't read those because Martha Grimes derailed her own work for me before that series in the Richard Jury novels. That was a major disappointment because the early books were delightful, almost romp. Even when she first turned to more introspection on Jury's part, the novels still worked.

          Then midway through one, I realized I couldn't keep Jury's enigmatic women separated from each other.

    •  Agree, Hardboiled Wonderland is the place to start (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      bookgirl, pico, Portlaw, Louisiana 1976
  •  it's my favorite of Murakami's books (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bookgirl, Portlaw, Louisiana 1976

    with all the short stories within other stories, both true life and fictional.  Thanks for talking about this book.

    As of right now, I loathe all anti-choice politicians with an intensity greater than the radiation output of a thousand suns. 3.13.12

    by GenuineRisk on Tue Sep 18, 2012 at 08:39:19 PM PDT

  •  I just bought this book (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Portlaw, bookgirl, Louisiana 1976

    on the advice of several friends, but I've never read anything of his yet. It's huge, so I'm guessing it will be slow-going for me. Suffice it to say, I'm still 2 editions behind on Vanity Fair, so...

  •  But it's not SF/F, right? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Portlaw, bookgirl, Louisiana 1976

    God forbid something that is well regarded by critics be insulted by being (gasp) genre fiction.

    This head movie makes my eyes rain.

    by The Lone Apple on Wed Sep 19, 2012 at 03:19:42 AM PDT

  •  I enjoyed and stalled in it (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Portlaw, bookgirl, Louisiana 1976

    I confess that I found the writing imaginative and the themes intriguing, pretty much as you describe them, but I stalled in book 2.

    It's not my place to say, of course, but I felt the female sexuality was masculine, or at least fantastic and projected from a place of comfortable hyperbole. I could practically hear "Just call me angel of the morning, Angel," and yet that bit of exaggeration did not do me in. What brought me to a halt was book two and its adoption of fantasy elements, and the teenage girl who may be pre-pubescent coupling with (I'll await your diary on book 2). . . . My Marxisant heart beat red and made me stand away.

    I was also amazed and moved by the power of description, the insight in the metaphors, and the freshness of the perspective. When I stalled, I did not think it bad, or even less than great, but I did think it was stained by history (real history) in unconscious ways and gender in such a way that I myself could not enjoy the aesthetics.

    If money is the root of all evil, then what is Mitt Romney?

    by The Geogre on Wed Sep 19, 2012 at 03:24:17 AM PDT

  •  1Q84 is the only book I've ever read (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Louisiana 1976, bookgirl

    where I couldn't really decide if I liked it or not.  I wasn't disappointed that I spent the time getting through it, though, and I'm glad that I stuck with it and finished it.  So I think I probably did like it.  By the way, I listened to it on CD, and I thought that the reader's voices added to the airiness or disjointed feel of the story.

    I haven't read any of his others, but after seeing all these glowing recommendations, I will read more.  

  •  The best review I heard about 1Q84 (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bookgirl

    was from a NYTimes review podcast, where the reviewer said something like: "This was either the best terrible book I've ever read, or the worst great book I've ever read."

    I sort of felt that way too, but I gave Murakami the benefit of the doubt because he's my favorite novelist, but only when I'm in a certain melancholic, existential-angsty, wry-off-kilter-view-of-the-world kind of mood. I have loved everything else he's written, so I knew I was was getting into, and did enjoy this one for the most part, very much.

  •  Read it as my first Murakami (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bookgirl

    I had read a review or an interview with Murakami while sitting in an airport.  After having Amazon "recommend" it a few times as well, that was what pushed me over the edge.

    My wife read it too.  We were reading at the same time (sometimes one slightly ahead of the other) and didn't want to talk about anything the other had not read yet, so keeping track of where we were became somewhat important.  Nonetheless, it was fun having someone to discuss the book with and speculate about where the plot would go next.

    It was an unusual read: part mystery, part love story, part fantastic.  But there was something about the writing style that was spare and crisp, almost poetic, that gave a dreamy feel to the entire book.  There is a sort of melancholy and longing the pervades the book.  But I agree with some here that we left with mixed feelings about how we felt about the book, but on the whole I would recommend it to contemplative readers who aren't afraid of long books or ambiguity.

    When a whole nation is roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice, I am fain to explore the cleanness of its hands and the purity of its heart. - Emerson

    by foolrex on Wed Sep 19, 2012 at 11:09:52 AM PDT

  •  I'm glad you're reading IQ84, and wrote this diary (0+ / 0-)

    but I feel like I'll have to come back and read it in a couple of years, when I've read the book itself. I hate spoilers.

    I'm sorry, though, that I haven't read it already :-(

    I do find Murakami pretty magical, the 2 or 3 I've read.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Wed Sep 19, 2012 at 07:24:10 PM PDT

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