1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

1Q84 was hyped as Haruki Murakami’s magnum opus before its American release in 2011 and I remember being as intrigued by its description as I had been about Donna Tartt’s equally hyped The Secret History many years earlier. Even though I rushed to buy a copy, my cherished hardback with its amazing translucent dust jacket is a somehow disappointing Third Printing.

1Q84 was translated into a bunch of languages, including Czech and Latvian. I think it was the first Murakami novel I ever read, and I liked it so well I went back and read the (much, much shorter) novels The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and A Wild Sheep Chase. 1Q84 is still my favorite, although I was talking to a man at dinner the other night who was reading it for the first time and realized that I could remember almost nothing about it except that the main female character had a funny name, green beans or green peas or something, and that she climbed down a roadway staircase and her life changed. Also that she ate cucumbers to prevent constipation; a tiny detail that I only remember because I started eating them after I read that and it works.

I came home from dinner and thought 1Q84 should be my next Selfish Book Club read since I knew I would like it and I could remember so little of it. The main female character is Aomame (green peas), a lithe assassin, and the main male character is Tengo, a writer charged with rewriting “Air Chrysalis,” a highly original book by a mysterious young woman.

There’s really no connection between 1Q84 and George Orwell’s 1984 beyond the fact that they both take place in the year 1984 and Orwell’s book is mentioned here and there. The Q in Murakami’s title comes from the Japanese word for 9, ku, which sounds like “Q”–or so I read in some comments accompanying an interview with Murakami–but in the book Aomame says it stands for “question.”

The white cover of the hardbound edition features photographs of the beautiful, modern faces of a Japanese young man and young woman. The transparent dust jacket seems too delicate for the 932 page tome. Somehow my copy has become shelf-worn and the pristine white of the spine is slightly discolored; I know it’s stupid, but I like my hardbound novels to look like no one’s ever read them. My paperbacks are underlined and have notes in the margin and dog-eared pages, but my hardbacks are, for the most, near perfect. So I was surprised to see that I’d also carefully dog-eared (tiny dog’s ears) several pages in 1Q84.

The first two thirds of the book are hypnotic. Not a heck of a lot happens, but it is still a page turner somehow. The hypnotic feeling comes partly from the subject matter and partly from Marakami’s use of language. Murakami’s word choices and syntax remind me of the controlled calm of a Japanese garden with perfectly raked sand–seemingly simple and natural but actually incredibly labor intensive and intentional. It also comes from the use of repetition. Murakami repeats facts about the characters he has already stated in earlier chapters, which is a little disconcerting because it makes the reader think, “that sounds familiar,” and “he already said that, why is he repeating it?” as if the repeated facts are clues to something. Actually I think Murakami is making it easy on readers to remind us of information we already learned. It is somehow relaxing, as if he is saying, “Relax, I’m driving, come along for the ride.”

It’s funny that I could like a book so well but not care much for the plot. I hate books about cults, and I’m not that into the righteous vengeance aspect of the killings that Aomame carries out on behalf of her sponsor, the dowager. The Little People and the air chrysalis don’t make any sense to me. But I do like the alternate universe aspect and the will they/won’t they star-crossed love of Aomame and Tengo.

The characters are interesting, but Aomame is pretty unbelievable. I have never met anyone with anything close to her self control. She is like a Japanese Angelina Jolie playing one of her bad ass but sexy characters.

Tengo is much more warm and cuddly; a humble and talented writer whose childhood tribulations are related in a very believable and readable way. He’s one of those rare guys who are not afraid to be with an older woman (his ten years older married lover) and he is masculine but gentle. Unlike Aomame, Tengo never goes out prowling for sex. He is satisfied with his once a week married girlfriend and the rest of the time focuses on his writing. He has a very reliable moral compass, and he seems almost effortlessly ethical.

The last half of the book was slow for me the first couple of reads, but this time it was interesting to the end. I gave in to the plot and the weirdness of it a little more and wasn’t trying so hard to relate to Aomame. I found Tengo much more attractive, maybe because at the time of this reading I am the older woman with an eight-years younger boyfriend who has some Tengo qualities. That’s the most wonderful thing about revisiting beloved books–as we change the good ones give us something new with every read.

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