What Haruki Murakami has given us in his latest novel, 1Q84, is a loose baggy metaphysical monster of a fairy tale. The Japanese writer has said he wants to blend Dostoevsky and Raymond Chandler in his work, and he has done so in this novel with a triple portion: religious mysticism, murders and detective work, and the Little People.
The novel begins with a woman named Aomame, which means green pea in Japanese. She is stuck in a taxi on a jammed expressway in Tokyo in 1984. All we are told is Aomame is on a mission and has to get somewhere, no matter what, by a certain time. The driver tells her about an emergency ladder by which she can descend to street level and catch a subway train, which she does, but by so doing she has emerged into another world, almost exactly like our own except for certain historical differences and the two moons in the night sky. Using a Japanese pun between the numeral nine and the letter Q, she dubs this world 1Q84.
This novel is the story of how Aomame and a boy, Tengo, she once held hands with in elementary school, are eventually drawn back together, in the world of 1Q84, via the machinations of a religious cult called Sakigake, which has established a connection with the creepy Little People. Sakigake hires a private detective named Ushikawa, an incredibly ugly man with crooked teeth and a huge misshapen head, to track Aomame down, for reasons that can’t be divulged.
There are many themes in the book—how parental zealotry of any kind damages children; how cruel some men are to women; how a hunger for certainty and religious greed poisons groups; how art can be a way of salvation—but the passage that best sums up the novel is the following. It is Sakigake’s leader, aptly named Leader, who is speaking with Aomame:
“In this world, there is no absolute good, no absolute evil,” the man said. “Good and evil are not fixed, stable entities but are continually trading places. A good may be transformed into an evil in the next second. And vice versa. Such was the way of the world that Dostoevsky depicted in The Brothers Karamazov. The most important thing is to maintain the balance between the constantly moving good and evil. If you lean too much in either direction, it becomes difficult to maintain actual morals. Indeed, balance itself is the good.”
Murakami sees the world from a sort of Gnostic dualism. But he rises above this by what seems to be the opening of a door in his work to the reality of God. It is not a Judeo-Christian God, although there are favorable references to such in the novel, but more of a Jungian God. Murakami believes in God, it seems, but he’s afraid of the zealotry and madness of fanatics and so he draws back from defining God in too detailed a way.
As one of his characters says, apropos of Jung who built his own little castle and chiseled in stone at the entrance the words, “Cold or Not, God is Present”:
“I don’t know much about God. I was raised in a Catholic orphanage and had some awful experiences there so I don’t have a good impression of God. And it was always cold there, even in the summer. It was either really cold or outrageously cold. One or the other. If there is a God, I can’t say he treated me very well. Despite all this, those words of Jung’s quietly sank deep into the folds of my soul. Sometimes I close my eyes and repeat them over and over, and they make me strangely calm. ‘Cold or Not, God is Present.’”
The novel has its problems. The dialogue turns into speeches at times and you get the feeling Murakami is talking to himself about ideas through his characters. Sometimes, as well, too many details about meals people make and the clothes they wear clog the narrative. And the book is just so darned long (925 pages). It builds to an excruciating climax in the second section, then almost starts over in the third. You might be tempted to stop reading about two-thirds of the way through—but I would encourage you, if you’re the kind of person to read such a strange book in the first place, to finish the novel. It is well worth it.
Franklin Freeman is a freelance writer living with his wife and four children in Saco, Maine.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.