This mega-fable by Haruki Murakami, while occasionally oblique, is a long, clear-voiced, and languidly paced story about conformity, and the ramifications of breaking free of the familial and social expectations that are placed upon us. There are legal, ethical and social expectations we are all subject to 'a priori' -- as both humans and citizens -- and there are the expectations custom-tailored for us by parents, siblings, friends and lovers -- as individuals. It imagines the 'multiverse' as something like an endless apartment complex made up of locked, sound-proofed and windowless suites. Every one of these earth-sized/universe-sized apartments have hidden passages linking them to an adjoining, otherwise hermetically-sealed unit, and rare individuals, prompted by extraordinary circumstances, can see and use these passages, stepping into a unit built just for them... perhaps by them.
The story follows two main characters, with connections to one another that are only apparent well into the narrative. But they are each the center of their own personal solar system; the moons and planets and satellites in each respective orbit are often eccentric, and as celestial bodies orbiting different stars collide, the tale moves into the strange gravitational stability of a binary star... a cruel galactic romance that sloughs off all orbital relationships and responsibilities. Similarly, they both encounter a second moon that no one seems to notice.
Both Aomame and Tengo were raised in difficult environments, albeit of very different kinds. Both characters make a choice that opens, for them alone, a door. Each of their respective doors will take them into an alternate universe, one with very slight narrative differences. Aomame labels this world '1Q84', as opposed to '1984', the world she came from -- the Orwellian connotations give further evidence of the 'individual vs, society' theme Murakami explores. At several points Orwell's novel is mentioned; instead of 'Big Brother', rewriting history and confusing the present, there are the 'little people'... instead of Big, little; instead of singular, plural; instead of a huge totalitarian machine that destroys and rewrites the past, tiny, mysterious people who remove certain individuals from their reality, to remake them in another.
After getting caught in a traffic jam, a simfonietta by Janacek heralds Aomame's fateful decision, with a mysterious taxi-driver as harbinger. Rather than missing her very important 'appointment', she uses an emergency stair pointed out by the cabbie, which takes her off the elevated expressway, and down to a city street below. Not long after, she gets her first clue that things aren't quite right, when she notices a police officer carrying a semi-automatic pistol instead of a revolver. Later, she learns that this change happened years previous, following a gun-battle between police and a group of political and religious radicals, an event she has no memory of.
For Tengo, a 'cram-school' math teacher and writer, his life suddenly leaves its well-established course when his associate and mentor Komatsu suggests a strange and risky idea. A teenaged girl named Fuka-Eri has submitted a story titled 'Air Chrysalis' for a high-profile new writer's competition. Tengo is impressed with the story, but both men agree that it can't win as it is, due to its rough, amateurish prose. Tengo finds his door, so to speak, when Komatsu suggests he rewrite Fuka-Eri's manuscript. Their plan is to combine Tengo's technical gifts as a writer with Fuka-Eri's imagination and raw talent as a story-teller, keeping his involvement a secret. Tengo is concerned about Komatsu's scheme, but feel's compelled to work on the manuscript. Fuka-Eri is one of the most important and enigmatic characters in Murakami's novel. When Tengo meets her he is struck by her beauty as well as her unusual personality. She speaks with a complete lack of emotion, and answers questions only when it suits her. He also learns that she is dyslexic, and it was actually her little 'sister' -- the daughter of Fuka-Eri's guardian Professor Ebisuno -- who recorded the tale as Fuka-Eri dictated. After meeting the Professor, and learning more of the mysterious girl's life -- Tengo steps through the door, and commits to revising 'Air Chrysalis', which turns out to be less fictional than anyone could believe such a fantastical tale to be. Secondary characters, like the Dowager, who conspires with Aomame to dispense vigilante justice, are just as intriguing, and new characters emerge as the story progresses, including a surprising figure from Fuka-Eri's past, and a repulsive private investigator.
The many characters and storylines of 1Q84 converge, coalesce, and sometimes diverge again. The complexity of the tale is never confusing, and Murakami's writing style has been translated with impressive clarity. The prose has an earnest concision that can say many things at once, or one thing with absolute precision. It's quite a feat, really; I have no idea to what extent the translators deserve credit for 1Q84's brilliance as an English-language novel -- echoing Tengo's dilemma as he rewrote 'Air Chrysalis' -- but I do not doubt that Murakami has created a powerful, profound work of fiction. I haven't read any of Murakami's previous works, but there was something about this story that reminded me of Roberto Bolano's '2666' -- both the meandering, almost haphazard feel of the plot from the outset, slowly tightening midway through, and the language; again, I will always find translations frustrating, on some level, especially with novels like 1Q84 and 2666. They're both purposely ambiguous; I worry that the translator might be twisting and confusing the original intent for the sake of style, or misrepresenting stylistic power in their concern for retaining presumed intellectual intent. If you could quantify it, would 1Q84 be 99% Murakami? 85%? 50%? In the end, you have to take the story as you find it, and trust the translator -- a thankless job, really; translators are seen as technicians instead of artists, despite the aesthetic sensibilities required -- rather than second-guessing a strange word choice, or trying to dig much deeper. But I liked it. As I said, I think the translation is excellent, stylistically. Translating Japanese to English is a far more difficult task than translating Spanish to English. The way 1Q84 was released, in separate parts, echoes way 2666 was released, and the two books have many thematic and stylistic similarities... I'm curious whether Murakami intended it, or if I'm imagining things.