Haruki Murakami is affectionately known as the warmhearted Japanese grandfather of hipster literature. His novels and short stories are filled with the literary fantastic, protagonists who find themselves unmoored in place and/or time, emotionally unattainable women and a hard-to-describe sense of displacement and perpetual melancholy. “1Q84,” his 1,000-page magnum opus, checks off all of these criteria. Aomame, a woman who glides through life simply and without much impact, and Tengo, an aspiring writer with familial issues, cross metaphysical paths when they both become embroiled in a cult-cum-religion-cum-mythology. Add in magic, assassinations, immaculate conception, the possibility of parallel universes, repressed childhood memories, suppressed romance and a Murakami trademark enigmatic teenaged girl, and you have the parts of the novel. But the whole is more than just a slapdash potpourri.
By writing a three-volume mega-novel, Murakami’s story expands to fill every corner with its understated fantastical realism. The plotline is subtly seductive, beginning with the simple elements of Tengo’s decision to ghostwrite a novel and help his editor win a prize and Aomame’s growing friendship with an elderly woman who runs a shelter for battered women. But small details pile up. A second moon appears in the sky. The cult of Sakigake is a historical entity although it has not existed previously. The year 1984, Aomame thinks, has changed into the new 1Q84. (It should be noted that this is, in fact, a linguistic pun; the character for the number 9 is pronounced as “ky?” in Japanese, hence the replacement with the letter “q” as a variable for the unknown.)
However, the book’s greatest weakness is its final volume. It introduces a third narrator into what had previously been Tengo and Aomame’s story, and he is dry, unlikeable and furthermore largely unnecessary in the plotline. In order to make room for his story, both Tengo’s and Aomame’s suffer. His plotline comes to a strange and unsatisfying halt for a while, while hers becomes perfunctory. It’s a decision that, quite frankly, makes no sense to the reader, and unfortunately it’s the note the book pretty much ends on, save for a slightly improved final chapter.
As a result, the book peters out, starting with a beautiful, slow build — Murakami’s not really one for an explosive story — but ending with a somewhat pathetic whimper. Still, it’s an engrossing read in a way that few other books are; it’s not the sort of book that leaves the reader hanging off dramatic cliffs for the next chapter. It’s not exactly a hyperactive page-turner. Instead, it slowly builds questions upon questions, creeping underfoot. And the first two volumes are picture-perfect Murakami, hipster ennui and all.