You’ve probably already seen it: staring at you from the New Fiction section of your local bookstore, from a newspaper or magazine, perhaps even on another website. The book is impressive up close: not only is it big, it has two faces, front and back, with which to watch you!
Haruki Murakami’s latest novel is 1Q84. You can pronounce it “One-Q-Eighty-Four,” or “Q-Teen-Eighty-Four”: the jury’s still out on that one. It has been translated into English, combined from three volumes into one, and released in America.
This is hardly news. It came out Oct. 25: in the world of book releases, this isn’t exactly fresh material. Heck, I’ve been so caught up with my own reading that I plowed straight through Kerouac and Mary Roach before getting around to a review. But, eleven days and three books later, I still feel compelled to recommend this novel. It’s that good. Of the seventy books I’ve read this year, it’s one of the best.
Where to begin? The main characters: after all, the ride is only as smooth (or as safe, or as fun) as its driver. For a novel like this, complete with alternate realities and the presence of imp-like Little People, a good “driver” is essential. Murakami switches between the co-protagonists Aomame and Tengo with an intimate use of third person. They’re ideal main characters: complete unto themselves, but still very relatable, easy to follow overall. Murakami also populates his strange mirror-world with unique supporting characters: a strong feminist dowager, an eccentric magazine editor, a soft-spoken gay bodyguard, a deadpan high-school runaway, and a happy-go-lucky parking enforcer, to name a few.
In 1Q84, the sentences are pretty straightforward. Every once in a while, though, they catch you with a strange simile or phrase: things like “as inconspicuous as a centipede in a cup of yogurt” or “like an anchor attached to a balloon.” And they don’t just grab your attention: they channel the weird feeling of the “1Q84” world. When Aomame climbs down the emergency ladder, or when Tengo sees the two moons, that is the feeling we get as readers – that exquisite combo of the perfectly plausible and the utterly bizarre. And whether Murakami uses these abnormal moments to frighten you or to charm you, to creep you out or make you laugh or make you curious, the tool is an effective one, especially in his hands.
In addition to having fun with language, Murakami excels at character back-stories. The co-protagonists are painted for us bit-by-bit, with brief flashes or chapter-long chunks of history. With each turned page, we become more familiar with these people, cheering them on, experiencing their emotions, and wishing the best for them. The process is a lengthy one, yes, but it’s a pleasurable one: like partying with friends or sharing stories with a new lover, you want time to go on endlessly. And with 925 pages, it often feels like it does.
On a final note, let’s bring up the elephant in the room. This book is long. Huge. In hardcover, it weighs a good deal. And yes, it is available as an eBook, but I cannot recommend against it more ardently. NPR reviewer Alan Cheuse jokes that “picking up the book may strain your arms.” Yes, it’s heavier than the last thing you read (unless the last thing you read was War & Peace). But its weight, size, and overall physical feel actually shape the reading experience! Holding the entirety of it in your hand, relishing how far you’ve come, knowing that there’s more to go. You should no sooner read this book on a device than look at Picasso in black & white or watch Mary Poppins with the sound off.