People talk of ‘high concept’ fiction, but I’ll confess I’ve never understood what altitude has to do with it. Wouldn’t ‘narrow concept’ be closer to the truth? A high-concept novel takes one ingenious notion and bends everything else – character, narrative, style – around it. The result can be striking and thought-provoking, but it can also result in a rather straitjacketed read. Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s new novel 1Q84 has one of the highest, or narrowest, of concepts I’ve come across in a long time, and as a consequence falls somewhere between ‘sharp’ and ‘two-dimensional’.
Part mystery novel, part love story, and imbued throughout with magical realism, this lengthy (and at more than 900 pages, it is lengthy) metaphysical saga explores identity, power and truth through the lens of an altered past.
In the first chapter we are introduced to Aomame, a massage therapist stuck in traffic on a freeway flyover. As she frets about being late for a meeting, the driver tells her she has an option: She can get out of the cab, descend a nearby emergency stairway and take the subway — but, he warns her, the world might never be the same. Making a snap decision to get out of the cab, she hitches up her miniskirt, steps over the guardrail and proceeds to her appointment. Whereupon two things happen: first, she performs an illicit act with a homemade stiletto. Second, per the cabbie’s prophecy, she finds herself in, literally, a new world.
From this dizzying premise, things only get more complicated. As anyone who has read his previous novels (excepting Norwegian Wood, a work of straight realism) will most certainly attest, Murakami’s plots don’t unfold so much as proliferate, with the author grafting on entire new dimensions at every turn, relentlessly driving the story deeper into postmodern complexity and mind-bending silliness.
Running in alternate chapters to Aomame’s story is that of Tengo, a mathematics teacher and aspiring novelist, who agrees to a shady ghostwriting deal: he will secretly revise a manuscript by a promising but unpolished 17-year-old, the reserved Fuka-Eri, so it can be submitted for a major literary prize. Yet another narrative is introduced late on, following ungainly private investigator Ushikawa on a mission to uncover Aomame’s true identity. To say much more about the plot seems counterproductive, since among 1Q84’s charms is its sense of the unexpected.
Devoted fans will take pleasure from the fact that Murakami’s personal obsessions and eccentricities are on full display here: from cats (albeit not of his usual anthropomorphic variety) to two-mooned worlds and the absolutely terrifying ‘Little People’ – a cult of diminutive troublemakers who emerge through the open mouths of dead goats, spin glowing cocoons out of thin air and stash within them the ‘spiritlike part’ of previously normal human beings. Bafflement of this sort is central to the experience of reading Murakami, whose previous novels feature sudden sardine storms (Kafka on the Shore); malevolent, soul-stealing, hyper-intelligent sheep (A Wild Sheep Chase); and epic battles that take place in mystical quasi-alternative universes (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle).
Although 1Q84 doesn’t immediately seem to have much in common with its near-namesake, George Orwell’s dystopian satire 1984, it is more alike than it first appears – Murakami’s imagined world is, like Orwell’s, frequently bleak and unforgiving, an alternative reality where the machinations of a society with ‘a serious shortage of both logic and kindness’ not only destroys his characters’ burgeoning possibilities of fulfillment and happiness but also threaten to obliterate the individual’s sense of self.
Though the plot is intriguing and Murakami’s use of language is impressive, what is most astounding about 1Q84 is that it achieves what is perhaps the primary function of literature: to reimagine and to reframe the world. Yet, rather than creating settings where traditional narrative rules do not apply, Murakami’s are spaces where, ambitiously and resourcefully, he can rewrite those rules entirely.
Best of all, Murakami doesn’t ask that we suspend our disbelief. He encourages disbelief at every turn, as he takes the familiar and twists it, turns it and warps it in wild and increasingly inventive ways, into a depiction of a parallel universe that is almost, but not quite, the place we know so well. Every passage, sentence and story-within-a-story-within-a-story is an entryway into another reverie – stranger, more fantastic and more tempting than the one that came before it, inviting you to step tentatively through each increasingly exotic portal until, eventually, it ends. In the end, Murakami himself puts it best: ‘You could pick it apart completely if you wanted to,’ says one of his characters, when asked to describe the feeling of reading a book. And yet, ‘after you work your way through the thing, with all its faults, it leaves a real impression – it gets to you.’
Jennifer Peterson-Ward is a freelance writer and editor who divides her time between Melbourne and Perth, where she completed a double degree in Journalism and Professional Writing at Curtin University. She blogs occasionally at jenniferpetersonward.wordpress.com.