In the opening chapter of Haruki Murakami's new novel, 1Q84, he clearly warns the reader that this story will be nothing less than extraordinary. When young Aomame steps out of a taxi in a miniskirt and heels during a traffic jam on Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway Number 3, her driver tells her, "Things are not what they seem... But don't let appearances fool you. There is always only one reality." The (truly Murakamian) plot explores questions of reality versus fantasy, truth versus lies, and chance encounters versus fate. How are people inextricably linked when they haven't seen each other in 20 years? How do people become irretrievably lost? How reliable are memories? The world he creates may be bizarre, but for Murakami fans, it's also frighteningly familiar.
1Q84 is composed of three books (the first two were published together in Japan, with the release of the third a year later) and follows the parallel narratives of Aomame, a fitness instructor with a murderous vendetta, and Tengo, the ghostwriter of an award-winning story. Both are typical Murakami characters—they have troubled pasts and like to be alone. Separately, they embark on an adventure that draws them together into a parallel world in which the year 1984 becomes 1Q84. ("That's what I'll call this new world," Aomame decides, explaining, "Q is for question mark.") The book is 925 pages—almost three pounds—but you won't be able to put it down, because the year 1Q84 is a "world that bears a question," and we all like answers.
The first two books of 1Q84 are fast-paced and explore cults, violence, and childhood secrets. The third book grows tiresome, as a third narrative is added and the reader already has knowledge of what this character is looking for. Not every puzzle in 1Q84 is neatly solved. Much like the Colonel in Kafka on the Shore or the Sheep Man from A Wild Sheep Chase, in 1Q84 Murakami introduces the Little People, beings that are real but not real—they could very well be figments of the imagination or they could be living entities. We meet them in the seemingly fictional story Tengo ghostwrites, but they somehow find portals (including dead bodies) through which to enter reality. They seem to be neither good nor evil. Do they represent some sort of Übermensch? Do they come from Plato's third space of the khora, where everything takes shape and begins and ends? (I dare you to not imagine the Little People as tiny gnomes with pointy red hats. It's almost as difficult as not picturing the goblins from The Hobbit as Grimace.) Much as Tengo finds that "trying to impose order on something where there never had been any was a waste of effort," the ambiguous nature of the Little People forces the reader to leave all rules behind; anything is possible in the year 1Q84.
1Q84 shares many similarities with Murakami's other books. The simplicity of the love story in Norwegian Wood meets the surreal transposition of time and the opening of passageways in Kafka on the Shore. It's hard to be critical of his repetitious use of characters and themes when they remain so recognizable within ourselves, which is why we return to his writing again and again. Murakami's books are like different windows looking into the same world.
After Aomame steps into the year 1Q84, she finds that while things are different (two moons hang in the sky), they are also strangely familiar—as if something already existed within her that she didn't know about yet. This is the power of Murakami. He takes the landscapes of the human mind and turns them into the landscapes of the outer world.