A Leisurely Feast: Haruki Murakami's 1Q84

19:55, Jan 03 2013

Every night for several months now, I've had a routine. I pick up Haruki Murakami's novel 1Q84, read one or two short chapters and happily fall asleep. The next morning I take 10 minutes over a cup of tea to do the same thing before leaving the house. Rinse and repeat.

This measured approach is not normally my style at all, but Murakami's writing strongly suggests it. The book stays interesting without evoking the slightest sense of urgency- you can stop reading anytime you like, but Murakami knows you will be back sooner or later. Like Murakami's writing process itself, 1Q84 has a sense of patience to it:

"Concentration is one of the happiest things in my life ... If you cannot concentrate, you are not so happy. I'm not a fast thinker, but once I am interested in something, I am doing it for many years. I don't get bored. I'm kind of a big kettle. It takes time to get boiled, but then I'm always hot."

In part, 1Q84 fits well with routine consumption because the characters in the book also live by comfortable routines. A lot of the book's bulk is taken up with sweetly detailed descriptions of their lives - Murakami's characters sleep, wake up, choose clothes that fit their intentions for the day, cook healthy meals, share their inner monologues with us.

It could easily have been boring, and possibly will to readers in the distant future- I've always had difficulty wading through descriptions of daily life from authors like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen.
However, Murakami's inner-city Japanese characters and gently fantastical plot are exotic enough to hold the reader's attention through the book's considerable length as the slow-boiling drama at its centre builds and builds.

At its core, 1Q84 is about loneliness. Two people, Tengo and Aomame, search for one another within a confusing and gently threatening parallel world while Old English-style fairies called the Little People manipulate a cult to chase them. Aomame has named the alternate universe 1Q84, and Tengo calls it "The Cat Town".

There is violence here, but it's well-signalled and sensitively approached, and the point of the story seems to be more about getting to know the two characters and their predicament more than unravelling the plot.

1Q84 was originally published in Japanese, released in three volumes over 2009-2010. As Murakami was already a well-loved author both at home and worldwide, famous for 1995's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore in 2006, among others, this was a huge deal. Although details of the book were kept secret until its launch, pre-orders meant it still sold out in many outlets before it was even released.

New Zealand's omnibus edition of the three volumes is suitably covetable, with a cover designed by Suzanne Dean, creative director of Random House. As well as beautiful images and embossed Japanese characters, 1Q84 boasts 13 pages of graphic fun before the story even starts, and page numbers that appear in mirror image on the right hand pages. It is also enormous, clocking in at over 1000 pages.

Here is Dean talking about how she created the cover for a previous success, Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, and this piece includes a short look at the design behind 1Q84's equally intricate UK edition.

Luckily after all this hype, the book met positive reviews in the Western world as well - the Guardian described it as shoring up evidence of the novel's relevance to society, and the Telegraph printed a long discussion of Murakami's thoughts on the reception. It's worth a read, if only for the poor journalist's terrifying experience in the Tokyo underground. I winced.