The following excerpts below are from two articles that I found extremely useful in understanding Murakami’s 1Q84 and his style of writing.
“Early in Haruki Murakami’s new novel, a character describes to an editor at a Japanese publishing house a manuscript of a novel that has come to his attention, and what he says sounds like a preview of the book we are about to read:
You could pick it apart completely if you wanted to. But the story itself has real power: it draws you in. The overall plot is a fantasy, but the descriptive detail is incredibly real. The balance between the two is excellent. I don’t know if words like “originality” or “inevitability” fit here, and I suppose I might agree if someone insisted it’s not at that level, but finally, after you work your way through the thing, with all its faults, it leaves a real impression—it gets to you in some strange, inexplicable way that may be a little disturbing.
After arriving at page 925 of 1Q84, the reader is likely to see an analogue. In this book, Murakami, who is nothing if not ambitious, has created a kind of alternative world, a mirror of ours, reversed. Even the book’s design emphasizes that mirroring: as you turn the pages, the page numbers climb or drop in succession along the margins, with the sequential numerals on one side in normal display type but mirror-reversed on the facing page. At one point, a character argues against the existence of a parallel world, but the two main characters in1Q84(Q=”a world that bears a question”) are absolutely convinced that they live not in a parallel world but in a replica one, where they do not want to be. The world we had is gone, and all we have now is a simulacrum, a fake, of the world we once had. “At some point in time,” a character muses, “the world I knew either vanished or withdrew, and another world came to take its place.
This idea, which used to be the province of science fiction and French critical theory, is now in the mainstream, and it has created a new mode of fiction—Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic Cityspan is another recent example—that I would call “Unrealism.” Unrealism reflects an entire generation’s conviction that the world they have inherited is a crummy second-rate duplicate.”
I’ve never completely understood the reason for Murakami’s popularity in the West, or indeed, in Japan. Rebecca Suter, an academic at Sydney Uni, offers an interesting thesis that makes a lot of sense in my head. You’ll have to read the whole thing here, but the thrust is that Murakami manages to blend both Western and Japanese cultural backgrounds into his novels, and this appeals to both sides. For Japanese readers, to Western pop culture references are other-worldly enough to be fascinating, while still being grounded in Japanese sensibility. This is reversed for Western readers, who enjoy the glimpses of an exotic other in his work, while still being comfortable with understandable references.
The world into which Tengo finds himself drawn is a world of strange cults in which supernatural events are an everyday occurrence, where strange creatures are born out of thin air, only to make their own chrysalis to create more people, and where the mother/daughter (maza/dohta in the translation, マザー/ドウタ) relationship is vitally important. Murakami is a frustrated science fiction writer stuck in the wrong literary mode. So many of these ideas would be fantastic, if only Murakami could channel them into a big, bold, proper literary sci-fi novel, and deal with them properly. Instead, they are relegated to quirky post-modern window dressings, in a world of very confused sexual politics.