fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIQ84 by Haruki Murakami

In Tokyo, in 1984, a young woman in a taxi on her way to an important appointment is stuck in gridlock on an elevated highway. After getting some cryptic advice from her cab driver, she walks across several lanes of stopped traffic and makes a perilous climb down a safety access stairway to the surface streets, where she can catch a train to her destination. When she reaches those streets, she is in a different world.

Or is she?

Haruki Murakami’s 900-page IQ84 is the story of a woman, Aomame, a man, Tengo, and nine months in their lives. It is an epic literary fantasy about alternate realities. It is, with its emphasis on fiction and creating fiction, meta-fiction. And, maddeningly, it is extremely difficult to write about without spoilers.

While Aomame tries to make sense of the changes in the world around her, Tengo Kawana, who teaches math at a “cram school” and writes novels on his own time, gets roped into a scheme by a clever and unscrupulous editor, Komatsu. Tengo, who agreed to judge a literary contest, has discovered a short novel called Air Chrysalis, written by a seventeen-year-old girl. Air Chrysalis is a brilliant, imaginative and original fantasy. The writing, however, is awful. Komatsu has Tengo rewrite the novel, working closely with Fuka-Eri, the author, whose real name is Eriso Fukayama. Tengo soon discovers that Fuka-Eri is a very strange young woman, and then some disturbing facts emerge. First of all, Fuka-Eri is the daughter of the founder of Sakigaki, a spiritual community in the mountains that seems very much like a cult. Secondly, Fuka-Eri says that her story, about a girl who is put into solitary confinement for an infraction of the rules, encounters the Little People and helps them weave an air chrysalis, all really happened. It happened in a world where there are two moons.

Cults — or at least non-standard belief systems — make up a large part of IQ84. Aomame was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, but repudiated the religion when she was ten years old. The long reach of Sakigaki, with its wholesome organic vegetable business and its sinister treatment of the prepubescent girls called “shrine maidens,” touches every aspect of the book.

Another big theme in the book is physical violence against women. Aomame, a physical fitness trainer and athlete, has a close relationship with a wealthy widow who runs a safe house for battered women. The widow’s daughter was in a violent relationship and died mysteriously. Aomame’s best friend, who was also in an abusive marriage, committed suicide. Later, another friend of Aomame, Ayumi, is found dead in a “love motel,” the victim of bondage sex gone wrong. Another woman with an historical connection to a main character died much the same way. [SPOILER: Highlight text if you want to read it] In fact, the death of Ayumi almost seemed like a plot glitch. Happening where it does in the book, it seems to relate to Sakagaki, but no connection is ever made. [end SPOILER].

Woven through everything, however, is the reality shift and the question of what caused it. Shortly after we discover that there are two moons in Air Chrysalis, Aomame sees two moons in the sky. Later, Tengo sees two moons. Still later, the sinister investigator, Ushikawa, does too.

The Little People can’t be real. They must be figments of a disturbed young woman’s imagination, mustn’t they? When another girl, younger than Fuka-Eri, escapes from Sakagaki, she also mentions the Little People. Surely this is some kind of a screen memory for trauma, isn’t it? Just when I thought I knew where the story was going, Murakami changed direction with the effortless grace of a gold-medal ice skater, and upset my expectations.

A wonderful as IQ84 (published as two separate books in Japan) is, at 900+ pages, it is longer than it needs to be. Repetition is explained by the fact that the duology was published over time, and Murakami needed to remind people about what had gone before. Some of the day-to-day details could have been limited, though, and some sections, while wonderful, just go on too long. The duology is long but at the end, at least one good-sized story question is not completely answered for me.

I will also be interested to see whether other readers think there is a breast fixation in this story. Aomame, who is in peak physical condition, thinks every single day that her breasts are too small. She’s thirty. I think she’d be over this by now. She and Ayumi compare their breasts, and when Ayumi worries that hers are too big, Aomame reassures her that they are “perfectly ordinary.” (Ouch!) Murakami is at pains to tell us at least four times that the seventeen year old Fuka-Eri’s breasts are large and well-shaped. Tengo obsesses about an early memory, perhaps his first memory, of his mother’s breasts. SPOILER STARTS: This memory ushers in a mystery that is never explained. SPOILER ENDS. This constant focus may have a purpose, especially since the “air chrysalis” is compared to a womb more than once, and two invented words, maza and dohta, sound a little bit like the English words for “mother” and “daughter.” On the other hand, this could be a complete linguistic coincidence.

I can get over the breast thing, though, because there is so much else here, so many levels, so many humorous and serious insights about life, art, thought, memory and fiction. After Tengo begins to search for Aomame, he tries to locate the local branch of the Society of Witnesses, because he remembers that she used to be one. He is unsuccessful.

At the end of this struggle, Tengo concluded that they probably didn’t want anyone contacting them. This was, upon reflection, rather odd. They showed up all the time. They’d ring the bell or knock on the door, unconcerned that you might be otherwise occupied, be it baking a soufflé, soldering a connection, washing your hair, training a mouse to do tricks, or thinking about quadratic functions — and, with a big smile, invite you to study the Bible with them. They had no problem coming to see you, but you were not free to go see them (unless you were a believer, probably). This was rather inconvenient.

Later in the book, Aomame reflects on the nature of her dreams:

All that remained were small, random images. She slept deeply, and the dreams she did have came from a very deep place. Like fish that live at the bottom on the ocean, most of her dreams weren’t able to float to the surface. Even if they did, the difference in water pressure would force a change in their appearance.

Murakami muses on the character of the goblin-like private investigator Ushikawa:

Sentiment and a sense of justice were Ushikawa’s two weak areas.

For much of the book, though, Tengo and Aomame use popular movies, short fiction and novels to describe their predicament. Realizing that Air Chrysalis describes the world she is currently in, one she has nicknamed IQ84, Aomame thinks:

“In other words, I am in the story that Tengo has set in motion. In a sense, I am inside him — inside his body,” she realized. “I am inside that shrine, so to speak.”

She immediately makes a connection to the old science fiction movie Fantastic Voyage.

After a discussion with Komatsu about “reality,” Tengo reflects:

But a narrative takes its own direction, and continues on, almost automatically. And whether he liked it or not, Tengo was a part of that world. To him this was no longer a fictional world. This was the real world, where red blood spurted when you slice your skin with a knife. And in the sky in this world there were two moons side by side.

Aspiring writers, or anyone who loves to see how a writer uses language, should pay special attention to Chapter 7 of Book 2, to see how Murakami uses Raymond Chandler-like prose and timing to create an ever-tightening noose of suspense. In Chapter 9 of Book Three, a night of karaoke with three nurses turns eerie when Tengo accompanies one of them home, and it is worth reading twice also, just to see how he does it.

A book about writing is dependent on its words, maybe even more than other stories, and the English translation by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel is beautifully done with only a few odd moments, like the difference in the use of the word “taciturn” between Book One and Book Three.

With its focus on various levels, with interiors and exteriors (safe houses, wombs, chrysalises, and ladders) IQ84 reminds me the most of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, although the resolution is completely different. Murakami’s short novel After Dark also brushes up against some of the same themes that are explored in detail here. The detours Murakami takes us on — the “town of cats,” the genuinely frightening subplot about a cable fee collector, the development of the character of Ushikawa — are fascinating.

I found the book rich and very dense, and it’s the first book in a while that took me several weeks to read. I had to walk away from it every so often. It’s a book that will stay with me, even with its flaws. At the end, whatever is left unexplained — and much is — Tengo and Aomame have reached a believable resolution. Is the cab driver from Chapter 1 right or wrong in his advice to Aomame? That’s a question you’ll come back to, after you’ve read IQ84. And you’ll want to check the night sky, just in case, and count the moons.


  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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