Reading 1Q84: The Case for Fiction in a Busy Life

November 14, 2011 | 3 books mentioned 27 5 min read

When I was assigned to review 1Q84 for The Christian Science Monitor it had been four months since I’d read a page of anything. That last book I’d tried to read had also been by Haruki MurakamiThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — and my bookmark was right where I’d left it, on page 52, the day my wife had gone into labor with our second son.

cover Raising young children poses two challenges for reading fiction. The first is time, and not having much of it. The second, which I find harder to overcome, is that raising kids and reading fiction require somewhat different mindsets: fiction opens you to new possibilities, but once you’ve embarked on an all-consuming activity like raising kids you don’t want to think too much about other possibilities; you just need to put your head down and do it.

I started 1Q84 at 9pm at the end of a long day that had featured a 103 degree fever (my youngest son Wally, age 4 months) and several bathroom accidents (his older brother Jay, age 2 years). As I slumped on the couch with a cup of peppermint tea and my large yellow review copy of 1Q84, I found myself grasping to justify why, outside of the assignment I’d been given, it made sense to spend my only free time of the day reading fiction.

But I did read the book, that night and every night after for a month, and I found that as I read 1Q84 and got deeper into Tengo’s and Aomame’s stories, I stopped questioning the purpose of fiction and instead began to see reading 1Q84 as one of the few necessary things I did all day. The reasons for the change of heart had to do with wonder, with love, and with the way literature provides for the best parts of who we are.

1Q84 is long (nearly 1,000 pages) and wildly imaginative, but at heart it’s a simple love story. Tengo and Aomame, both 30 years old, shared a singular, intense moment as children, disappeared from each other’s lives, and have been trying to recapture that kind of intimacy ever since. As 1Q84 opens they fall into an alternate world which is sinister and illogical, but which gives them the chance to find each other again.

Aomame calls this world 1Q84 (in which the “Q” stands for “question”) and it is most clearly distinguished by the fact that two moons hang in the sky — the familiar moon and, alongside it, a smaller moon, “slightly warped in shape, and green.” The moons preside over Aomame’s “sex feasts,” several murders, Tengo’s surreal trips to see his dying father, and one of the most transfixing nocturnal dream scenes I’ve ever read. The moons are a tangible reminder of the warning delivered to Aomame by her cab driver, just before she steps out of a taxi on a gridlocked Tokyo expressway and inadvertently into the world of 1Q84: “Please remember: things are not what they seem.”

A few days after I started reading 1Q84 I was standing in my Michigan backyard, talking on the phone with my brother, when the unusual brightness of the night caused me to look up at the moon — nearly full, unobstructed by clouds — for the first time in as long as I could remember. For a moment I was so taken by the view that I lost track of my brother, who was continuing to tell me about his weekend.

Afterwards I called Caroline out to the backyard. If it had been a while since I’d looked at the moon, it had been even longer since we’d looked at it together. We don’t have much time to stare up at the sky, and even if we did, the moon is outside our realm of concern. I have to care for my kids, earn a living, be a good husband. What difference is it to me if the moon is waxing or waning, full or crescent? For a few quiet minutes we looked up at it together before retreating inside from the cold.

Several of the most important scenes in 1Q84 take place in a playground atop a slide, where one at a time Aomame and Tengo (and a third character, the surprisingly heartbreaking private investigator Ushikawa) stare up at the sky.

The first time Tengo sits on the slide and notices the moons he thinks to himself, “No matter what happens to me in the future, this view with two moons hanging up there side by side will never — ever — seem ordinary and obvious to me.” The unordinary sight of the moons sets Tengo to wondering. He wonders, “What is going to happen to me from now on?” He also wonders about Aomame. “Someone is after Aomame,” he understands. “She’s hiding like a wounded Cat. I don’t have much time to find her.”

Reading about Tengo and seeing the moon in my backyard, it occurred to me that wonder gives us height, makes us consider new possibilities, motivates us not to linger where we are.

And it seems that reading 1Q84 pollinated my life with wonder in three ways. The first is that when Tengo wondered, I wondered alongside him. “What is going to happen to me from now on?” In a quiet house at night with two boys sleeping it feels like time stands still. Yet of course the drum keeps beating; somehow we move on.

1Q84 also inspires wonder through its beauty. “Her little pink ear pressed against his chest,” Murakami writes. “She was hearing everything that went on in his heart, like a person who can trace a map with his fingertip and conjure up vivid, living scenery.” Many nights I closed 1Q84 feeling hungry to go out and create something beautiful myself.

The last way that 1Q84 inspires wonder is the way that all great art inspires wonder: it mirrors life from a fresh angle. Murakami uses the world of 1Q84 to jog Aomame and Tengo into seeing their lives in a new light, and his novel had the same effect on me. One night, about halfway through 1Q84, my wife and I said goodnight to each other and turned to go to sleep. But before closing my eyes I propped myself back up on my elbow and looked intently at her face lying sideways on her pillow. There she was, old familiar Caroline. But for a moment she appeared as strange and wondrous as two moons in the sky.

1Q84 is not a book about wonder, though. It’s a book about love. For the three weeks I was reading it and all the days since, I’ve found myself thinking more consciously than usual about the importance of love — not as a fact that exists between two people — but as a feeling that puts a floor beneath our feet.

As Aomame and Tengo try to make their way towards each other and out of the world of 1Q84 what they’re really straining for is feeling. In their accustomed world of 1984 they might have gone on with their lonely lives but in the forbidding world of 1Q84, events and changes in their own hearts make stasis untenable.

“If you can love someone with your whole heart, even one person, then there’s salvation in life,” Aomame tells her friend Ayumi. And in one particularly riveting scene (that would surely feature prominently in a 1Q84 trailer should the book be made into a movie) Aomame concludes that such encompassing love is not possible for her, so she takes to the side of the highway and puts the barrel of a pistol in her mouth.

1Q84 never drove to me to such depths, but it did help me recognize the difference between feeling and not feeling. The night after I finished the book I couldn’t figure out what to do with myself. Over the course of a month 1Q84 had become a part of my routine and the activities that had previously occupied my evening hours seemed unappealing in comparison.

So instead of mucking around on the Internet or folding laundry, I went upstairs to my two-year-old son Jay’s room and sat in a chair beside his crib. He was lying flat on his stomach with his hands beneath his body and his head tucked into a corner of his crib. Even asleep, he seemed to glow with life. As I watched him breath in and out, all the cells in my body flooded with a feeling so grand that it crowded out all possibility of thought.

Later, after I’d left Jay’s room, I realized that while being a parent is tiring and sometimes boring, it also means that all I have to do is walk upstairs to experience a feeling that, like Aomame said, is akin to salvation. I also thought about all the hours I’d spent reading 1Q84, and suddenly it seemed clear why it had been a worthwhile way to spend my time: When life wears us down, great fiction gives us back our human shape.

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.