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.


  1. Lovely reminder. Fiction feeds us. Your reflection reminds me of Agatha Christie’s lament that “if I sit down and read a novel after breakfast I have a feeling of guilt.” But your essay says go ahead. Read a novel after breakfast. Or late at night. Or whenever. The main thing? Read. Thank you.

  2. You’ve captured this beautifully. I’m about 1/3 of the way through 1Q84, reading it in small doses each night as the house settles down and goes quiet, and, for the first time in a long while, feel as if I’m as on the trail of something BIG as Tengo and Aomame…

  3. Thank you for this beautiful review, this is how Murakami makes me feel too. My husband bought me a copy of IQ84, knowing I love the writer and it has sat expectantly on by bedside waiting to be read for a couple of weeks now while life keeps me busy… After your review, I am determined to settle in with it as soon as I get home tonight.

  4. I haven´t read this Murakami´s book yet, but reading your essay filled me with such a joy… I fully get your point – you have expressed the feeling of a passionate reader when reading a great book – thank you for that.

  5. Have been reading the book (Traditional Chinese translation) since more than half a year ago but the thirst to know what would actually happen kept me reading on. 1/3 more to go and I shall finish it before 2011 does! Murakami never fails to trigger the reader to think about what is racing through the minds of the characters he portrayed, offering new perspectives to us at the same time. 1Q84 really pushed this limit to the maximum with the somewhat bizzare storyline.

  6. Kevin, this piece of writing is gorgeous, with fantastic insights into the book, and fiction-reading generally.

    I finished 1Q84 4 days ago. I was deflated after reading Janet Maslin’s review of it in the New York Times. It seemed to me she was sneering at bits and pieces of the book she found confounding, and made no attempt to understand that the beauty of the book is its theme of love’s power to shift one’s world right off its axis. You capture Tengo and Aomame’s world-shifting love very well. So, thanks and admiration. Are you on Twitter?!

    And by the way, no spoilers but I found the end of the book VERY satisfying, which after 925 pages, I was grateful for!

  7. Thank you so much, Barbara, and all the other commenters for the kind words! And I am on Twitter (@kshartnett).

  8. Thank you for the beautiful review and the evocation of that intense and mysterious experience of being-in-a-book.

  9. “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.”

    This is absolutely beautiful. In these two sentences, I get a real glimpse of what parenthood must be like.

    And, overall, a great essay! I never quite understand why I spend so much time reading fiction until I do it and realize that it’s the most important thing in the world.

  10. very lovely article, sir. i am so glad you shared with us your feeling about reading the book and the connection it brought out between you and your family.

  11. This is a wonderful essay, which brought back fond memories of what it was like to be engulfed and swept away by John Williams’ “Stoner” after reading a review (I think the New York Times) declaring it was a “perfect novel” (and pretty much agreeing with that sentiment). The best books truly allow you to live in and be alive inside them … and once read, they live inside of you. But as the father of a 2-and-a-half year old … well, do I need to say more?

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  14. Really inspiring review. I’ve read a number of1Q84 reviews and this review really hits the spot in terms of what the reader comes away with during, and after the read. Many readers don’t want to read a blow by blow plot summary. I appreciate understanding the complexity of the yearnings of the heart, empathy (as well as the existential ‘atlas shrugged’ nature of mankind) and all the lessons one takes away from having experienced a piece of fiction as part of their own lives.

  15. Literature is an island of sanity. We can’t be who we really are without it.

    103 is a temperature to weep over. Hope the baby is having a happy day today.

  16. You make a great case for fiction and argue its necessity so eloquently. 1Q84 is a tome and no small feat (not unlike Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which I have bookmarked 10 pages from the end). However, the hardcover is gorgeously designed and that alone makes me want to purchase a copy. I’m not a fan of Murakami, but your review encourages me to take a second look and grab a copy of 1Q84. Who can resist a love story, after all? Especially one with such day-to-day resonance!

  17. “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.”

    “Then he farted”

    If your life is anything like mine, which I suspect it isn’t.

    Seriously though, what a lovely review. Many thanks.

  18. I have just finished the book and your essay perfectly captures the feeling I felt while reading it. This was my first Murakami novel so although I expected the fantastical elements I hadn’t expected how he uses them to highlight human emotion and most of all, love. My favourite quote:

    “It’s like the Tibetan Wheel of the Passions. As the wheel turns, the values and feelings on the outer rim rise and fall, shining or sinking into darkness. But true love stays fastened to the axle and doesn’t move.”

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