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11.04.11

Murakami's Dreamy Return

A master at blurring reality and fantasy, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami strikes again with 1Q84, a riff on Orwell’s 1984. Malcolm Jones on whether the hefty novel was worth the wait.

The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has told more than one interviewer of his admiration for writers as disparate as Raymond Chandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Raymond Carver.  He has also titled two novels after songs by the Beatles and the Beach Boys and paused in mid-narrative to sing the praises of the Western movie actor Ben Johnson. By the same token, he has been far more reticent about things Japanese in both interviews and his fiction. Certainly there are no noteworthy writers in his homeland who resemble him very much. Neither traditionally Japanese nor truly Western, he is, in almost every sense, the cat that walks by himself.

Not all of his books are equally good, but they all flow unmistakably from the same pen. As a result, once you get hooked on him, you’ll willingly read whatever he produces.  (I’ve dreamed of having something like a subscription to his work—he could just send them along when they’re ready and bill my account.) His vision is unique enough, and pure enough to propel you through even those books of his which do not quite work (South of the Border, West of the Sun; Sputnik Sweetheart) and he is so good at several things that you forgive his few if not insignificant shortcomings. All of these qualities are showcased in his latest novel,  1Q84  (at 944 pages, how could it not include them all?). This the first really successful epic-sized novel Murakami has delivered since his dazzling The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in 1997, and it is worth the wait.

Murakami paces a story as well as any writer alive. He knows how to tell a love story without getting cute. He understands how to blend realism and fantasy (magical realism if you want to get all literary about it) in just the right proportions. And he has a knack for writing about everyday matters—fixing dinner, going for a walk—in such a way that the events at hand, no matter how mundane, are never boring. Indeed, there is something comforting, even reassuring, about watching a Murakami character dice vegetables for dinner.

Most impressive, he knows how to inject the logic and atmosphere of dreams into his fiction without becoming coy or vague. He’s Kafka-esque to the extent that he’s not interested in why or how a man may have turned into an insect overnight, but in how the man deals with his new situation. And like Beckett, he furnishes his dreamscapes with a mere handful of carefully chosen props—a tree, a streetlight, a playground sliding board—specifics that ground a scene but leave room for the reader to fill in details. This is perhaps the key point: he makes you, the reader, his collaborator. What he leaves out is as important as what he includes, because it encourages you to fill in the blanks in the canvas.  Once you’re invested, once you buy into the vision of dinner being prepared and streetlights in playgrounds at dusk, the strangeness that he subsequently introduces—two moons hanging in the sky, for example—almost doesn’t seem strange at all.

1Q84
1Q84 ()

Not that there isn’t plenty of strangeness in this shaggy-dog story of a novel, most of it occurring just when we are being reassured that nothing strange is happening. When one of the characters enters a world like ours, save for a handful of salient details (those two moons, for instance), the narrator assures us that it’s not a parallel universe. But what else can you call it?

Likewise, when that same character, a woman who goes about assassinating men who abuse their wives, climbs down an emergency exit ladder off a freeway, she is told by the cab driver who shows her the way, “After you do something like that [leaving the freeway on foot and climbing down to street level], the everyday look of things might seem to change a bit. Things may look different to you than they did before. But don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.” Of course, everywhere we look and everything we see tells a different story. So it’s hard to know who to believe and where solid ground turns to quicksand.

Part noir crime drama, part love story, and part hallucinatory riff on 1984, George Orwell’s fable about totalitarianism and mind-control, 1Q84 begins in 1984 and then veers off into a year like 1984 but for several differences, starting with the two moons, which, it’s worth noting, not even everyone in 1Q84 can see. Split into three sections (the novel was published serially in Japan as three distinct books), the novel begins with two narratives running parallel.

In one, an unpublished novelist named Tengo is persuaded to rewrite and doctor a manuscript that’s a candidate for a literary prize. Running concurrently is the story of Aomame, a fitness instructor who moonlights as the executioner of abusive husbands. The link between these stories is a mysterious religious cult. A teenage girl has escaped from the cult, and it’s her manuscript that Tengo is overhauling. The leader of the cult, suspected of molesting underage girls, becomes one of Aomame’s targets. 

In part three, a third narrative line is added, when an investigator hired by the cult begins to discover the links between Tengo and Aomame, who have not seen each other since grade school but who have each carried a torch for the other for almost 20 years. But boiling the narratives to their essence in this summary fashion does the novel a disservice. It’s rather like calling Moby Dick a fish story. Too much gets left out.

Sex, for starters: there are numerous graphic descriptions of sex in the story and even more references to sexual escapades. The noteworthy thing is that the sex passages are neither prurient nor erotic. Aomame has a female friend (now there’s a new wrinkle for this writer: his characters are usually loners; some are married or in love, but there are few friends in his stories) with whom she goes out now and then to troll for men in bars. But while we hear a lot about what goes on, the details have an almost second-hand feel. On their biggest night out together, Aomame gets so drunk she can’t remember what happened and so doesn’t know what to make of her adventure, and neither do we, not least because Murakami writes about sex with the same languid dispassion that he writes about everything else. 1Q84 is, for all its graphic grappling, about as stimulating as Novocaine. That’s not a knock, since clearly the author is not trying to arouse the reader. What he seems to be doing instead is to replace some of the mystery of sex that has been so thoroughly stripped away by contemporary culture—not a bad aim for a novel that includes at least one case of immaculate conception.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell when the author is repeating names, incidents or the works of classical music for incantatory effect to give aforementioned facts new resonance in new contexts, and when he’s just repeating himself. Janacek’s Sinfonietta is playing in the cab when Aomame climbs down off the expressway at the beginning of the novel, and it crops up repeatedly throughout the story. But for the life of me, I can’t attach any meaning to its frequency. Its presence, like so many references, is oblique, mysterious, tantalizing but ultimately unresolved.

Conversely, even when things are spelled out, there is a residual uncertainty. In the novel that Tengo is rewriting, there are characters called the Little People, tiny creatures who emerge into the world when no one is looking, and who have the ability to change the very nature of reality and upend fate. At one point one of the characters compares the Little People—who, along with everything else in the fantasy story that Tengo is rewriting, turn out to be real—to Big Brother in 1984. He points out that Orwell did his job so well that we are forever on guard against anything resembling Big Brother, but Little People? Maybe we should think harder about insidious mind control from another quarter. This is about as explicit as 1Q84 ever gets, and even here the sense of things is allusive.

Not all is strangeness. Murakami painstakingly creates backstories for both Tengo and Aomame that a lesser writer would have been satisfied making a novel out of. Tengo grew up with no mother and a dour father who worked as a door-to-door fee collector for the national television service, dragging his boy along on Sundays to guilt-trip the more recalcitrant customers. Aomame grew up in a fanatical religious sect somewhat reminiscent of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and she too was taken along to knock on the doors of strangers. These subplots are rendered with an unflinching, heartbreaking realism that leaves no doubt that had Murakami devoted his life to more conventional fiction, he would have succeeded handily. Of course, Murakami being the writer he is, ultimately winds up turning Tengo’s father into a ghostly presence that haunts the living by beating on their doors and demanding payment. You can’t say you saw it coming, but you can’t say you’re surprised either.

Oscillating between the vague and the precise, the poetic and the mundane, 1Q84 is a puzzling, frustrating but ultimately bewitching and extraordinarily unsettling novel. It does have its share of moments where you want to scream at the author to GET ON WITH IT. But the noteworthy thing here is that even when you’re most impatient, you’re still turning the pages. Murakami is one of the very few novelists—Dickens comes most easily to mind—who can make a serious, play-by-the-rules reader cheat and jump ahead to find out what’s happened to a character.

In the passage where the Little People are compared to Big Brother, it is said that “they seem to be steadily undermining us.” The same could be said for 1Q84. Murakami understands that dreams are not dreamy but exact, detailed displacements of ordinary reality. He has somehow figured a way to apply that dream logic to fiction in such a way that even while we are being entertained by the weirdness of the world he’s creating, we feel a gnawing anxiety that this same book is unraveling our own sense of normality. You don’t know where things are going while you read it, and you can’t say exactly where you’ve been when you’re finished, but everything around you looks different somehow. If this is fiction as funhouse, it is very serious fun, and you enter at the risk of your own complacency.