Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Haruki Murakami - 1Q84

"And also," the driver said, facing the mirror, "please remember: things are not what they seem." (p. 9)

1Q84 is the Japanese novelist Haruku Murakami's third novel since 2000, though the word "novel" might be a tad misleading, as it's a trilogy in Japan. Fittingly enough for its three-in-one background, it's a brick of a book. Nonetheless, it's an easy and pleasurable read, Murakami's smooth and sonorous prose floating you through a narrative that, right up until you turn the last page, seems to make perfect sense. When you look back on it, however, all the easy associations you picked up as you read turn out to be rather hollow, the book's meaning something that has to be cobbled together from bits and pieces throughout its massive, lifelike sprawl.

An easy looking thematic starting point seems to be the reference in the title, the contrasts and, of course, similarities between Orwell's so-famous 1984 and this year of 1Q84, this world-with-a-question-mark, as Auomame puts it. But that association's too easy, and Murakami's true intent at once rises above that one-to-one correlation/interpretation and also sidesteps the comparison entirely. As one character says:  Now, in the real year 1984, Big Brother is all too famous, and all too obvious. If Big Brother were to appear before us now, we'd point to him and say, 'Watch out! He's Big Brother!' There's no longer any place for a Big Brother in this real world of ours. Instead, these so-called Little People have come on the scene. Interesting verbal contrast, don't you think? (p. 236) Those Little People are nothing near as concrete as Big Brother and his police force. No, the Little People are something nigh entirely ephemeral, a force of magic and thought that only touches the world, if it does at all, through implication and faith and the most subtle of maneuverings.

In the end, the comparison does, of course, seem valid to some extent, but the despotism shown here is not one of force or even of nation, but rather a despotism of thought and will, of past and intent and even of love. The Sakigake Cult is the clearest example of this. It takes the circuits out of [its member's] brains that make it possible for them to think for themselves. […] It makes life a lot easier. You don't have to think about different things, just shut up and do what your superiors tell you to do. You never have to starve. (pp. 120-1) but while it might be the most obvious example of the intellectual and individual atrophy at the novel's core, it’s the least focused on. Sakigake is mostly a specter in the shadows, an example of how dominating the Little People's manipulations can become so that we may better see and fear them in the rest of the text.

[People] have to move with a purpose, (p. 29) we hear towards the novel's beginning, and it could be said that attempts to find that purpose and carry it through, no matter the circumstances or obstacles, dominate. And the greatest of all barriers seems to be one's birth. Both Auomame and Tengo had parents locked in narrow roles, and each had to escape those roles to try and become who they needed to be. More important than just escape, though, is reconciliation, or at least understanding, of the past. Much of Tengo's storyline is in fact his desire and need to understand his origins and father, to comprehend how half of the genes that made his existence possible could come from this narrow, uneducated man. (p. 176) But while Murakami's adept at Tengo's personal conflict, the ramifications of it do not, of course, end there. No, in 1Q84 the world seems made wholly of an endless battle of contrasting memories, (p. 293) and it seems that the effects and maybe even purpose of life might be the rewriting of those memories and the past.

Love is another thing central to 1Q84, but that's not to say that it's pure. No, the characters need love, but it's often what destroys them, a cruel jailor and torturer that feeds on their flaws and often leaves them destroyed. It's through love, here, or at least love's approximation, that true loneliness is reached, and Murakami proves devastatingly able to hammer those moments home: Ayumi had a great emptiness inside her, like a desert at the edge of the earth. You could try watering it all you wanted, but everything would be sucked down to the bottom of the world, leaving no trace of moisture. No life could take root there. Not even birds would fly over it. […]Though she tried to forget it, the nothingness would visit her periodically – on a lonely rainy afternoon, or at dawn when she woke from a nightmare. What she needed at such times was to be held by someone, anyone. (pp. 368-9) That's where Auomame comes into her role as assassin. She, with few friends and fewer emotional attachments, has become an avenger of sorts, a slayer of those who abuse and destroy the object of their desires.

The one exception to the novel's two categories of emotionless and damaging is the idealized and intangible relationship between Tengo and Auomame, forged from just one moment of true contact many years ago and distinct by virtue of its improbability. Neither character will pollute it with their actions, will actively go out and find the other. If they are too meet again it must be by chance one day, like passing on the street, or getting on the same bus, (p. 190) for only flesh that does not exist will never die, and promises unmade are never broken. (p. 374)

1Q84 is anything but a realist novel. Its flow is a surreal drift. Strict analysis flounders here, the orderly march of cause and effect left behind for a tale as humanly logical as it is absurd. Like After Dard, 1Q84 is not constructed from the oft-contemplated yet depthless impossible but instead from the subtly unthinkable. Murakami's otherworldly agents – his Little People – do not replace our reality but rather alter it. Murakami's is a Tokyo-born Middle Earth made of nothing but an empty sandbox and swings, a mercury-vapor lamp, emitting its sterile light, the spreading branches of a zelkova tree, a locked public toilet, a new six-story condo (only four units of which had lighted windows), a war notice board, a red vending machine with a Coca-Cola logo, an illegally parked old-model green Volkswagen golf, telephone poles and electric lines, and primary-color neon signs in the distance. The usual city noise, the usual lights. (p. 548)

One of the text's key fantastical components is that of dohta and maza (p. 685) and the relationship between them, object and shadow, reality and afterimage, character and alter ego. It's a relationship that characterizes much of the text, for 1Q84 is a story of layers and careful shading, numerous perspectives and recurrences, images and events appearing again and again in slightly altered forms and viewed through drastically different eyes. Even the language comes to play the game, with Murakami often using one word, such as aroused (p. 43/4), twice in the same scene, but in vastly different connotations, with the first nonetheless impacting how we view the second.

Murakami's prose is brilliant and engaging without ever being flashy or openly attention seeking. It's the little things that make it what it is and often the descriptions of the smallest things that stick in your mind the longest. Murakami is an absolute master of similes and metaphors, twisting mundane images into wonderful new configurations, like when a character must fasten [their] feelings to the earth – firmly, like attaching an anchor to a balloon. (p. 185) or like when we're told how Tengo's past lovers had come and gone, like vividly colored birds perching momentarily on a branch before flying off somewhere. (p. 360) Furthermore, Murakami's a supremely playful author, often mercilessly poking fun of his own creations with a wray wit: The large crown of his head formed and abnormally flat bald area with lopsided edges. It was reminiscent of a military heliport that had been made by cutting away the peak of a small, strategically important hill. (p. 330) Not even revelation and life changing events are above such jibes:  At least once in his life [Tengo] had had the perfect erection, and the perfect orgasm. It was like the author of Gone With the Wind. Once you have achieved something so magnificent, you have to be content with it. (p. 727)

Despite all that, 1Q84 is a flawed novel, and a reviewer ever so slightly more concerned with snappy phrasing than accuracy might even say that those problems are half from excess and half from restraint. The first of those can, for the most part, be pinned down to the novel's aforementioned repetition. It's a technique that is, for the most part, effective, but, when used to the extent it is here, serves to further slow down and clog up the works. The repetition does give added insight, but it also serves to stifle any forward momentum the novel might otherwise have accumulated. This, and the novel's length, would both not be an issue if not for the fact that, put plainly, the book simply doesn't have enough significant events, at least not when one compares the number of those to the weight of its minutia and the sum of its page count. Though 1Q84 is more than twice the length of Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, it doesn't feel like it has any more content or depth, just like it's playing its melodies at half speed.

That's not to say, admittedly, that 1Q84 is never a tightly paced, gripping work, just that it almost never is. One of the novel's key set pieces is a long, long time building, but, when it comes in the midst of the second book, is composed of chapter after chapter of almost unbreakable tension, each word exquisitely backed by the weight of our expectations and by the omnipresent feel of imminent revelation. Alas, the novel never again reaches the magic of those chapters, and some of the later significant events actually serve to simply underscore the weightlessness of much of the narrative. The third book introduces a new viewpoint character, a private detective in the employ of Sakigake. His chapters are generally enjoyable, but the moment when he pieces together the connections between Tengo and Auomame is one of the novel's weakest. In the main thrust of the narrative, enraptured by Murakami's prose, the link between the two is delightful and even magical because of its slightness. When uncovered and explained in terms of the detective's supposed logic, however, the connection ends up viewed by the reader's regular, discerning gaze and the link is, when considered in that light, of course ridiculous.

The other contender for the much-coveted prize for the novel's weakest section comes when the reader is finally allowed to glimpse some of the text of Air Chrysalis, the book-within-a-book that first exposes the Little People and that, when rewritten by Tengo, goes on to win prizes and top bestseller lists. Everything from cap-i-tal-izum to peese and for-tress (p. 532) is rendered in the grating, garish, and juvenile manner of an adult doing his ham-handed best to cram a child's perspective down our throats. The main effect, besides conveying boundless immaturity, was making me wonder about the sanity of the judges and reading populace of this alternate reality Tokyo.

I would say that most of my criticisms of logic and pacing, though, wouldn't come as any surprise at all to Murakami. After the publication of Air Chrysalis, Tengo reads several of its reviews, one of which says that: As a story, the work is put together in an exceptionally interesting way and it carries the reader along to the very end, but when it comes to the question of what is an air chrysalis, or who are the Little People, we are left in a pool of mysterious question marks. This may well be the author's intention, but many readers are likely to this lack of clarification as a sign of 'authorial laziness.' (p. 380) This confuses Tengo. He knows that, as a story, Air Chrysalis was fascinating to many people […]. What more did it have to do? (p. 381)

That, really, seems to sum up much of Murakami's philosophy in reading this work and the mindset that must be used to read it. Speaking of life, a character at one point thinks: The warmth and the pain came as a pair, and unless he accepted the pain, he wouldn't feel the warmth. It was a kind of trade-off. (p. 803) 1Q84 is a magical and sprawling work, one resplendent with depth, and also one loaded down with a number of flaws. It's a tapestry of dreams that might just be too delicate to be perfect without being ruined.


  1. Interesting review. Lots of quotes from the text.

  2. Although this was my first Haruki Murakami book, I have to say I enjoyed the Japanese author's exquisitely strange and creative writing so much, that upon finishing 1Q84, I immediately ordered another of his prominent works and look forward to further experiencing his talented skilled pen in storytelling.
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