For the past few months, everywhere I go in San Francisco, I see young people in cool outfits all reading the same book: Haruki Murakami's long-awaited 1Q84. Not long ago, I was in a café where three out of the dozen patrons all had identical hardcovers, with the same blank stare gazing upwards from their dense pages.
Haruki Murakami is a living legend of surreal, world-bending fiction. And 1Q84 is his first novel in four years. How does it stack up to his classics? And what is Murakami's odd spin on the world of 1984 telling us about the world we live in? Spoilers ahead...
Top image: Alex Mercado.
I only just finished 1Q84, so this is sort of a first impression. I have a feeling that over the weeks that follow, bits and pieces of the novel will float back into my mind, especially some of its many weird images. Like the "air chrysalis" that the supernatural creatures in Murakami's weird world create out of hair and bits of soul-stuff, this novel is a shimmering indistinct tangle of many weird connections and narrative strands, out of which something mysterious and unknowable is born.
It took me several weeks to finish reading 1Q84, because I was trying to follow all of the novel's many little strands and avoid missing any random clues that Murakami seeded into the narrative. In the end, I'm still not entirely sure what this book was about, but a number of themes do creep into it.
First of all, a disclaimer — I'm not exactly a Murakami expert. I read a few of his novels a decade ago, but I'm not as steeped in his work as a lot of other people. Still, off the top of my head, I wouldn't recommend 1Q84 to someone who's never read Murakami before — much better to start with Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, or maybe Wild Sheep Chase. 1Q84 is definitely not Murakami's best novel, but I still enjoyed bits and pieces of it.
For all its complexity and sprawling weirdness, 1Q84 is a fairly simple novel. It has two protagonists: Tengo and Aomame.
Tengo is a math teacher and failed literary author, who gets sucked into a lunatic scheme to revise a brilliant but flawed novel called Air Chrysalis by a 17-year-old girl named Fuka-Eri. The only trouble is, Fuka-Eri's novel contains some metaphysical secrets of a strange cult called Sakigake, and when Tengo's rewrite becomes a bestseller, he attracts the cult's unfriendly attention.
Meanwhile, Aomame is on her way to an important meeting when her taxi gets stuck in traffic, so she climbs down an emergency staircase off the highway, ignoring the taxi driver's warning that doing so will make everything seem quite different. Soon, she finds herself in an alternate world where the U.S. and the Soviet Union are building a Moonbase together. And there are two Moons in the sky. She dubs this strange new world 1Q84, because it's like an alternate version of the "real" 1984.
(I won't give away a lot of the major plot points in the novel here, like what Aomame is on her way to do in that important meeting.)
In a sense, both Tengo and Aomame create alternate worlds — Tengo by rewriting the fantasy novel, and Aomame by traveling off the normal path. And over the course of the novel, their stories develop more and more intersections, until we see how they're completely interconnected — and meanwhile, we learn that they share an important moment in the past, as well. They also turn out to have similarly tormented childhoods, in which their parents were both strict and overly demanding, until they finally broke free around puberty.
Like a lot of Murakami novels, the whole thing moves with dream logic as much as regular story logic — events go around and around and seem to repeat with slight variations, until the characters randomly reach a realization that seems to come out of nowhere but is miraculously correct. Meanwhile, there are lots of scenes of people eating yakiniku or listening to music and talking about literature or philosophy, or looking out the window and thinking stuff over. (I don't remember Murakami's other novels being quite as slow or repetitive as this one, though.)
The mythology that emerges from Fuka-Eri's fantasy world, as well as the bubble reality of 1Q84, is complex and demented, but it all seems to boil down to being a metaphor for the process of creation, and authorship. Tengo, we learn, is a "Receiver," while Fuka-Eri is a "Perceiver," and this is a quasi-sexual relationship which can lead to the creation of a womblike Air Chrysalis.
Early on in the book, Tengo explains that math is beautiful because it's predictable and totally logical. And then Fuka-Eri asks why, if he loves math so much, he chooses to write fiction. He answers:
Real life is different than math. Things in life don't necessarily flow over the shortest possible route. For me, math is — how should I put it? — math is all too natural. It's like beautiful scenery. It's just there. There's no need to exchange it with anything else. That's why, when I'm doing math, I sometimes feel I'm turning transparent. And that can be scary. ... When I'm writing a story, I use words to transform the surrounding scene into something more natural for me. In other words, I reconstruct it. That way, I can confirm without a doubt that this person known as 'me' exists in the world. This is a totally different process from steeping myself in the world of math.
In other words, as Fuka-Eri summarizes, writing fiction is a way of confirming "that you exist."
Much later in the book, Fuka-Eri says something sort of similar about things not taking the "shortest possible route":
Humans see time as a straight line. It's like putting notches on a long straight stick. The notch here is the future, the one on this side is the past, and the present is this point right here... But actually, time isn't a straight line. It doesn't have a shape. In all senses of the term, it doesn't have any form. But since we can't picture something without form in our minds, for the sake of convenience we understand it as a straight line. At this point, humans are the only ones who can make that sort of conceptual substitution.
So in a sense, the circular, spiraling, meandering narrative of 1Q84 is an attempt to use fiction to show the true nature of time. (As the novel goes on, the timeline gets more and more jumbled, because every time we change POV characters, we jump forwards or backwards in time.) And 1Q84 isn't an "alternate timeline," in any meaningful sense, but rather a time bubble, in which things have their own sort of inevitability and people get drawn together, just as Tengo and Aomame are slowly drawn together.
There's a lot of other stuff going on in this novel, including someone in a coma somehow creating a ghost that goes door-to-door trying to collect money for the television company. Several other random details, including Janáček's Sinfonietta, keep cropping up. And there's a recurring motif of incredibly creepy sex with underage girls, including Fuka-Eri herself (who's apparently supposed to be sexy, but winds up just being all-around creepy.) There are various other types of horrible sex, which is horrendously described. The nature of religion and belief in God keeps coming up as a notion as well, as Aomame goes from despising all religion to embracing belief in God again.
In the end, this is one of those books that forms a shape in your mind over time, both as you're reading it and later on. There's more than enough food for thought, and arresting weird images in this book to keep you pondering and reading.
In the end, though, this is definitely far from being Murakami's strongest work — for one thing, the repetition of plot points more than overstays its welcome. And far from being poetic, the meanderings in the book often feel drably prosaic, although that could be partly a weak translation.
People often say that Murakami's books aren't really about plot, but this one feels as though it's actually overly obsessed with plot — to the point where key plot points are hammered home, over and over. And the final third of the book feels, honestly, like a letdown, with a whole new POV character introduced for no reason and a weak conclusion. (Read here for a fairly succinct summary of how the novel peters out.)
So yeah — I wouldn't necessarily recommend 1Q84 to Murakami neophytes. But it's still got enough rich imagery and neat ideas to be worth delving into — especially if you're hungry for a novel about ideas, in which the power of storytelling is approached in a very different way than the one you typically see from Western authors.