Christopher Heffernan on 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

1Q84  Haruki Murakami Published by Knopf and running nine hundred and twenty five pages, 1Q84 is the new novel by Haruki Murakami that combines many elements of Murakami’s past aesthetic, but adds a newness to theme with the backdrop of cults and the isolating and damaging effect on individuals and groups they can have.  He combines a changing perspective to tell this long story in a time frame that beats over a nine month period with the regularity of a metronome, to fill out the events and lives of the two protagonists, Tengo Kawana and Aomame.  The light touch of the style combined with the mystery aspect of the story make the pages easy to turn, but the attention to detail that borders on cataloging often gets in the way or subsumes the feeling of scenes, especially toward the end when the mystery should be playing itself out and that same cataloging of style and detail persists that creates a leveling affect after eight hundred pages that slows much of the impact in the climax.  Through a fantasy grounded in realism Murakami tells us of how reality splits into two worlds, and how Tengo and Aomame, having known each other in childhood but not having seen each other in 20 years, are driven from reality into this split world by The Little People, demon-like creatures that enter our reality through the mouth of a goat, and how through the machinations of a Professor, a 17 year old girl who has written a novella titled Air Chrysalis about The Little People that Tengo must rewrite, and a wealthy dowager who enacts vengeance upon men who commit acts of domestic violence, Tengo and Aomame are knocked around through the labyrinth of this split world with two moons on a path to fight the darkness that comes along with The Little People who have manipulated the  minds of what was once a neo-utopian commune, the Sakigake organization, to the point of religious fanaticism in order carry out their plans.

It is a story well told in a light and easy way.  What the reader first notices is that there are chapter titles.  Not a very modern technique (in many of his books Mr. Murakami portrays a fascination with 19th and early 20th century western literature) but one that is pulled off deftly as Murakami gives his little titles as seeds for the reader, odd seeds that many times pique the interest and add to the over all seduction.  Murakami has a way of stating something simply, like, ‘It might be better not to wish for such a thing’, which is one of the chapter titles, and then tying it in with the chapter and the overall story that wakes the reader when he comes across the line in the chapter, not with a jolt but with an almost soothing little laugh and a slight nod as if to say, this, yes, this.  It is a light touch that makes for the friendly atmosphere of a Murakami novel.  Not much is to be deciphered.  Ideas might not be understood right away or seem complex in the new types of worlds he creates, but the path that winds through, though not paved, will be clear and pleasant.

The novel is split into three books cut into thirds in page count as well as time frame of the book which takes place from April until the end of December of the year 1984.  This balance of time frame also adds to an overall easiness, where, even though in the frame of each book time is compressed and expanded as the importance of different scenes is weighted and lightened by length, the reader feels he is skating along, that the story is moving like a mechanism, but not a dry or soulless mechanism but rather one that functions organically with the characters, their lives, and even the reader with his own true association with the constant movement of time, that lends the book a fairly realistic feel as the characters are moved along, a feel that plays to the end where Aomame must find Tengo before year’s end.  Murakami has a strong way of setting his fantastical stories into a believable reality which gives them much of their signature flavor, and one of the ways he does this is by having his characters dealing with what is happening as time goes by, the changing seasons, the psychological press one feels in being too much with someone or too much without them over what is a realistic timescape.

The chapters themselves are split between Tengo, Aomame and in book three, Ushikawa, a private detective hired by the Sakigake organization.  This splits the perspective, opening up Murakami’s ability to expand the story and the dramatic tension where he portrays the emotional landscapes of two and then three different characters, with their wants and motivations put on display and the tensions and conflicts of their own selves as well as the others, though without their knowing, and only the reader with the ability to sit back and see and understand the pushing and pulling of their strivings and the closeness with which they succeed and fail.  The reader then is aware of all that is going on with the characters but he is not aware of what is going on with the story itself, which creates a dual dynamic as Tengo and Aomome look for each other with the reader knowing just how far away and how close they are, but with Tengo and Aomame having to solve the labyrinth of the 1Q84 world of which the reader is in the same amount of darkness as the characters.  The split chapters also help mimic the central theme of the split worlds, which also mimics the split between Tengo and Aomame.  Roughly, the story is about coming apart and then coming together which is enhanced by the image of the two moons, the clear sign that one is no longer in the normal world or in the normal year 1984 but in the alternate world and time, so that the splitting of the chapters to flip between two characters and then fray to pass perspective between three makes sense, and then to have the last chapter be one of both Tengo and Aomame together is of course the needed end to such a technique.

Overall, the style, like Murakami’s other books is light.  The sentences are an average size and not demanding and the paragraph structure is not flourishing or stripped down, but is used to round out the ideas and then move on with leaving much of a trace or putting pressure on the readability.  Technically, Murakami keeps things in the middle, which allows him to set the stage of his aesthetic which is more about story mood and the unraveling of events than comprehension or revelation in the reader.  He does, however, indulge in detail.  In a given scene he may itemize what the character has bought at the market, or go through meticulously what the character is preparing for dinner.  Food plays a big part in many of his scene setups, but does not play much of a part in scene consequence.  This sense of a hyper detailing can be a little distracting at times, and somewhat useless at others, especially in a nine hundred page novel where many scenes are set up, and after many hundreds of pages one at times wants to put it aside.  The reader begins to see something of a repetition of this detailing technique, and if it were not for Murakami’s light touch it would weigh scenes down and make the end of the book something dreadful because he not only does it with food, but with body types, clothing, almost any description, sexual behavior, and especially in this book, breasts.  The reader will get to know the breasts of all the female characters in this book very well.

Intrinsic to Murakami’s stories is dialogue.  His characters are always talking, and they are always talking about what is going on and how they are feeling.  Even the stoic ones.  And this book is no different.  It is a very simple technique, to simply have your characters talk about the story in order to advance the story, but it is one that Murakami excels at.  Murakami does not tax his readers by having to have them make connections and here we see another aspect of how that is accomplished, the story is laid out in the dialogue and to a large degree in the narration, but since the book is told in the third person one feels that perhaps Murakami will lay off the exposition in the narration and let the characters act out what the reader needs to understand.  But he does not.  He mixes the third person narration with thoughts of the characters to advance an understanding of their emotional interiors while scattering clues in the descriptions and events with rhetorical questions placed to give the reader directions to what he should be thinking about and what he should be feeling.  This is a weakness.  Much of the time it is unnecessary as the events surrounding the narration almost always guide the reader, so that when Murakami points a finger at where the reader should be he is instead pointing a finger at himself and saying, the author wishes to tell you that you should be here.

To a degree Murakami addresses this aspect of his story telling.  He talks about writing in this book.  Tengo is a writer working on a novel of his own and having rewritten Air Chrysalis he talks about writing and it seems Murakami uses him as a mouthpiece of his own style and technique, saying, in effect, that there are different types of writers and different ways to tell stories and he chooses to narrate the events from a broader more objective perspective where he can give more information to his reader.  This is exactly what Murakami himself does.  What is most interesting is the aspect of having Tengo talk about writing in the vein that Murakami does it, thus generating an aspect of meta that he ties in with the overall story and runs along the main threads to the end.  Here we have not a world cut in half, but characters that find themselves in a new world removed from the original but running intertwined and actively involved, and we have Tengo who is writing a book about a world he thinks he made up until he realizes he is in it, and is then talking about writing in the way that the actual author writes.  It makes one wonder where the world in the book ends and the reality of reality begins.  Don’t forget that the book Air Chrysalis that Tengo had to rewrite was fantasy fiction until it became all too real.  Murakami reveals a playful attitude with meta that runs from a story in a story all the way up to Murakami himself writing the story in the story which makes a story in a story in a story, which illustrates well the complexity of the world divide that is dealt with in 1Q84.

The world view is basically one of yin and yang, of two opposing forces.  The book has many of Murakami’s signature themes, split realities, a disappearing girl, western music, cats.  But here, we have two forces working against each other, the dark force lead by The Little People, and a light force, which in a weakness of content, goes without much explanation but is made known that it pushes back against The Little People and the darkness that they represent.  So, here we have a universal justice that plays itself out through temporal sentient beings who get caught up in the escapades of the supernatural by accident.  But not really by accident.  It was the split of Tengo and Aomame when they were children from the affection that they briefly had for one another that pulls them into this fight and brings them together.  Fate is something of an element.  Murakami does not tell us they were meant to be together, but it is these two who have not seen each other in 20 years that end up being the key parts in crippling The Little People, and Murakami makes sure to let the reader know that it is beyond coincidence, that is was the gift each had, Aomame’s ability to be an assassin and Tengo’s ability to write, and their latent attraction toward each other that put them in the situation and brought the whole thing around.

Cults also play a large roll in the set up of the story.  The Sakigake cult is where The Little People broke through to this world, and in a sense, twisted their somewhat weakened minds to fanaticism and used the fanaticism against their selves, and the world, that these demonic creatures manipulated them into a small army which throws into question the stability of the mind of a fanatic or cult member.  Also, Aomame and her family belonged to a Christian cult when she was younger, a group that she ended up despising and leaving, which then left her without a family and with a damaged and lonely past causing a damaged and isolated adult.   The theme of cults lays a background for Aomame and helps the reader understand her often cold, lone ways, motivations and having lived at odds with the world, as well as her ability to connect with other outsiders shows how she connects with the world and the understanding she forms with other outsiders.  But the theme of cults overall leaves the reader wanting.  If this was a book that was supposed to have cults as a main theme it falls flat.  Though cults are featured prominently, their interworkings and fanatical mindset is no where to be seen, there is no detail about the function or true psychology of cults or of the individuals wrapped up in them, so that the theme is overshadowed as to be ineffective by the rest of the book, by the split worlds, by Aomame killing people, by Tengo writing, by the mysery of The Little People, by what Fuka-Eri is having for dinner.

What is truly striking about 1Q84 is how unstriking the end is.  To have a reader go through a nine hundred page book, even one as easy to read as 1Q84, there must be a great pay off to make all that time worth while, but in this story there is none.  Tengo and Aomame are apart, they’re apart, they’re close, they’re together.   No truly great moral decision was made, and nothing was sacrificed by either side.  Some danger played a part and it looked like Aomame might have to give up her life, but then didn’t.  In fact, no one lost anything except Ushikawa who lost his life, again at the cost of nothing to any of the other characters or even of the story.  And no one changed.  The characters at the end are who they were at the beginning.  It is event based and therefore mostly melodrama, but there is not much tension to the melodrama.  Ushikawa gets close to catching them, but not too close, and then gets killed and then Tengo and Aomame ride off into the sunset, by walking up a flight of stairs next to a highway.  It is poor story telling to have a character like Ushikawa become such an integral part of the plot as to have his own perspective chapters and to then kill him without his having changed anything in the plot.  He simply follows them and is then picked off.  Also, by the end there were many characters who were basically unnecessary.  Professor Ebisuno, Fuka-Eri, and Komatsu being the three biggest.  It’s frustrating for the reader because they were good characters that did nothing for the story.  Their plot lines ran out and by the middle of the book they no longer had effect on what became the over arching dynamic of the story.

1Q84 is written like many of Murakami’s other books, simply and easily, where it does not ask much of the reader as a story of fractured worlds push and pull its characters through uncharted “realities”.  The book is almost a thousand pages long but because of Murakami’s light touch and deep imagination it goes by without the weight of having read so many pages. Do not get caught in the trap of wanting too much from the book or its characters.

Christopher Heffernan