Okay. So I made a mistake. This should NOT have been my first Murakami. My roommate is happy saying “I told you so”. But since that’s done, I will now try to make sense of the fuck-all (IMHO) that was Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. I think it’s only appropriate I am writing this listening to Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta (the music that was instrumental in transporting our protagonists to this alternate world).
1Q84 is a surreal romance, spread over 3 books and 1300- (very) odd pages, with the first two books being translated by Jay Rubin and the third by Philip Gabriel. Set in Tokyo over 8 months in 1984, it alternates between the perspectives of its two lead characters: Aomame (Japanese for “green peas”), a female gym instructor who avenges victims of domestic violence; and Tengo, a burly maths tutor who ghost-writes a novella about a girl who is visited by the weird gnome-like creatures called the Little People. When they were ten, at school in Ichikawa, Tengo and Aomame once held hands. In that fleeting touch, they each felt urgently drawn to the other. In one sense, 1Q84 simply sets up the conditions for a second encounter. The question is “Will they ever meet again?”
In its early chapters, 1Q84 is like a cross between Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (review coming soon). Aomame, stuck in a traffic jam, is about to kill a wife-beating oil broker with an ice pick. Driven by the memory of her childhood friend, who committed suicide after marrying a similar asshole, she carries out such murders on the instructions of a wealthy dowager who runs a women’s shelter. Tengo does odd jobs for this cantankerous editor called Komatsu, who wants him to rewrite an addictive but inelegant novella titled Air Chrysalis submitted for a new fiction prize. The real author, a beautiful and dyslexic 17-year old girl called Fuka-Eri, has been raised as the daughter of a cult leader on a rural commune. There, hippie communism and the cultivation of organic vegetables have degenerated into the fabrication of a full-blown charismatic creed: god-like leader, mind-games, thuggish security, child abuse, sinister incinerator – the works. Fuka-Eri has escaped into the care of Professor Ebisuno, a disenchanted former associate of “Leader”. Now her story, which is both autobiography and science fiction, wins the prize and plunges Tengo into danger.
After this, the story becomes even weirder. When miniskirt hoisted, Aomame had shimmied from the expressway and down into an emergency stairwell on her way to the kill, she had entered a different reality. She first notices it because the cops have swapped their old-fashioned revolvers she thought they carried to bulky semi-automatics. Now, two moons hang in the sky: the normal, original one, and a smaller, lopsided, greenish twin. (At which point, Aomame proceeds to obsess about her own asymmetrical breasts. Coincidence?). In this world, the Little People operate in fact as well as fiction. Gradually, Tengo and Aomame’s tales begin to converge. She is tasked to assassinate the Leader of Sakigake (the cult from which Fuka-Eri ran away) because he is a child-rapist. Meanwhile, enforcers for Sakigake target Tengo as the leak who exposed their secrets through Fuka-Eri’s novella. By the end of the second volume, after a beautifully written assassination scene, Aomame spots Tengo in a suburban playground, gazing wistfully at the twin moons. The third volume, though equally well-written, seems more like an afterthought or an anti-climax. Here we meet Ushikawa, the appallingly ugly outcast who listens to Sibelius Violin Concertos while soaking in the bathtub. People cringe at his approach. Even his children avoid him. An entertainingly satanic figure, he sees it all; nothing escapes him, especially his own repulsiveness. He serves as the novel’s diabolical antagonist, the enemy of love between Tengo and Aomame, and he is quite wonderful to contemplate, up to and including the unforgettable scene in which he meets his nemesis, the dowager’s murderous gay bodyguard.
One of the biggest problems with the book is that too many recaps just slow the motion of the story. Tonally, the entire book feels like it is cluttered with too many details, almost as if Murakami had hoped this oversaturation would remind readers that his story is functioning in an alternate reality. For example, when Aomame gets a very important phone call towards the end of the book, I don’t need to know that she was “seated on a yoga mat, legs wide apart, stretching her iliopsoas muscles, which is actually a much more strenuous exercise than it looked”.
Another problem I had was Murakami attempting to overlay all his threads and themes into one single system. There are pockets of the novel that function so beautifully on their own (for instance, the story of Tengo’s father) that they begin to feel cheapened when Murakami tries to explicitly connect them to other, more theoretical points in the novel. It’s like instead of making thematic discoveries of my own, I have to interpret the connections only in the way he made them.
As for the title, it alludes to George Orwell’s 1984 (my review here) and plays with words (the English ‘Q’ and Japanese ‘9’ are homophones), and the Little People represent a modernized Big Brother. But where Orwell gave us a bracing parable about the horrors of totalitarianism, 1Q84’s ethos was not something I could comprehend. There’s much talk about ‘evil’ in the book, but it boils down to the belief that iniquity is either in the eye of the beholder (moral relativism) or a stabilising force in society (sales pitch for the dark side). I guess it makes sense that in the entire book there is never any sense of real wrongdoing or real pain. In 1984, the story gives you new ideas about power, injustice and cruelty, which are just elements used to service the story in 1Q84. As a consequence, in the book, no matter how appalling an act may be, its moral status remains ambiguous, even irrelevant.
The last thing I am is a moral absolutist, but I was still troubled by Murakami’s willingness to use the rape of children as a mere metaphor and by the general ethical impassivity which pervaded the entire book. While I appreciated the frank and idiosyncratic way his characters experienced sex or dealt with violence, I felt there was something cartoonish and even leering about much of it. For example, when the ostensibly straight Aomame mourns both a victim of domestic violence and a friend strangled by a stranger during sex, she mainly seems to grieve for “their lovely breasts—breasts that had vanished without a trace”. I don’t know if it’s offensive, unrealistic or just insane but then that can be said of the entire book.
For me, 1Q84 was psychologically unconvincing and morally unsavoury, full of lacunas and loose ends, stuffed with unnecessary details but not a coherent story. A large part of me wanted to ask Murakami what he was smoking when he wrote this, but a smaller part acknowledges it as a more than decent book. In the end, Tengo puts it best. “You could pick it apart completely if you wanted to,” he acknowledges. And yet, “after you work your way through the whole thing, with all its faults, it leaves a real impression—it gets to you”.