World-Shifting: Haruki Murakami's "1Q84"

By Charles YuDecember 12, 2011

World-Shifting: Haruki Murakami's "1Q84"

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

MOST PEOPLE CAN'T, or at least don't, read a 925-page book in a couple of nights. In fact, if you happen to have any of the following: (i) a television, (ii) access to the Internet, (iii) one or more children, (iv) regular bathing habits, or (v) gainful employment in a job where your responsibilities do not include getting paid to read books, it would probably be difficult to finish a book this long in a week, or even two. Life just gets in the way. For argument's sake, let's assume it would be closer to a month, a month in which a typical person might take 30 showers, eat 90 meals, spend maybe 200 hours at work.

The point is that when you read a book as long as 1Q84, you don't just read it: you live with it for a while. If the book is good, you look forward to spending time alone with it. You sneak away from this or that, steal a few minutes here and there, find opportunities to get a few more pages in. Instead of life getting in the way of reading, the reading starts to get in the way of life. A very long book can even come to define a kind of personal era, albeit a short one, a piece of time that you can look back on and remember as having a particular texture: from the global (ups and downs in the stock market, political unrest) to the personal (what was going on at the office, the songs that were on the radio). Whatever happened during that month gets woven into the experience. And the converse may also happen: The book inserts itself into your consciousness. It becomes associated with, and even part of, what happened to you during that period of your life. To read a novel of this length is to be immersed, to move back and forth between the fictional world and the real one, and in so doing, to see the latter through a point of view invented in the former.

This kind of world-shifting is possible with Haruki Murakami's new novel (originally published in Japan in serial form as three books), which opens with Aomame, a young woman living in Tokyo, stuck in traffic, in a taxi, on the highway. The year is 1984, and Aomame is very late for work, which is a big deal, given that Aomame is no accountant or lawyer, but rather a contract killer specializing in the murder of men who abuse their wives. On the advice of the cab driver, Aomame decides that it would be a good idea to walk along the shoulder of the highway, and climb down an emergency stairway in order to get down into the subway station and to her assignment on time. Only, when Aomame emerges from the stairway, she picks up on subtle hints (the cut of a policeman's uniform is slightly different, the firearm he is carrying is a different model) that her shortcut may have been an exit in more ways than one. The world has shifted, or perhaps she has shifted between worlds. In the words of Aomame's cryptic cab driver, "things are not what they seem."

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Tokyo, a young man named Tengo, who works as a mathematics instructor at a cram-school by day and writes fiction by night, is being pitched an intriguing yet disturbing proposal by his editor, Komatsu. Komatsu wants Tengo to ghostwrite a novel. But not just any novel, a batshit crazy novel, a story written by a 17-year-old girl going by the name of Fuka-Eri that contains, among other things, tiny beings called Little People who crawl out of the mouth of a dead goat and, once out, weave a structure called an "air chrysalis." And not just ghostwrite, either — Komatsu is asking Tengo to do something closer to rewriting, something halfway between writing and rewriting, between creation and revision.

The result of their collaboration, a novel titled
Air Chrysalis, becomes a national sensation, and sets in motion a chain of events that may eventually bring Tengo and Aomame together. Tengo and Aomame have history: a brief but intense encounter they had as children has stayed with each of them, and although they have not seen one another for over 20 years, the vividness of the memory has not abated and the feeling of longing and connection has not diminished. Much of the book alternates between Tengo's point of view and Aomame's, and as they move through their separate stories, their lives begin to converge around a common mysterious cult called Sakigake and the head of that organization, who is referred to by his followers simply as The Leader. Somehow all of it — Tengo, Fuka-Eri, the book they created together, Aomame, and the dowager who hires Aomame to kill abusive men — is connected.

That's a somewhat arbitrary but probably sufficient cross section of what you might call
1Q84's plot. I say somewhat arbitrary because there is much more in the way of storylines and characters ... and I say it's probably sufficient because, well, what happens in the story is important, but just as important is what does not happen. What does not happen, for large stretches of the book: anything exciting. In fact, for most of the last third of the book, the characters really don't do much of any thing at all. Instead, we get detailed descriptions of people cooking, preparing to cook, and eating. We get long passages in which characters read books, or look out the window, or just sit in their apartments waiting for the NHK subscription collector to go away. After the action-packed first two sections, the third section is curiously devoid of narrative momentum. What is going on? A clue might be found in an exchange between Aomame and Tamaru, who works for Aomame's employer:


"Still reading Proust?"

"But not making much progress," Aomame replied. It was like an exchange of passwords.


Proust! As with so many things in life, Proust is, apparently, the key. In fact, despite the title, the real-world book referenced most often in 1Q84 is not Orwell's 1984. It's In Search of Lost Time.

Which brings back the notion of how, when a book is this long, you aren't just reading it, for a little while you are inhabiting it. Murakami's characters, too, live their lives in time. Not the artificially compressed narrative time of a shorter novel or most movies, but the regular, stop-and-start time of actual life, which sometimes drags and sometimes even just seems to go around in circles. As Tengo and Aomame hide in separate apartments, despite all of the mind-blowingly weird events that have happened to them in the past few months, they carry on with their day-to-day routines. These periods of mundane living, like negative space (or maybe negative time), are as important to the novel as the more fantastic elements. Because, after all, if the cab driver from the opening chapter is to be believed:


"And after you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little ... But don't let appearances fool you. There's always only one reality."


In which case this book, and the lives of Tengo and Aomame, might not be about a different world at all, but about our own. Not world-shifting, exactly, but something more complex. There are other hints throughout the novel that, in fact, there has been no shift in location, only in point of view. For instance, this passage describing Tengo's inner monologue:


"Could this mean, then that this is the world of the novel? Could I have somehow left the real world and entered the world of Air Chrysalis like Alice falling down the rabbit hole? Or could the real world have been made over so as to match exactly the story of Air Chrysalis?"


or this, from Ayumi, a policewoman whom Aomame becomes intimate with:


"That's what the world is, after all: an endless battle of contrasting memories."


Even the title, 1Q84, which plays on the fact that the pronunciation of Q is a homophone for nine in Japanese, seems, in the right light, to suggest less an alternate world and more a different way of seeing the same one. 1Q84 offers itself as a kind of revision to 1984, not a parallel universe but a rewritten one, one that erases the prior universe and writes over it, right on top, over what was there before. Add a moon, delete some history. As Tengo explains to his older, married girlfriend:


"The story is about me — or about somebody modeled on me."

"I'm sure it is," she said. "Am I in it?"

"No, you're not. I'm in a world that isn't here."

"So I'm not in the world that isn't here."

"And not just you. The people who are in this world are not in the world that isn't here."

"How is the world that isn't here different from this world? Can you tell which world you're in now?"

"Of course I can. I'm the one who's writing it."


It is an exhilarating idea: not two worlds, side by side, but just one, swallowing itself, turning itself inside out, becoming the world that it isn't, while still being the one that it is. The world as a self-revising document. To have even reached for this — to have articulated the idea well enough — is admirable. To have actually gotten ahold of it and conveyed it to the effect that Murakami has in 1Q84 is a feat of remarkable imagination, and perhaps reason enough to forgive some of the book's shortcomings.

Which persist. There are long stretches of the third section, even whole chapters of it, that feel less like a novel and more like stage directions, with Tengo and Aomame spending a lot of time either (i) narrating their thoughts to other characters, or (ii) unfurling an internal monologue which largely recapitulates the plot of the novel thus far. From a distance, the book's structure is impressive, but as you move in closer, the creaking expositional machinery gets louder and more distracting.

There are also, as some readers have noted, a lot of descriptions of breasts in the book. A lot. There may or may not be any relevance or resonance to be found in these (perhaps the asymmetry of Aomame's breasts is meant to suggest the two moons in the sky, one smaller than the other?). Nevertheless, one passing reference likely would have sufficed, and somewhere in the fourth or fifth or sixth such passage, there is the distinct whiff of perviness. Pervy because of the repetition, but also because, while these descriptions are offered from the POV of a female character (usually Aomame), commenting on either her own body or someone else's, they don't sound like a woman speaking. Rather, they sound like a man (or a teenage boy) describing a woman's breasts, or more specifically, like a teenage boy's fantasy of a woman describing another woman's breasts. In addition, there are sex scenes in the book, ranging from silly to rather disturbing, which mostly had me wondering: Are there really people who talk like this during sex? And the love story between Tengo and Aomame, two people who know almost nothing about each other, can at times feel a bit hollow, excessively idealized, lacking the messiness, the unruliness of actual love.

The novel is strongest when it sticks to its most powerful idea, the one implied by its title: the world as a kind of question. Early on in the book, Tengo thinks to himself that the role of a story is, "in the broadest terms, to transpose a single problem into another form." Murakami starts with the problem,
what is real? and he transposes it into another form, an entire world, slightly revised. Murakami's 925-page novel seems to be suggesting that, when you get down to it, the key to the question is love. It's what remains, what survives, what can be carried from one world into the next. It's what can't be erased, even when the rest of reality has been rewritten. What would it mean to be in such a world, to have a memory of the original, but be the only one who does? And how does the answer change if there are now two of you who do? What if love is finding the only other person in the world who remembers it the way you do?


LARB Contributor

Charles Yu is the author of four books, including his latest, Interior Chinatown (2020), which won the National Book Award for Fiction. He lives in Southern California with his family. He has been a superfan of George Saunders for a really long time. 


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