Early in Haruki Murakami’s new novel, a character describes to an editor at a Japanese publishing house a manuscript of a novel that has come to his attention, and what he says sounds like a preview of the book we are about to read:
You could pick it apart completely if you wanted to. But the story itself has real power: it draws you in. The overall plot is a fantasy, but the descriptive detail is incredibly real. The balance between the two is excellent. I don’t know if words like “originality” or “inevitability” fit here, and I suppose I might agree if someone insisted it’s not at that level, but finally, after you work your way through the thing, with all its faults, it leaves a real impression—it gets to you in some strange, inexplicable way that may be a little disturbing.
After arriving at page 925 of 1Q84, the reader is likely to see an analogue. In this book, Murakami, who is nothing if not ambitious, has created a kind of alternative world, a mirror of ours, reversed. Even the book’s design emphasizes that mirroring: as you turn the pages, the page numbers climb or drop in succession along the margins, with the sequential numerals on one side in normal display type but mirror-reversed on the facing page. At one point, a character argues against the existence of a parallel world, but the two main characters in 1Q84 (Q=”a world that bears a question”) are absolutely convinced that they live not in a parallel world but in a replica one, where they do not want to be. The world we had is gone, and all we have now is a simulacrum, a fake, of the world we once had. “At some point in time,” a character muses, “the world I knew either vanished or withdrew, and another world came to take its place.”
This idea, which used to be the province of science fiction and French critical theory, is now in the mainstream, and it has created a new mode of fiction—Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City is another recent example—that I would call “Unrealism.” Unrealism reflects an entire generation’s conviction that the world they have inherited is a crummy second-rate duplicate.
The word “realism” is a key descriptive term that readers often apply to certain works of literature without any general agreement about what it actually means. After all, if we cannot agree about what reality is, then why should we agree about what realism is, either? The entire topic dissolves quickly because its scope becomes too large and its outlines too indefinable to be particularly useful. Much of the time, we can talk about fiction without having to take a stand on what is real and what isn’t, although we do sometimes say that this or that event or character is “implausible” or “fantastical,” thereby rescuing truth-value for the plausible and the everyday.
Murakami’s novels, stories, and nonfiction refuse to make such distinctions, or, rather, they display, often very bravely and beautifully, the pull of the unreal and the fantastical on ordinary citizens who, unable to bear the world they have been given, desperately wish to go somewhere else. The resulting narratives conform to what I have called Unrealism. In Unrealism, characters join cults. They believe in the apocalypse and Armageddon, or they go down various rabbit holes and arrive in what Murakami himself, in a bow to Lewis Carroll, calls Wonderland. They long for the end times. Magical thinking dominates. Not everyone wants to be in such a dislocated locale, and the novels are often about heroic efforts to get out of Wonderland, but it is a primary destination site, like Las Vegas. As one character in 1Q84 says, “Everybody needs some kind of fantasy to go on living, don’t you think?”
1Q84 is a vast narrative inquiry into the fantasies that bind its dramatis personae to this world and the ones that loosen them from it. At its center are two characters—a young man, Tengo, a would-be novelist who by day teaches mathematics at a Tokyo cram school; and a young woman, Aomame (“green peas” in Japanese), a physical trainer and specialist in deep-tissue massage who is also a part-time assassin. We learn that at the age of ten the two of them met in grade school and joined hands and fell in love, and though they were separated soon after, they have somehow managed to continue to love each other, at a distance and sight unseen, over the course of two decades. The novel tracks their gradual coming together through a maze of trials in which monsters and devils figure prominently. This romance is at the core of the novel, as if Murakami had somehow hybridized The Magic Flute and Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, with a touch of Rosemary’s Baby thrown in for good measure.
The other really inescapable presence behind 1Q84 is George Orwell’s dystopia. The novel’s events occur in 1984, but instead of a Stalinist police state where the clocks strike thirteen, Murakami conjures up a cult, Sakigake (or “Forerunner”), with a charismatic leader, Tamotsu Fukada, along with a legion of mesmerized followers. Tengo and Aomame fall out of the ordinary world into a counterworld, 1Q84, shadowed everywhere by Sakigake and its goons. Although religious cultism has taken the place of political cultism, the effects here are remarkably similar. Within the Sakigake organization are thuggish enforcers and various forms of thought control. As if that weren’t enough, Sakigake has uncanny dark powers under its command that threaten the novel’s heroes and keep them in hiding, allowing the author to deploy various elements of the demonic. Just when you thought demons had been banished from serious fiction, Murakami has figured out a way to get them back in again.
“Their world,” one character notes, speaking of the Takashima Academy where the young Fukada, also known simply as “Leader,” went after having dropped out of a university, “is like the one that George Orwell depicted in his novel.”
I’m sure you realize that there are plenty of people who are looking for exactly that kind of brain death. It makes life a lot easier. You don’t have to think about difficult things, just shut up and do what your superiors tell you to do.
The landscape of 1Q84 is made even more complicated by the details of the alternative reality into which its two main characters have stumbled, mostly by accident. In this particular Wonderland, surveillance is everywhere; the innocent must hide; torture goes on in secret places; thugs rule. Who is to say that this unrealism isn’t true-to-life? Creating such Wonderlands is almost a thematic tic with Murakami: the protagonist of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, for example, finds his at the bottom of a dry well. Murakami himself is quite conscious of this habitual turn of his imagination. In his book on the gas attack in the Tokyo subway he writes:
Underground settings play particularly major roles in two of my novels, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Characters go into the World Below in search of something and down there different adventures unfold. They head underground, of course, both in the physical and spiritual sense.1
The geography of 1Q84‘s Wonderland comprises Tokyo and its outskirts, along with recognizable cultural artifacts from the present and the past. The two main characters are ushered into it to the strains of Janáček’s Sinfonietta. But the locale also includes two moons, miniature angels or demons (it is hard to tell which they are) referred to as “Little People,” ghosts knocking on the door demanding payment, insemination-by-proxy, and air chrysalises: cocoons created by the Little People in which pod-like human replicas, referred to as dohta, are hatched. 1Q84 is a marathon novel. (Murakami himself is a marathon runner and has said that “most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day.”2) The experience of reading this book is anything but a long-distance trial, however. For most of its length, 1Q84 is a weirdly gripping page-turner, and its tonal register—as if serving as an antidote to the unsettling world it presents—is consistently warmhearted, secretly romantic, and really quite genial.
In 1Q84 the point of view alternates between Aomame and Tengo until a pathetic monster, Ushikawa, enters the book and, two thirds of the way through, gets his own narrative. The chapters from his point of view are both creepy and haunting.
In the first chapter of the book, on her way to an assassination, Aomame finds herself in a taxi trapped in a Tokyo traffic jam on an elevated freeway. Getting out of the cab, she walks over to an exit underneath an Esso gasoline billboard. Having been warned by the cab driver that “things are not what they seem,” she takes an emergency stairway from the exit downward to ground level where she slips through an opening in a fence. Any experienced reader of Murakami’s novels knows that from here on out, she’s in for it. Soon enough she recognizes that “the world itself has already changed into something else.”
The men Aomame periodically assassinates with an icepick are sadistically abusive, and we are to understand that in some sense she serves as an agent of divine justice. Sexual assaults recur throughout the novel, shadowing both the male and female characters; these assaults serve as the novel’s base line of depravity. Such depravity is countered by true love, which both Aomame and the novel believe in, or at least remember—in her case, with Tengo. By various twists and turns enabled by a patron usually referred to as “the dowager” and the dowager’s murderous gay bodyguard—a very lively character, by the way—Aomame eventually gains entry to the Leader’s presence, under the pretext of giving him a therapeutic session of stretching exercises to relax his musculature. The dowager has previously informed Aomame that the Leader has been having intercourse with preadolescent girls and is therefore worthy of execution, and her actual mission is to kill him. Here at the dead center of his novel, in a dialogue between Aomame and the Leader, Murakami gives us, for several chapters, a twenty-first century updated version of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor scene—a debate, that is, on the nature of the sacred.
Meanwhile, the other hero of the novel, Tengo, has taken on the task of anonymously revising a novel, Air Chrysalis, dictated by a young woman, Eriko Fukada, called “Fuka-Eri” throughout. Her novel at first seems to be a farrago of Jungian archetypes and fairy tales, but once you get to the bottom of it, you find doubles, mazas and dohtas as they are called, “receivers” and “perceivers,” in a veiled allegory of her upbringing. The novel becomes a huge best seller, and Tengo finds himself in trouble for having collaborated with Fuka-Eri in giving away the esoteric truths and holy mysteries of Sagikake that make up the core of her tale.
1 Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel (Vintage, 2000), p. 240. ↩
2 What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir, translated by Philip Gabriel (Knopf, 2008), pp. 81–82. ↩