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Behind Murakami’s Mirror

Patrick Fraser/Corbis Outline
Haruki Murakami, 2008

Fuka-Eri, it turns out, is the Leader’s daughter, or the daughter’s replicant or near double, and as a replicant she has several zombie features, including affectlessness, the inability to use rising inflections for questions, and the capacity to quote long passages of literature (which she may not comprehend) from memory. So: at the same time that Aomame is putting herself in jeopardy with her mission to kill the Leader, Tengo is finding himself equally endangered, simply for having ghostwritten a book. They both go into hiding, at which point the hideously repulsive hired gumshoe Ushikawa, who is working for Sagikake, begins to track them down.

If my summary seems to suggest that some elements in 1Q84 are trashy, so be it. Murakami is a great democrat when it comes to subject matter and plot development. Digressions on the St. Matthew Passion, The Brothers Karamazov, and Chekhov’s book on Sakhalin vie for air time with observations on, and citations from, Sonny and Cher and Harold Arlen. Despite its various digressions, however, all roads in 1Q84 lead back to the Leader’s cult. The cult serves as the source, the electrical generator, of Wonderland and its spectacles, and cultism has the book’s imagination tightly in its grip. Sagikake in effect converts the world Tengo and Aomame live in from 1984 to 1Q84. Cultism rules this world. Only love can defeat it. In this sense the book’s redemptive structure could not be more traditional.

The shadow of the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s attack using sarin gas on the Tokyo subway on March 20, 1995, floats over the entire enterprise the way the apocalyptic violence of September 11 has floated over much recent American fiction. Murakami conducted extensive interviews with the victims and perpetrators of the Tokyo sarin attack and has published their comments along with his own thoughts on the matter in his nonfiction book Underground, published in the US in 2000.

In the afterword to that book, he argues that the Aum cult arose for several reasons: “in Aum they found a purity of purpose they could not find in ordinary society,” and, more tellingly, the cultists lacked “a broad world vision,” with the consequence that they experienced “the alienation between language and action that results from this.” In effect, they suffered from Unrealism and from the dark powers that arise from it: “language and logic cut off from reality have a far greater power than the language and logic of reality—with all that extraneous matter weighing down like a rock on any actions we take.” The “logic of reality”? We must acknowledge that Murakami accepts the existence of such logic and of a reality that cannot be altered by someone’s hallucinatory denial of it. But he doesn’t just accept it; he believes in it.

In case anyone thought that the psychic extremity leading to Aum was strictly Japanese, Murakami reminds us that Aum’s ambitions were similar to Ted Kaczynski’s. He also argues that “the argument Kaczynski puts forward is fundamentally quite right.”3

What’s fascinating about 1Q84 is its ambivalence about “the logic of reality” and its wish to plunge the reader into the “far greater power” of Unreality’s unlogic, which has the advantage of revolutionary fervor and reformism. Unrealism rejects what we have, or what the newspapers say we have, as uncongenial and loathsome and unsustainable, and offers up its own alternative. Within the subcultures it creates, almost all questions are answered. Fantasies are enacted. Beauty is reinstalled as a category. Everyday objects take on magical properties and serve as fetishes. Fiction, as Murakami knows perfectly well, can and does serve as a mirror world itself. It can both evoke Unrealism and collaborate with it, or it may deny it entirely. Fiction, then, can serve as both the poison and its antidote, though it is not scrupulously clear in 1Q84 whether Fuka-Eri’s novel Air Chrysalis has functioned as a cultural antitoxin or a hallucinogenic. Are novels good or bad for us? Tengo himself is not sure. Perhaps it is the wrong question.

The rogue power of Unrealism finds itself evoked in the chapters devoted to the dialogues between Aomame and the Leader, who sometimes sounds like Sarastro in The Magic Flute—a sorcerer who is suffering and wise and extremely dangerous. He can cause objects to levitate. He hears voices and transmits them to others. He is capable of causing paralysis in those close to him. He can read thoughts. He has read The Brothers Karamazov and The Golden Bough and can provide learned commentary on both. In short, he is not a monster; monsters work for him. As a figure of ambiguous purpose, he also promises Aomame that he will save Tengo’s life if only she carries out her assigned task. The Leader says that he himself must be killed. Speaking to his personal assassin in order to persuade her to do her job, the Leader launches into a lecture on anthropology out of Sir James Frazer:

Now, why did the king have to be killed? It was because in those days the king was the one who listened to the voices, as the representative of the people. Such a person would take it upon himself to become the circuit connecting “us” with “them.” And slaughtering the one who listened to the voices was the indispensible task of the community in order to maintain a balance between the minds of those who lived on the earth and the power manifested by the Little People.

The reader will note that the Leader’s explanation lets himself off the hook ethically for who he is and what he does. He isn’t quite responsible for his actions, nor are his followers. He is simply listening to the voices and passing on what the voices say to those who believe in him. He serves as a transmitting station of mythic patterns and extrasensory truth. If he dies, the “Little People would lose one who listens to their voices.”

And who are the Little People? The Little People, it appears, are unsignified signifiers. Almost everything in 1Q84, the book and the mirror world it creates, depends on their identity and their actions. If there is anything wrong with Murakami’s novel, it has to do with these figures, on whom the meanings of the counterworld absolutely depend and who are absolutely mystifying. It is as if the Seven Dwarfs had gradually made their presence known and their powers understood in a novel by James T. Farrell. What are we to make of them? Or of the hybrid novel in which they appear? Such are the perplexities, pleasures, and revelations of Unrealism.

The author himself seems somewhat undecided about who these creatures are—that is, what his imagination has created. Artists don’t need fully to understand their own art, but as the reader proceeds through Murakami’s novel, the suspicion grows that the author is riding a horse so powerful that it is occasionally not under his command and control. The horse is world-class and beautiful and fast, and the ride is thrilling. But the core meaning of what’s happening on the darker side of the spectrum has intermittently slipped away. The creation of the mirror world is essentially the doing of the Little People, but the Little People are accountable to nobody, and no one knows who or what they are.

Here is Murakami in an interview:

The Little People came suddenly. I don’t know who they are. I don’t know what it means. I was a prisoner of the story. I had no choice. They came, and I described it. That is my work.4

Fair enough. We have seen characters like this before in Murakami. They reminded me of the “TV People” in a story of that name in his collection The Elephant Vanishes, little goblin-like figures who look “as if they were reduced by photocopy, everything mechanically calibrated.”5 They come into your house without ringing the doorbell and they plant a TV in your living room. It’s just the sort of thing monsters do. “They just sneak right in. I don’t even hear a footstep. One opens the door, the other two carry in a TV.” Horror in Murakami’s fiction is often close to laughter, and both the TV People and the Little People possess a kind of comic unreadability.

As if to compensate for the Little People’s enigmatic existence and behavior, we are given in the last third of 1Q84 a recognizable monster, Ushikawa, the appallingly ugly outcast who listens to the Sibelius Violin Concerto 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 felt like a twisted, ugly person. So what? he thought. I really am twisted and ugly.” 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.

The whole of 1Q84 is closer to comedy than to tragedy, but it is a deeply obsessive book, and one of its obsessions is Macbeth and the problem of undoings. After saying that Banquo is dead and cannot come out of his grave, Lady Macbeth in Act Five observes that “what’s done cannot be undone.” Then she leaves the stage for the last time. What the two major characters in 1Q84 desire above all else is to undo Wonderland and to get out of it and back to each other, but “gears that have turned forward never turn back,” a phrase that is repeated with variations three times in the novel, as if the problem of a snowball narrative had to do with how to melt the snowball and escape the glittering and thrilling world that Unrealism has created. 1Q84 seems to be about the undoing of a curse, so that the characters who believe that “the original world no longer exists” can somehow get back to that original world they no longer believe in. In a somewhat startling form of humanism and faith, Tengo and Aomame come to believe that what has been done can be undone.

That they do so by means of loyalty, prayers, and love is the most touching element of this book, and for some readers it will be the most questionable. Aomame, the novel’s assassin, repeats to herself a prayer that Murakami quotes several times. This prayer is the novel’s purest article of faith:

O Lord in Heaven, may Thy name be praised in utmost purity for ever and ever, and may Thy kingdom come to us. Please forgive our many sins, and bestow Thy blessings upon our humble pathways. Amen.

I finished 1Q84 feeling that its spiritual project was heroic and beautiful, that its central conflict involved a pitched battle between realism and unrealism (while being scrupulously fair to both sides), and that, in our own somewhat unreal times, younger readers, unlike me, would have no trouble at all believing in the existence of Little People and replicants. What they may have trouble with is the novel’s absolute faith in the transformative power of love.

  1. 3

    In America, Chuck Klosterman’s essay “Fail” in Eating the Dinosaur (Scribner, 2009) offers sympathy for Kaczynski on similar grounds 

  2. 4

    Sam Anderson, “The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami,” The New York Times Magazine, October 21, 2011. 

  3. 5

    The Elephant Vanishes, translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin (Knopf, 1993), p. 197. 

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