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.
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 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. ↩
3 In America, Chuck Klosterman's essay "Fail" in Eating the Dinosaur (Scribner, 2009) offers sympathy for Kaczynski on similar grounds ↩
4 Sam Anderson, "The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami," The New York Times Magazine, October 21, 2011. ↩
5 The Elephant Vanishes, translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin (Knopf, 1993), p. 197. ↩
Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel (Vintage, 2000), p. 240. ↩
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running: A Memoir, translated by Philip Gabriel (Knopf, 2008), pp. 81–82. ↩
In America, Chuck Klosterman's essay "Fail" in Eating the Dinosaur (Scribner, 2009) offers sympathy for Kaczynski on similar grounds ↩
Sam Anderson, "The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami," The New York Times Magazine, October 21, 2011. ↩
The Elephant Vanishes, translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin (Knopf, 1993), p. 197. ↩