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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.