(The Trouble with) My Review of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84
HARUKI, MEET THE BEATLES
Had Help! been The Beatles' last album, they would be remembered as a fantastic—and I mean really fantastic—pop band. Help!, however, was not even the halfway point in the greatest rock band of all time's career. Five of their next seven albums, including Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and The White Album, would go on to change music forever. Their shift from pop to substance, from formula to formula-destroying, is so much the root of their genius. They were entertainers and artists both.
I recognize that comparing anyone to The Beatles is tantamount to review suicide, but I think there are a few parallels between Japan’s most famous author and Liverpool’s most famous band, and not simply because Haruki Murakami named one of his best-known works after The Beatles' classic ballad, Norwegian Wood.
Like the Fab Four, Murakami has evolved over his 30-plus-year career from pop-whimsical-writer, to writer of weighty issues. He continues to gain credence not only by winning international awards like the Jerusalem Prize, but also in the short odds Ladbrokes keep suggesting he has of winning the Nobel. Early Murakami novels like A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance have something very much in common with the powerful and joyous “Love Me Do” type songs that made The Beatles famous. In both artists’ cases, entertainment and fun were first and foremost in the early part of their careers; yet from the outset, they also managed to be wholly original in their respective fields. For instance, Murakami’s debut novel, Hear the Wind Sing, which the author himself would rather you never read, won a first writer’s prize in Japan, for the unique voice and style of its prose.
Then, some twenty years and six novels later, came The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, and everything changed. Not that the books preceding it were airy-fairy light. Murakami, as he told an audience at the New Yorker festival a few years back, always aims for balance in his work. As such, there has always been the interplay between light and dark in all he has written. For a love story, Norwegian Wood (the best-selling novel of all time in Japan) is really quite sad. It was with The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, though, that Murakami blended his surreal adventures with deep inquiries into Japan’s history, into the very nature of our consciousness and that of evil itself. It was about then that Japan’s literary sensation, who to that point had been a massive commercial success but something of an outcast amongst the Japanese literati (who found his work rather fluffy), became an artistic force to be reckoned with. It turned out that the pop star writer had gravitas. He had something to say. He was also, I should add, being translated into 40 languages around the world by that point.
If The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is Murakami’s Sgt. Pepper's, it wouldn’t be a stretch to consider his latest, 1Q84, hisWhite Album. I choose this Beatles double album for its incredible length, for its scope, and for its sprawling breadth. Though 1Q84 may well be a tighter story overall (Abbey Road, then?), the wide swath of themes it covers and the 928 pages of actual story you flip through make it a reasonable analogy.
THE CULT OF 1Q84
The book opens with a woman in a cab stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on an elevated Tokyo highway. In a great rush to make a clearly urgent “appointment,” the cab driver suggests the only way the woman will ever make it on time is to get out the cab in the middle of traffic, cross the highway, climb down an emergency ladder to get to the street below and catch a subway from the station nearby. It is a choice, and certainly not Robert Frost’s road most traveled. Of course this woman, named Aomame, which translates as green beans (Murakami has a thing for markedly unusual names), will take this unusual path, or ladder, and in so doing, go down the proverbial rabbit hole, leaving the world of 1984 and entering what Murakami calls 1Q84 (the Q being a homonym in Japanese for both the number 9 and the letter that stands for question). And while I’m enormously tempted to tell you what the appointment she’s rushing to, I’ll err on the side of caution, attempting not to spoil any major plot points in this labyrinth of an epic story. I will say that she isn’t about to attend a meeting of hedge fund managers, of that you can rest assured.
1Q84 pivots its two central storylines, shifting alternating chapters between Aomame's tale and that of a math teacher and writer named Tengo (but more on him later), around a large and cult-like religious organization, called Sakigake, a cult not so foreign to modern day Japan, nor to Murakami himself. In 1996, the fiction author took a break from novels to write a two-volume book (heavily abridged as a single text in English) entitled Underground, comprised of interviews of both the victims and a handful of the low level members of the cult that perpetrated the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. The cult, Aum Shinrikyo, released the toxic gas on a number of trains at rush hour, the result of which would kill 13 and injure more than 50. A long-time Murakami fan, the kind who reads everything he's written (fiction and non-fiction) since reading Underground, I’ve had the strong sense that this experience, of meeting these everyday people, the victims, the subway operators and even the cult members, has changed Murakami the writer forever, and the evidence is most clear in 1Q84, a book, that at its best, so carefully confuses our notions of good and, particuarly, evil.
Fuka-Eri is a very odd, but very beautiful seventeen-year-old girl, who has written a wildly imaginative story (sounds like someone else we know) about a kind of cocoon called an Air Chrysalis. Through a complicated series of events, Tengo Kawana, a budding novelist, winds up re-writing the girl’s story and in so doing turns the rather amateurish, if remarkably original story, into a massive bestseller. When it turns out that the seventeen-year-old happens to be the daughter of the Leader of the massive cult and the ramifications of that novel stretch far beyond books sales, things start to get …well, Murakami-esque.
Aomame, meanwhile, is a physical trainer by day, but does other, less legal work, on the side for a secretive woman known only as the dowager. This rich old widow runs a very heavily protected home for battered girls. She also secretly works to exact revenge on the men who have perpetrated these heinous crimes. By no coincidence, we learn early on that the Leader of the cult has sex with pre-pubescent girls as part of his ritual; we learn he has even slept with his own daughter, Fuka-Eri. When I mentioned the rabbit hole, I didn’t promise all would be light. It can get pretty dark down there.
How Tengo and Aomame's tales will converge, if at all, is something I'll leave to the pleasure of the book. What I can reveal without spoiling anythig is how at one striking moment in the narrative Murakami has the cult's leader explain why so many allow themselves to be swayed by cults of this sinister nature. He tells one of the main characters: "Almost no one is looking for painful truths. What people need is beautiful, comforting stories that make them feel as if their lives have some meaning." Sakigake is clearly doing this, as did Aum Shinrikyo, that very real cult that was so prevalent and influential in Japan not so many years ago. And just as Murakami learned that the low-level members of the cult weren’t inherently bad, so too does he confuse our desire to turn the Sakigake Leader into a simple prop onto which we can exact our psychic revenge.
THE HEART OF 1Q84
People will, of course, name George Orwell’s 1984, which Murakami plays on in his novel's title. They’ll also name Kafka, as one always will when talking about Murakami and his major influences. For those new to Murakami, though, 1Q84 will certainly read like nothing you've ever read before. To the Murakami faithful, however, you'll notice that elements from nearly all his previous works seem to prop up, from the structural makeup of the novel that alternates chapters between perspectives ala Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, to a story of longing that Murakami wrote to perfection in Norwegian Wood. And while1Q84 might not quite be the groundbreaking masterpiece that The Wind Up Bird Chronicle was, there are enough scintillating metaphors, obsure musical and literary references and wonderful, highly memorable characters to raise this heavy book head and shoulder above the average new release.
There has always been an undercurrent of the spiritual to everything Murakami has written; a sort of Zen-like calm is one of the principal pleasures of reading his stories (though professing no religion of his own, Murakami’s grandfather was a Buddhist priest). With 1Q84, Murakami brings for the first time these notions to the forefront of his narrative. In this story, characters hope and pray Christian prayers and try to believe in a world where good and evil must co-exist, where the moon in the sky might not be what you think, but faith, and above all, love are paramount.