Haruki Murakami: the Japanese author who has become the darling of disaffected college students in the English-speaking world. His surrealist writings spanning over two decades deal with lonely protagonists, mysteriously silent women who dress in navy blue, as well as a smattering of autobiographical themes and objects. Most all of the novels take place in Japan and yet he has been deemed as “buttery” by some Japanese writers as painting a picture of the country as a sort of American foil. However, his authorial success is formidable, selling millions of copies worldwide, most recently of his epic novel 1Q84 as well as a continued trend of being predicted as one of the top contenders to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. But I want to posit that the original surrealist formula that he so lovingly crafted seems to be fading as the years pass. While the sheer heft of the Orwellian pun—where the Q stands for question (a pun on the Japanese pronunciation of the number nine; phonetically “kew”)—has raised his profile in reviews and coverage, 1Q84 stands not as some Infinite Jest masterpiece indicative of the author’s style, but rather as a diluted proportion of surreal to real that makes it more accessible, yet less striking.
1Q84 revolves around the perspectives of two characters that travel to the alternate reality “1Q84.” The world appears identical except for the machinations of the Little People, a group of magical dwarves who speak through the leader of a religious cult, and the presence of an extra moon. The female protagonist is Aomame, a gym instructor by day who moonlights as an assassin of sexual abusers. Her soul mate is Tengo, a cram-school teacher who aspires to be a novelist and has brought about the wrath of the Little People by ghostwriting a story by 17 year-old Fuka-Eri detailing their existence and manipulation. Despite only knowing each other for a few brief years in elementary school, they are pulled together 20 years later in 1Q84 by something only describable as “destiny.” The supporting cast includes a dowager who pays Aomame to kill sexual abusers, Tengo’s door-to-door subscription-collecting father, and Fuka-Eri, the stock mysterious girl who is incarnated insome form or another in Murakami novels. The final actor is the aesthetically bankrupt Ushikawa, who, in the pay of the cult whose leader Aomame kills, adds an omniscient perspective as he spies on the protagonists.
In 1Q84’s 925 pages there are plots by the Little People to destroy Tengo and Aomame, exhibitions of the group’s magical powers (most notably the concept of an “Air Chrysalis,” a sort of centrifuge-cocoon they spin to separate the soul into two parts), and the gradual reveal of how Fuka-Eri knows of their secret existence. However, the overarching theme is that Tengo and Aomame are meant to be together (spoiler alert: they are indeed together by tale’s end) and thus begs the question of why Murakami chose to create such a long book about a simple story with a happy ending.
A “standard” Haruki Murakami novel will contain three parts: “otherworldliness,” loneliness, and a bizarre depiction of sex. Mixed within those three domains are the pet topics of Murakami drawn from the author’s life such as jazz (he owned a jazz club before becoming a full-time writer), cats, smoking (try finding a Murakami novel that doesn’t mention a ‘slim, gold lighter”) and a myriad of American pop culture references. For example, his 2004 work After Dark creates an ‘otherworldly’ feel by detailing a young girl’s lonely chain-smoking, coffee-drinking forays into nighttime Japan, as well her beautiful sister’s abduction into a TV screen by a sexual deviant. Kafka on the Shore, published in 2002,features a villain who travels to the real world through a special stone; fish rain from the sky at an old man’s command; and the runaway, ever-lonely protagonist not only has sex with his mother and his sister, but also travels through a magical forest to a type of purgatory.
On first sight, 1Q84 seems to be the poster child for this oft-called “magic realism” genre most associated with Gabriel Garcia Marquez à la Hundred Years of Solitude. In this genre, the banal chewing of a spaghetti dinner mixes with surreal elements such as prophetic dreams, normally inaccessible wonderlands (e.g. Narnia), or abnormal creatures. So when Aomame hikes her skirt and climbs down the access exit of a Japanese superhighway from the “real” 1984 into 1Q84 to the soundtrack of Janacek’s “Sinfonietta,” a frequent reader of Murakami can only guess that this is the beginning of a parallel descent into something as sinister as the novel’s namesake.
But the “otherworldly” plot centricity around 1Q84 is quite literally a misnomer compared to the insanity of Murakami’s prior forays. In his 1985 novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World, the author creates a world inside the protagonist’s conscience that serves as a study in Jungian archetypes. The main character lives within the Walls of The Town, interacting with The Librarian, The Colonel, and The Gatekeeper. The sheer amount of capitalization should be an indicator that Murakami intends the reader to view these characters not as familiar but as something foreign. In Kafka on the Shore, Murakami ascends to the height of what could only be called “crack fiction” by having the villain dress up as Johnnie Walker of whiskey fame, as well as a sort of abstract spirit who takes the shape of KFC’s colonel. In contrast, the only foreign elements in 1Q84 are the head of the cult Aomame is sent to kill (the Leader) and the gods with whom he communes (the Little People). This creates a sort of strange accessibility that makes it seem like Murakami is babying the reader. Likewise, the often invisible and hard-to-believe-as-sinister Little People seem like plot device pests, only there to prevent the two romantic leads from uniting.
In regards to loneliness, 1Q84 holds most similarities to former Murakami novels. Each of the characters throughout the book is a study in Murakami’s self-practiced isolation. Aomame spends hundreds of pages hiding alone in an apartment reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, exercising on a stationary bike, and sitting on the balcony with cocoa hoping to catch a fleeting glimpse of Tengo. Tengo is in a similar rut in that he only maintains contact with his married girlfriend once a week for necessary sex. The rest of his hours are spent stewing over his childhood, his loss of Aomame, or his troubled relationship with his now comatose father, or sometimes talking with Fuka-Eri, a highly inaccessible character who speaks in fragments. Ushikawa, arguably the most interesting of the three main characters, is only alone during the book, staking out Tengo and Aomame from an unfurnished apartment, smoking cigarette after cigarette, all while taking verbal abuse from Murakami as the most hopelessly ugly character the author has ever created.
The long tracts of days going by without human interaction are nothing new for Murakami. The protagonist of the author’s 1995 book Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is perfectly content to stay holed up in his house; one of the most important scenes is his sojourn in the bottom of a well (unsurprisingly, alone.) Both protagonists of Kafka on the Shore and its 1987 predecessor Norwegian Wood are happy to spend hours reading by themselves in sorts of autodidact haze. In the 1999 work Sputnik Sweetheart, Surime is the archetypal lonely writer, chain-smoking with unkempt hair and spending hours in front of her typewriter attempting to channel Jack Kerouac.
But neither “otherworldliness” nor loneliness can hold a candle to the unorthodox sexual practices of Murakami’s characters. Whether in the brothel of After Dark, the Oedipal theme of Kafka on the Shore, or the racy dreams of Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami will delve into some form of perhaps incestuous or age-difference deviance. However, in 1Q84, the references to sex fall in an “awkward” category rather than surreal. Aomame engages in “all-night orgies” with a female friend as a sort of biological imperative, and the last hit she is to perform is against a cult leader who has sex with underage girls including his own daughter. Tengo has a repetitive dream of an unknown man sucking on his mother’s breast and a sexual encounter with Fuka-Eri that somehow is explained away as, “he was really having sex with Aomame with only Fuka-Eri as a surrogate vessel.” This scene even “won” a Bad Sex Award from The Guardian.
Yet sex takes a backseat to the romantic quest of Tengo and Aomame to reunite with each other after a few lost years spent together in elementary school. While in former works, sex seems to be goal of lonely characters in love with troubled women, in 1Q84, it’s more stuffed in as idle observations about the character’s physical appearance (The New York Times reviewer aptly summarized it as an unnaturally obsession with breasts), and seems completely unnecessary to the plot. Instead of the passion of young love as in Norwegian Wood or 1992’s South of the Border, West of the Sun, we have Tengo’s grappling to find a young girl attractive and Aomame’s taste for slightly balding older men.
Ignoring the Mold
We now have a formula along with some observations about how 1Q84 fits and exceeds it. While on a review-page summary of 1Q84 a would-be reader might think that it is filled with Murakami’s trademark sense of abnormality, most of the novel dabbles in the mundane to a staggering degree. The detail given to food consumption could rival Brian Jacques’ Redwall series; the musings of Aomame and Tengo focus very little on their world but on each other; and the references to characters listening to songs, reading books, walking from point A to B, or merely just staring at the night sky (albeit with two moons) makes 1Q84 seem downright domestic in comparison to former works.
Moreover, while all the characters spend most of the novel alone, the crushing sense of loneliness and detachment in his other works is absent in the two main characters as the novel gives off a certainty that they will be together no matter what may come. “People are drawn to Murakami’s writing because he focuses on loneliness and isolation and how an unfulfilled desire for connection and love drives people to various forms of psychosis,” aptly proffers writer Grace Jung. This procession from loneliness to extreme action simply does not exist as in Murakami’s previous novels, and thus it comes across as merely boring instead of useful to the story.
Finally, sex is hardly used in the destructive way most readers have come to expect of Murakami. Many times, the female interest will end up crying after sex or will disappear or engage in some other distancing act. In 1Q84 it is either business-like or remote. Aomame has sex in order to satisfy a physical craving. The Leader has sex with underage girls because The Little People tell him to. Tengo has sex with Fuka-Eri under a state of paralysis so that Aomame can immaculately conceive. There’s no passion, no angst, nothing really at all to suggest that having sex had an emotional impact at all, as opposed to Murakami’s other novels, where such experiences galvanize the characters.
Thus, at conclusion we have a novel that would rather exist in the banal than the otherworldly, and that avoids the crushing low of loneliness and high of sex. The question we must ask now is why.
The Running Novelist
“Nothing is in the real world is as beautiful as of a person about to lose consciousness,” writes Murakami in his 2008 memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The quote is in reference to the grueling 26 miles he ran from Athens to Marathon, his first run that was of, shall we say, marathon proportions. Murakami’s first literary marathon came with the publication of Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that hovers just over 600 pages. Interspersed within the story of a young man, who encounters surreal dreams and a finding-yourself moment at the bottom of a well, is a somewhat gruesome and grueling account of a young Japanese man running military missions in China. Murakami, who considers himself a “running novelist,” could then compare 1Q84 to the longest run he ever completed: a 62-mile ultra-marathon.
Yet this marathon, while a prodigious feat that should elicit admiration, ended up bestowing Murakami with a sort of depression and lack of enthusiasm for writing. During the race, he repeated a mantra telling himself that he was a machine and could not feel; he described his mind as quiet; he called it “almost philosophical or religious.” Most strikingly, he writes that he had “stepped into a different place,” much like Aomame and Tengo do in 1Q84. Murakami too became more introspective and he “no longer considered running the point of life.”
Murakami alludes to the challenge of the novelist as a constant battle to keep the flame of talent alight through age. “As youth fades, that sort of freeform vigor loses its natural vitality and brilliance.” In Japan, Murakami writes, the act of composing novels is viewed as toxic or unhealthy. Many of his countrymen ask him if he will be able to continue his craft as he ages because there is an understanding that writing is antisocial and dangerous. Indeed, Murakami says that the reason he runs is to offset the inherently unhealthy nature of writing, “like it or not a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface.” According to him:
“Those of us hoping to have long careers as professional writers have to develop an autoimmune system of our own that can resist the dangerous (in some cases lethal) toxin that resides within. Do this, and we can more efficiently dispose of even stronger toxins. In other words, we can create even more powerful narratives to deal with these. But you need a great deal of energy to create an immune system and maintain it over a longer period. You have to find that energy somewhere and where else to find it but in our own basic physical being?”
As Murakami ages, it is perhaps impossible to expect the same type of incisive, dramatic surrealism that he originally made his name by. He mentions that he now chugs along but is getting slower and accepting the slowing of movement with grace. Running, published in 2008, hints at a Murakami that has indeed, “stepped over” in his writing. 1Q84 is not a longer form of his punchier pieces but rather an ultra-marathon that focuses on the more beatific side of religion than the fires of hell.
While Murakami might have accepted the decay of his autoimmune system against the toxins of his craft, it is hard to as a reader. The divide between the real and the fantastic grows sickeningly closer with every passing work. Even the names of each world have metamorphosed: in his 1991 Wonderland, the fantastic “otherworld” of the protagonist’s conscience is literally named “The End of the World,” while in 1Q84 the difference between settings is merely the changing of one digit to a letter. The deep, crushing loneliness has now been replaced by a calmer, older version—the young man grown up in a world that he knows is different from the one in his past, full of lurking threats and of two sides to every person instead of one.
Thus, 1Q84 is meant for a different audience than Murakami’s earlier works. It is not necessarily for those who felt as if his previous novels stood alone amongst authors as a dive into the darker parts of the soul. It is not necessarily for those who relish reading about a world so different from our own as to be escapist. At the end of the book, you don’t really want to travel to the mystical world Murakami has thrown his characters into. You want to head back home and go to bed during the December of your day. The audience that 1Q84 will attract are a new group of readers, one that is not as familiar with Murakami’s more experimental works and who appreciate the escapism of the routine of every day life. Reading about Aomame in her imposed exile, cooking and reading Proust is comforting; you cheer for Ushikawa to leave so that Aomame and Tengo can be united…happily, for a change in Murakami’s novels.
Murakami is finally branching out into a type of writing that, while he hasn’t explored as thoroughly, is simultaneously compatible and incompatible with his former works. It is compatible in that he is able to expose traces of the ideas that made him popular to a larger audience in a more accessible format. It is incompatible in that there are less of the incredibly memorable scenarios that define his earlier works. The haunting journey into the dark sewers filled with monsters and the man who reads the dreams of beasts in his subconscious is eschewed in favor of the quiet musings of two contemplative characters whose pace rocks slow in 1Q84.
The only question that remains is if it is a conscious decision. Has Murakami watered himself down in order to appeal to more readers? Has he accepted a slower pace as he ages? I think the answer lies somewhere in the nebulous region of the latter in that Murakami seems to write for himself. He gave up his steady to career to explore the “toxin” of writing, and even though he might be prone to a weakening immune system, his work remains true to the man at the moment.
Over the past week 1Q84 – Haruki Murakami's whale of a novel – was released across the Anglosphere. With midnight openings, queues round the block, magazine covers and unprecedented pre-orders, it received a level of attention typically reserved for established cross-platform franchises.
Unlike the consumers who stayed up late waiting for their download notification, critics have remained cautious in their appraisal. On both sides of the Atlantic, the general consensus is that it is enjoyable and inventive, but not crucial or relevant. The most common slight levelled at Murakami is that he is a cult writer lost in his own hype, a position echoed by the Observer review, in which Tim Adams writes: "Murakami, now 62, has ceased being a novelist and has entered the dangerous world of literary phenomenon, a cult figure himself."
If you happen to be party to this cult, you might start feeling the creeping sensation that Murakami has, much like he did 25 years ago in Japan, left the literary establishment in the proverbial dust.
To quote the oft-quoted Marshall McLuhan, one of the countless writers who makes an appearance in the book, the medium is the message. In the case of 1Q84, the medium is the "global event novel", a rare form of literary commodity that allows us to derive as much meaning from its fallout as we do from the ink on the page. It's a book whose jacket design, for better or worse, received more press than most books get during their entire print run. Its references to the Czech composer Leoš Janáček and Russian novelist Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn led to a spike in sales of books and records the market turned its back on long ago.
Read by schoolgirls and scholars, Murakami is the only living writer who can sell a million copies in a month and still be in the running for the Nobel prize. His unique ability to transcend high and low, east and west is a byproduct of a peculiar career trajectory. When setting out to write his debut novel in the late 1970s, he initially wrote the opening in English, then translated it back into Japanese, an experiment that led to the discovery of his voice.
What was for Murakami a stylistic innovation is becoming an ongoing condition of the publishing industry, leading many writers to adapt the syntax of their native tongue to English models in order to make translation more practical. For purists, these strange attendants to Murakami's popularity suggest a dystopian future: a world where the ivory towers of serious literature and distinct national voices will be imploded to make way for a globalised strip mall where books are judged solely on their capacity to serve as marketing vehicles. But it must be understood that the underlying message of any "global event novel" is always singular in its defence of literature. If only for a moment, it proves that the novel, "a solitary island floating in the sea of capitalism", remains a relevant medium.
1Q84 is a particularly passionate defence in that its plot follows a man who writes a novel that changes the world. It's unclear if Murakami believes that such a thing is possible in reality, or even desirable. But in writing this book within a book he has demonstrated that a cult of literature can and should compete with the cults of celebrity, personality, technology and sport that preoccupy the media 99% of the time.