By KATHRYN SCHULZ
Published: November 3, 2011
It’s April of 1984, and a young woman in a taxi is stuck in a Tokyo traffic jam. As she frets about being late for a meeting, the driver tells her she has an option: She can get out of the cab, descend a nearby emergency stairway and take the subway — but, he warns her, the world might never be the same. The woman abandons the taxi, walks down the freeway, takes off her high heels, hitches up her miniskirt, steps over the guardrail, climbs down the stairs and proceeds to her appointment. Whereupon two things happen: First, she performs a felonious act with a homemade stiletto. Second, per the cabby’s prophecy, she finds herself in, literally, a new world.
Thus begins “1Q84,” the much-awaited, 925-page novel by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. It is, for my money, a perfect opening: fast, funny, suspenseful, sexy, dazzlingly weird. The miniskirted woman — her name is Aomame — turns out to work for a clandestine organization that hunts down perpetrators of domestic violence and, shall we say, returns the favor. In her off hours, she befriends (and then some) a female cop, picks up middle-aged men for one-night stands and works as a fitness instructor at a local gym. Meanwhile, she tries to make sense of this new world, whose most distinctive physical feature is a second moon. That’s a nod to science fiction, where the archetypal marker of strangeness is two moons (or suns) rising in tandem over alien terrain. But it’s also a nod, from the jazz-loving Murakami, to “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” a stanza of which serves as the epigraph to the book: “It’s a Barnum and Bailey world, / just as phony as it can be, / But it wouldn’t be make-believe / if you believed in me.”
Like most Murakami novels, “1Q84” is fundamentally a detective story, albeit a distinctly heterodox one. (Murakami has translated Raymond Chandler into Japanese, and there’s a lot of Marlowe to his madness.) In this case, the central mystery involves Aomame’s connection to another character — an aspiring novelist, Tengo, who agrees to a shady ghostwriting deal: He will secretly revise a manuscript by a promising but unpolished 17-year-old, the enigmatic Fuka-Eri, so it can be submitted for a major literary prize. Gradually, though, Tengo realizes that the manuscript, “Air Chrysalis,” isn’t a work of fiction at all. It’s an account of Fuka-Eri’s childhood in a cult; of the strange, two-mooned world she inhabits; and of her experience as a conduit for a tribe of “Little People” — diminutive troublemakers who emerge through the open mouths of dead goats and sleeping girls, spin glowing cocoons out of thin air and stash within them some spiritlike part of previously normal human beings.
Don’t worry. I don’t understand it either, and I read those 900-odd — very odd — pages. Bafflement of this sort is central to the experience of reading Murakami, whose previous novels feature sudden sardine storms (“Kafka on the Shore”), malevolent, soul-stealing, hyper-intelligent sheep (“A Wild Sheep Chase”) and unicorns grazing on a pasture deep in the unconscious of, basically, your average I.T. guy (“Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”). What makes Murakami’s voice so distinctive, and so electrifying, is that this disorienting weirdness is counterbalanced by a lavish concern for the utterly mundane. When he’s not exercising an imagination that lies somewhere due crazy of Tim Burton and L. Frank Baum, Murakami is the balladeer of the banal. He sings of traffic, toaster ovens, minimarts, spaghetti sauce. His male protagonists, Tengo included, are passive, ordinary and contentedly bored.
If Murakami is sublimely indifferent to logic, however, he is sublimely attuned to all things analogic. You can’t swing a cat in his novels — and, in his novels, it would be a cat — without banging into an analogy. Fuka-Eri hangs up on Tengo, mid-phone call, “like chopping down a rope bridge.” The applause on a live recording of classical music goes on so long that “it sounded less like applause and more like an endless Martian sandstorm.” I’ve never heard a Martian sandstorm (and I presume Murakami hasn’t either, although one wonders) yet the simile seems, in its strangeness, precisely right.
For most writers, analogies are a surface feature, a kind of literary accessory. For Murakami, they’re an organizing principle. His stories are an extended exercise in X-is-to-Y: “This world is to our world as. . . . ” For that reason, they often seem like allegories, but Murakami is after something more complex than a one-to-one symbolic substitution. He takes ordinary experience, cranks it through his astonishing what-if machine and produces a variation as moving and familiar as it is radically askew. As Tengo puts it, “The role of a story was, in the broadest terms, to transpose a single problem into another form.”
So what problem is Murakami transposing in this new novel? I regret to report that I have no idea. Like our own universe, the weird world of “1Q84” begins with a big bang — and then, for good and for ill, just keeps expanding. On the plus side, beautiful constellations tilt into view. We get an evocative gloss on a lesser Chekhov work; a funny, faintly sinister cameo featuring Esso gasoline (“Put a tiger in your tank!”); and a wobbly, wonderful set piece in which Tengo smokes hash and delivers an awe-struck stoner meditation on his brain. Best of all, we get Tengo’s father, a retired door-to-door fee collector for the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, whose body lies in a hospital bed while his spirit wanders the land, banging on the doors of other characters and demanding payment. This ghost fee collector is the bad conscience of “1Q84,” an embodiment of all life’s lost souls and unpaid debts. Together with the equally haunting mystery of Tengo’s long-vanished mother, it’s the most promising story in the book, and I wish it had been a novel all on its own.
That, instead, Murakami resolves it in passing, via a character too minor to support the weight, suggests some of this book’s shortcomings. For all its superb moments, “1Q84” feels uncontrolled, erratic and repetitive: it is threadbare where it should be plush, and overstuffed where it should be streamlined. The writing, meanwhile, veers from exquisite to slapdash to simply embarrassing. “The scene outside the window suggested that the world . . . consisted of an infinite agglomeration of variously shaped microcosms.” Howzat? Granted, something might have gotten lost in translation, but I’m reluctant to blame the joint effort of Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, both of whom have translated earlier Murakami books beautifully.
Still, what troubles me most about “1Q84” isn’t these surface gaffes but the psychological and moral void below. A book, after all, is also a kind of paper moon: an artificial cosmos that works only insofar as we believe in it. Murakami is normally a master of rendering even the most far-fetched ideas strangely plausible, but here he stumbles. Aomame and Tengo turn out to be connected by a trivial incident that took place when they were 10; we’re asked to believe that they’ve longed for each other desperately ever since. Nothing gives this even a nanoparticle of psychological plausibility, which leaves “1Q84” dangerously unstaked. It is, in essence, an unconvincing love story.
Similarly, while Murakami novels are far from moralizing, they typically foster a kind of contemplative moral mood. In his books, both self and world are profoundly unstable: universes divide and multiply like cells in mitosis, and characters come apart, literally — into mind and body, self and shadow, ego and alter ego. Meanwhile, ostensibly separate people mysteriously merge. All this raises serious questions. Do events transpire inside or outside the mind? Where do I end and you begin? How should we isolated-yet-connected entities treat one another? Percolating up from Murakami’s novels, like groundwater in his famous recurrent wells, are the central questions of epistemology, psychology and ethics. Not bad for a guy who writes about spaghetti.
Yet this humane, expansive inquiry founders in “1Q84.” The title alludes to George Orwell’s “1984” (and plays with words: the English “Q” and the Japanese “9” are homophones), and the Little People represent a modernized Big Brother. But where Orwell offered a bracing parable about the horrors of totalitarianism, the ethos of “1Q84” borders on incoherent. There’s much talk of “evil” in the book, but it boils down to the belief that iniquity is either in the eye of the beholder or a stabilizing force in human society. (“The most important thing . . . is for there to be a balance maintained between good and evil.”) The former is moral relativism at its glibbest; the latter, bizarrely, a sales pitch for the dark side.
No wonder, then, that for all the atrocity in this book, there’s never any sense of real wrongdoing, or real pain. In “1984,” the story serves to convey ideas about power, injustice and cruelty. In “1Q84,” power, injustice and cruelty are fantasy elements in service of a story. As a consequence, no matter how appalling an act may be, its moral status remains ambiguous, even irrelevant. After the Little People impel a man to assault 10-year-old girls, Aomame confronts him: “And so you raped your own daughter.” “I had congress with her,” he demurs. What of another little girl’s uterus, torn so badly that it rendered her infertile? “What you saw was the outward manifestation of a concept, not an actual substance,” he replies. Aomame rolls with it. Maybe, she concludes, the man “raped nothing more than the girls’ shadows.”
I’m no fan of moral absolutism, but I’m troubled by Murakami’s willingness to use the rape of children as mere metaphor, and by the general ethical impassivity pervading this book. I’ve always appreciated the frank, idiosyncratic way Murakami characters experience sex, even if a whiff of implausible male fantasy lingers over the sheets. And trust me when I say I appreciate a steamy scene between a female cop and a female assassin as much as the next guy (arguably more). In “1Q84,” though, there’s something cartoonish and leering about much of the sex — and, more troubling, most of the violence. The ostensibly straight Aomame, mourning both a victim of domestic violence and a friend strangled by a stranger during sex, mainly seems to grieve for “their lovely breasts — breasts that had vanished without a trace.”
Is that offensive, unrealistic or just insane? The same question could be asked of the entire book. “1Q84” is psychologically unconvincing and morally unsavory, full of lacunas and loose ends, stuffed to the gills with everything but the kitchen sink and a coherent story. By every standard metric, it is gravely flawed. But, I admit, standard metrics are difficult to apply to Murakami. It’s tempting to write that out of five stars, I’d give this book two moons. In fact, though, I’d give it back what it gave me: an entire universe, all of it far out, some of it dazzling, whole swaths of it just empty space and dark matter.
In the end, Tengo puts it best. “You could pick it apart completely if you wanted to,” he acknowledges. And yet, “after you work your way through the thing, with all its faults, it leaves a real impression — it gets to you.” He’s describing “Air Chrysalis,” but the same could be said of this book. It’s a credit to Murakami’s mammoth talent that “1Q84,” for all its flaws, got to me more than most decent books I’ve read this year, and lingered with me far longer: a paper moon, yes, but by a real star.
Kathryn Schulz is the author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error.”