Review of 1Q84 after 2 books

Book 2 Chapters 22-24

So these are the last few chapters of book 2, and they’ve a particularly interesting weight for it; apparently Murakami ended 1Q84 after the first two books, only later adding the third. Assuming that there weren’t any editorial revisions (a poor assumption, but I’m letting it ride for reasons I hope will become clear soon), it gives me a chance to consider the first two books as if they were a completed whole.

I used my free time (I had a lot of it—I was called for Jury Duty this week) to get a rough outline together, and hopefully that will make this entry a little more coherent than some of my others, which were little more than disorganized groups of related sentences. I thought for a second about making it into an out-and-out essay, but then I realized that I don’t have much time for such a rigorous undertaking,1 and so you’ll have to settle for organized groups of related sentences. J.

I’ve touched a few reviews of the book, and for the most part they remark on the book’s length, which is neither here nor there: 2 if nothing else we’re getting more bang for our buck, right? There’s little I like less than spending $20 on a 130 page hardcover,3 and I’ll gladly pay the seven extra dollars—or whatever it worked out to—to get 600 more pages of an author I like.

More importantly, I think of a big, long book as a chance to work on a different level. One of my favorite novels is Dostoevsky’s Demons, clocking in at about 700 pages. Aside from incredibly depressing plot (SPOILER ALERT—the two most morally pure characters die thanks to the machinations of a completely unworthy man), the book is Dostoevsky’s first attempt to represent a community instead of a limited set of characters; in order to involve you in the story he sets massive wheels of plot in motion, and getting his momentum up requires every trick up his sleeve.

The thought that Murakami was up to something similar in 1Q84 was and is very exciting. It is no small matter to get such a weighty ship off the docks4, and I think that Murakami is doing a pretty good job—provided he can bring things to a close in book three. He’s not a wry miniaturist like Dostoevsky, but he seems to be making a serious attempt to intertwine two divergent strains in other works of his: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Dance Dance Dance.

I should say at this point that my favorite book by Murakami is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as it manages to corral all of those characters and all of those stories and give you the creeping sensation that they’re all related: Lt. Mamiya attempting to kill Boris the Manskinner, Noboru Wataya’s apparent incestual fantasies, the house at the end of the alley and the missing cat might not have anything to do with each other… but the possibility that they might strings you along. Elsewhere Murakami wants to demonstrate the world’s indeterminacy and fundamental randomness, that chaos and violence are inherent parts of human existence, that individual human lives aren’t all that important and can end without fanfare or note.5

On top of that, there is another big change in the main characters: in each of those previous novels the protagonists were largely passive, and while Tengo might even be more of a pushover than Toru Okada, Aomame is definitely not. She is almost pure Will, and yet she doesn’t evince a conniving or evil personality like Noboru Wataya. On top of all that, Murakami has previously written protagonists who are writers (Dance Dance Dance) and characters who were internationally known fiction writers (Makimura of same), but here we have an inside view of an aspiring author.

Another new move on Murakami’s part was to bring the story around again to its beginning point; Aomame retraces her steps to the exact spot where she exited 1984 and entered 1Q84. She sees that there is no way to reenter her own world, and kills herself (more on that later). This is an odd move for Murakami; he rarely writes symmetrically,6 that is he doesn’t end a book where it began. There’s something similar going on between the plot of 1Q84 and the plot of Air Chrysalis; AC ends with a vision of the young girl standing before a passageway of her own making. Tengo ends book two of 1Q84 perhaps before a similar passage, looking at a manifestation of something from his own past and edging closer to his future.

So… what then to make of the plot as it stands at the end of book two?

I got the feeling that Murakami had wrapped up the Tengo storyline before he finished wrapping up the Aomame storyline. He had already come clean to his father in the Town of Cats chapter, he had already started moving forward in his writing and in his life, and so it seemed a bit odd that he would essentially do the same thing again, and that this time he would be given a vision of ten-year old Aomame to hold in his heart as he moves forward.

There’s a pretty dark undertone to this apparent happy ending, however. That final image of Aomame in the air chrysalis is ominous: if the Little People are the ones who can build an air chrysalis, then they might have given him this image a way of cementing him as a Receiver—and so he’d be one of their pawns despite Aomame’s sacrifice. It could also mean that the Little People aren’t all bad. Or if he built the air chrysalis (and the fact that it resembles the description he inserted into Fuka-Eri’s story suggests that he is responsible for it), it could mean that his vision of ten-year old Aomame has now been externalized now that he’s put his love for her into words. Any of those interpretations seem to fit, but unfortunately they all seem to emphasize the fact that Tengo has little to no control over his life.

The vision may be able to comfort Tengo and carry him forward, but we know that it is false, that he has no hope of meeting Aomame again and that his hope will never be satisfied. And even if he did run across Aomame again, it might not end well—after all, she tries to kill herself after she sees Tengo on the playground. It’s not that Murakami is shy about tracing bleak ground; it’s just that there are usually a few more glimmers of hope around. Just about the only one I can find here is that there is a glimmer of affection in Fuka-Eri’s eyes as she looks at Tengo, as if she were finally becoming complete again.

As I mentioned before, this is also the book wherein Murakami engages with the creative process most directly. There is a great deal of interesting stuff about authorship, sex, creation and religion in the Tengo storyline: he and Fuka-Eri’s came together and contributed their strengths to one entity—the novella Air Chrysalis, and through that book he becomes a sort of god in his own life, even if the rules of his power aren’t exactly clear. Ghostwriting the book has also given him the role of Receiver to Fuka-Eri’s Perceiver; roles that were previously filled by Fuka-Eri and her father (who happened to be the leader of a cult7). You’ve got two people getting together to create something new (it’s no coincidence that he and Fuka-Eri wind up having sex), playing roles that have a quasi-religious overtones (Fuka-Eri is an oracle, he’s a priest). There’s incest, there’s exploration, there’s violation and acknowledgement—it’s no coincidence that the Leader struck me a sort of cross between Aguirre and Colonel Kurtz.

As far as the Aomame storyline is concerned, this is one of the most depressing things Murakami has ever produced. Take the dowager: Murakami writes her as an intellectually sharp, powerful woman with a strong sense of moral purpose. She sends Aomame to kill the Leader because it is the right thing to do, and yet we have the sense that her moral decision, which is the height of what we typically think of as human capability, merely serves a purpose in a greater system, as if to say that as high as we may rise, our actions are just a few moves in a cosmic game of chess.

Like the dowager, Aomame is an intelligent, capable woman, and you have the sense that she may not really need the protection that Tamaru offers; and yet, as powerful as she may be, the only end to her fierce will is suicide, as though the first naturally gave rise to the latter. In her final scene in book two, there is a direct reference to Chekhov,8 and yet her suicide attempt calls to mind a character in a work by a different Russian author—Kirillov in Dostoevsky’s Demons. Without going into too many details, Kirillov believes that man’s conception of god is based in a fear of death, and that this fear, this rule over men is unnatural and inappropriate. The answer, according to Kirillov is that he can overcome this fear by killing himself and so becoming a sort of man-god.9,10

Aomame also has an ambivalent relationship to god, though there are some important differences. God, for Aomame, isn’t an entity based on fear, but is whatever force is manipulating her world from behind the curtains; it could be the Little People, it could be something else.11 While Kirillov is obsessed with his idea and has little concern with the world around him, Aomame embodies the opposite extreme: she ends other humans’ lives. Aomame is following her own moral code, and this puts her on conflict with the laws of her society.12 The dowager warns that this anomie can make Aomame feel like an angel or a god, and that too much moral righteousness can lead to dangerous consequences: Aomame could become a sort of cult leader herself, just as Kirillov wanted to become a new kind of man-god. The dowager wants to prevent this by giving Aomame money; it will weigh her down, like tying an anchor to a balloon. And yet this is a problem: money has no weight for Aomame. The only such anchor she has is her memory of Tengo, and once she sees him again, once she realizes that he is in the same two-mooned world that she inhabits, she loses even that. Her last act is to return to the place at which she entered the world she calls 1Q84 and, in a final act of free will, to kill herself; she exercises her will almost as an upraised middle finger, as if to say, “thy kingdom may have come already in the form of 1Q84, but even if you closed the door through which I entered this world, I’ve found another way out,” as if the only way to avoid doing the world’s will is to kill yourself.

So how would I review the book if it had ended here? It’s a sort of paradox—more ambitious and more advanced than his other work, but if it ended here is would feel like something was missing, like ending a song before coming back to the root notes. I sure hope he ties it together a bit more in book three.

 


1 Essays are always easier to write after conversation, and—partly by design—I’ve not yet had many about 1Q84; hopefully that will change when I finish the book.

2 And a great number of reviewers, particularly young-ish American ones, should just admit that economy is one of the qualities they’ve been taught to look for in art.

3 Murakami’s last book of fiction, After Dark, is listed at $14.95 on amazon.com and clocks in at 256 pages.

4 Or, perhaps, to build a 900 pages air chrysalis.

5 I’m thinking here of Dance Dance Dance

6 The only other example I can think of off the top of my head is a short story about robbing a fast food restaurant.

7 And Murakami himself is often described as a cult author; I am not sure how he feels about this, given his nonfiction writing about cults in Underground.

8 Chekhov wrote that, once a gun has appeared on stage, it must go off. Authors like Nabokov have been playing with this quote ever since it appeared.

9 A big part of Dostoevsky’s achievement is that this entire subplot is told in service to the greater plot of the novel, and Kirillov’s suicide is all the more pathetic for the way another character exploits it to his own ends.

10 This does sound pretty far fetched, but you see the paradigm all the time: think of the end of Fight Club or The Singing Detective.

11 At one point Aomame wonders if she is literally inside Tengo and his story; the memory of Tengo and her love for that memory has always been a stabilizing force for her, as religion is for many people. If Tengo is indeed exercising a god-like force over her existence, it makes her suicide that much richer as a plot development. Perhaps she decides to kill herself when she sees that Tengo inhabits the 1Q84 as well, and that he isn’t the one in control.

12 In this way Aomame is very much like the Leader

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One Response to Review of 1Q84 after 2 books

  1. AMB says:

    Interesting thoughts here, which I’ll refrain from commenting much upon just because I don’t want to color the way you read book three.

    One thing that I couldn’t shake while reading this novel, however, is the degree to which Murakami’s gift for mood and pacing seems to be devolving. One of his most impressive gifts as a writer is his ability to wholly envelop the reader in situations that, for most other authors, would be the boring interstitial stretches of the book. The breath-catching moments. There’s an odd sort of anti-momentum in his best books, where you know some weird shit is about to go down very shortly, but your enjoyment of the quiet interludes before and after almost makes you wish it could be delayed a little longer. The best sections of Hard-Boiled Wonderland involve watching movies and drinking whiskey in bed; I loved the teenage protagonist in Kafka on the Shore lying awake listening to music on headphones; I would read a whole novel consisting just of Toru making dinner and hanging around in wells. I don’t mind if the overarching narrative doesn’t make sense, and I don’t care if Murakami himself clearly has no idea where he’s going with certain ideas, as long as that basic framework is there.

    I didn’t get much of that from 1Q84. Despite its length, I didn’t feel the sense of luxuriating in his narrative architecture to the extent that I have often felt elsewhere. His ambitions may be far greater here than they were in After Dark — which I found to be almost insultingly slight; I read it in a single sitting in a coffee shop right next door to the bookstore where I bought it, and could remember almost nothing about it afterward — but his building materials seem much the same. It could certainly be that he’s evolving into a different style that his translators haven’t quite adjusted to yet, but throughout the book, I felt that the essential Murakami-ness of the prose had gone missing.

    By the way, your note on economy being the highest virtue a number of critics look for in art strikes me as being rather dead-on, and could provide for a much longer discussion on its own.

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