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’1Q84′: What I write about when I write about writing

by Steve Finbow

1Q84: Books One and Two, by Haruki Murakami. Translated by Jay Rubin. Harvill Secker, 2011, 624 pp., £20.00 (hardcover).
1Q84: Book Three, by Haruki Murakami. Translated by Philip Gabriel, Harvill Secker, 2011, 368 pp., £14.99 (hardcover)

Haruki Murakami’s new novel may triangulate three pieces of fiction to reach its coordinative narrative. Let us look at the opening sentence of each work to determine the exact literary location of “1Q84.”

The obvious reference, its observation point, is George Orwell’s “1984,” which opens, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

The second could be Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” — “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a troubled dream he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.”

And the third might be Italo Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” with its metafictional, “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.”

Murakami’s novel skews reality into a shifted world with two moons and multiple converging fates, a world in which his beloved cats and his aural fetishism (pinnaphilia?) find a place, but one in which neither of them seem comfortable.

The main characters — Tengo and Aomame — haunted by what might have been and what is to come, add to the unease. At times, the novel reads as if the writer transfers his hesitation onto his characters, confusing readers.

Orwell’s famous opening line informs us that the world we know is not as it should be. Clocks do not strike thirteen. Something is amiss; some higher authority has declared itself powerful enough to mess with time and reality.

However, Murakami, usually a consummate world-builder, appears to not to fully trust that his reader will “get” what is going on and repeats character traits and narrative riffs as if the heft of the novel will overwhelm any of us brave enough to lift its near 1,000 pages. He even goes as far as explaining words, “Next she turned the gun upward and thrust the muzzle into her mouth. Now it was aimed directly at her cerebrum — the gray labyrinth where consciousness resided.” Really?

Tengo (who hallucinates about his unknown mother) and Aomame (an orphan apostate of the Society of Witnesses) drill the new world so hard into our consciousness that it feels like an act of trepanning.

Where Orwell’s satire bites like a cobra, Murakami’s fangs are made blunt by his constant explanations and excessive use of poor similes, “Then I want him to come inside me and stir me with all his might, like a spoon in a cup of cocoa, slowly, to the very bottom.”

It is through simile and metaphor that we explain our world, yet Murakami’s “1Q84″ (the other world of 1984) seems constructed of cliches and repetition.

Books One and Two present us with a split narrative, Aomame and Tengo sharing a storyline and childhood history. Aomame lives a life of exercise, murder, and occasional meaningless sex; a revenging demon exacting violence on abusive men with a specially constructed ice pick. Tengo spends his days teaching mathematics at a cram school and the remainder of his time writing a novel.

Our two main characters have not seen each other in 20 years, yet hold to the theory that they will one day be together. In one sense, “1Q84″ is a love story, providing the novel with a tension it lacks in the more fantastical episodes.

Onto the scene arrives Fuka-Eri, a beautiful dyslexic 17-year-old former Sakigake cult member, now writer of the novella “Air Chrysalis,” which Tengo is re-writing. Fuka-Eri’s short novel tells of life in the religious farming community and explores the special powers of the mysterious Little People. A powerful dowager asks Aomame to assassinate Leader (the head of he cult), while Tengo takes charge of the runaway Fuka-Eri (daughter of Leader).

Into this part thriller, part fable, part metafictional treatise on the act of writing, appear the odd and the innocent, the symbolic and the imaginary, the persecuted and the repulsive, who all help, or hinder, the plot’s fantastic and, yes, Dickensian coincidences.

Aomame goes into hiding and Tengo tries to extricate himself from the strange events surrounding the publication of “Air Chrysalis.” Inevitably, the two storylines and characters converge in an attempt to understand the alternative reality of 1Q84.

So, prepare to encounter talking cats, doppelgangers, child abuse, the uncanny, cult members, religious fanatics and political extremists. To do so, you will have to endure unnecessary explications, such as, “Could this mean, then — Tengo asked himself — that this is the world of the novel? Could I have somehow left the real world and entered the world of ‘Air Chrysalis’ like Alice falling down the rabbit hole?”

I think that, by page 579, readers may have worked that out for themselves.

The work is not a complete failure, but it could have done with some diligent editing to cut away the fat. As it is, the reader needs a strong stomach to digest it. Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel’s spot-on translations ensure the novel slips easily into the Haruki Murakami Western oeuvre, falling somewhere between “A Wild Sheep Chase” and “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.”

This reader would have preferred more of the latter’s historical range than the former’s forced whimsicality.

In “1Q84,” Haruki Murakami poses questions about what is real, constructs microcosmic worlds and philosophizes on Manichean dualism, but he does so in a work that is knowingly self-reflexive, overly self-absorbed, and perhaps too reliant on the message that writing confirms existence beyond all other forms of expression and experience.