How 1Q84 Overcame my Unsophistication
I bought 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami for the plane ride to New Orleans for winter break in 2011. It was new, reading something for pleasure that was intended to be serious. And the book jumps right into the elegance—a weird, detached narration, high culture allusions, two strange protagonists—one unyielding in her purpose but marked by a specific and formative sexuality, the other literary and bumbling but also Spartan and obsessive with his sexual primal scene. Cool, I thought.
The beginning third of the novel was a hike, but I got through it. It was already evident how the two characters Tengo and Aomame were connected, though they hadn’t met in the chronology of the story. So there was that little dramatic irony waiting to reveal itself. And though there was also a quiet charm to them and the tertiary characters, I was getting bored. The massive novel is heavily repetitive. It seemed like every Aomame chapter, her sexual fixation on balding men was described in the same details, details I eventually could recite and parody at will. And the conversations between Fuka-Eri, the 17 year old girl who writes Air Chrysalis, the novel-within-the-novel, that Tengo conspires to rewrite, and Tengo began to mimic how my engagement with the novel was turning out. He’d ask her a question, and she’d repeat it as a sentence if she agreed. It seemed that the narratives mysteries, which were not terribly dramatic, were nevertheless thick and obscure, and that any question I had was just as quickly repeated back to me.
I put it down. I read other books that were more interesting to me, like Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (which I thought was great). Time passed and I felt guilty for not finishing 1Q84. I’m one of those people. The second part of the novel brings new dramas into focus, and has a pretty swell climax where Aomame finally kills the Leader of a religious organization called Sakigake. He’s also the father of Fuka-Eri, with whom Tengo has a bonkers sex scene with where he’s paralyzed and has visions of Aomame as 10-year-old (they went to school together then). The novel, as a whole, was getting pretty rad, I thought. But then, another impasse. For the next 200 pages or so, both main characters went into hiding and waited around. Enter the repetition of Aomame fixing simple meals and stretching and Tengo reading to his comatose and estranged father.
I had to get on with my life, so I stopped reading again. For months. I read lots of comics. I began watching Lost. I still had regular things to do like grading, writing, trying to find summer jobs. I don’t even know why I picked the book back up. I can’t say that it haunted me—that’s way too strong a word, but there was something that lingered, or maybe I was just overcome with reading guilt or something. I slugged through.
The tension of the third part of 1Q84 builds in a masterful way actually. I found myself reading and skimming at first, but little by little the world revealed itself, the mysteries became more urgent, the frequency of weird happenings increased, the revelations about the characters became more significant. And then the last 100 pages. It’s hard to say “breakneck pace” when talking about Murakami, but they certainly moved, pushing me into the ending, which I loved. I felt a constant fear when reading that the narrative would be left in languor, that the mysteries and tension wouldn’t pay off. But they did. And it was a happy, uplifting ending—the kind that really doesn’t happen too much in literary fiction, at least not in this way. And though I generally don’t want a saccharine ending, I found that sometimes, maybe I do.
In the end 1Q84 was a number of contradictory things: a long, often boring maximalist novel, a Disney-perfect story of love-at-first sight that prevails against all odds, a treatise on the imagination, and a manual of creating a world in the Immateria. Some critiques of the book were that it was impossible to accept (and degrading) that Aomame and Tengo would get together based on a singular experience when they were ten, that this was a Hollywood story mapped out in a Murakami concept novel, that the resolution to the novel obscures and limits the possibilities of the questions Murakami poses in comparison to other Murakami works (which I haven’t read). For the record, while I see how one can read Aomame pining away with Tengo’s child (complicated to explain considering they don’t have meet or have sex until the final chapters) as disempowering to a badass assassin, but I think to make that reading is to ignore the fantastic things that happen in the novel, things that are not merely decorations on a standard realist framework. It also ignores that Tengo is not exactly full of stereotypical phallic power and that loving someone from afar is not necessarily a weakness, and, neither in the novel nor out of it, a specifically feminine weakness. And I also see how someone concerned with literary tradition might feel that the ending was trite, but I disagree.
We recognize that the novel is fictional, right? Well this novel itself shows what power fictions have for each of us. Is it unrealistic that two people could meet once as children and then go separate ways only to become a couple years later? Of course, but that’s kind of the point. Aomame and Tengo enter into another fiction, another reality that allows them to not only hold onto a fantasy of magical, fated love, but to execute it. At the end, knowing that this fiction has served its purpose, they move onto another one leaving the year 1Q84 and entering into something unknown.
We wouldn’t be able to see this without the fantasy elements. If this were a realist novel and circumstances would allow for Tengo and Aomame to get together, we would accept it without recognizing that all fiction is fantasy. The opening up of Earth-1Q84 creates a fictional space where the fantastic can take place. It is a world with two moons, a world seemingly controlled by the Little People who are both the opposite of Big Brother and size-shifting little people who say “Ho ho.” It is a world where our romantic relationships are mythic, where the touch of another’s hand can transform our entire life, where disparate threads of our life spark with connection to a bigger picture.
The novel becomes a love letter to the possibility of fiction, which allows us to imagine our own narratives coming out different, to inspire us with belief in something greater than reality. This ties into what seem like at first gratuitous referencing of literature and music. It is Janácek’s Sinfonietta that Murakami associates with Aomame entering 1Q84. Murakami makes a reference to a fictional short story about a town of cats, which becomes what Tengo associates with Chikura (where his father lives in a sanatorium) then with the reality of 1Q84. Slowly, the characters seem to recognize they’re in a fiction other than their original “reality,” and seek to disrupt the rules of fiction. Reviewers often mention the use of Chekhov’s gun rule, which is repeated throughout the novel. Here there is a gun, which causes in-novel discussion of the gun rule, but it’s never fired. Some may read this as frustrating, a cop-out, obvious, easy, or even contradictory, but I read this as a model for controlling the fiction you find yourself in. It’s not only that we imagine our lives better in fiction, but we use fiction to make our real lives better.