On Murakami's 1Q84

By | on September 7, 2011 | 2 Comments

DH: Haruki Murakami has a knack for presenting his characters as regular guys and gals. He’s also a very physical writer, a natural give-and-take athleticism is part of his prose. I can imagine Murakami going out with his characters for a drink at a sports bar. It’s not HM’s fault that such weird shit is always happening to them.

Like at the opening of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle: we are in a comfortable suburb of Tokyo. A guy who could be your next door neighbor is home alone. He might be boiling some spaghetti for dinner and, while he waits, maybe he’s poured himself a scotch. His wife isn’t home. Some minor bit of strangeness has happened. The family cat is gone.

If you know Murakami’s fiction, you realize it’s time to start worrying. That cat senses some really bad karma descending on the neighborhood. A dog would stay and defend its household. But cats, being born survivors, prefer a strategic withdrawal. Both JC and I have cats, incidentally.

The stupendous 1Q84 is divided into three large books of about 330 pages each. Each book is then divided into 25 to 30 chapters. I’m not done yet. Each chapter is further divided into four subsections. The subsections are named 1, Q, 8 and 4. Skipping ahead, I saw that these 1Q84 subsections fall out of sync with the chapter headings after awhile. Then they seem to vanish altogether.

This formality is clean and intellectual. That’s a phrase from somewhere in the depths of Book One. I’m not done yet. The chapters alternate between two main characters. One is Aoname, who’s name, apparently, means that she is named after a legume. The other, Tengo, is a writer who hasn’t published anything. He seems rather familiar to me. So you are reading parallel stories for 300 plus pages.

JC, I wonder: Do you agree with me that Murakami presents regular people who get into weird situations or do you think the characters are pretty weird in themselves?

JC: Dennis, I think the driver in the first scene delivers a fine introduction for the rest of the book. To paraphrase: “Things are not always what they seem” and “there is only one true reality”. The problem for both the reader and the characters is going to be telling which is which.

I disagree with you about the characters. I think Tengo is more or less a regular guy – a wannabe writer with a screwy childhood who is placed in a unique ethical dilemma by a mentor.

Aomame, however…well there’s not much ordinary about her. She’s a type A personality with a vendetta against domestic abusers. Those guys get what they deserve, no doubt, but her distaste for men extends beyond the abuser, and to the general population. She likes sex, but not men, and since I’m not the Sean Connery type for which she seems to be on the prowl, I feel secure that she and I would never have a beer together. If we did, knowing what I do, I’d sit with my back to the wall, just to be safe.

You didn’t mention Fuka-Eri. If you think she’s a regular Joe, we perhaps need to investigate cult activity in Queens.

One aspect of all these characters that interests me is the respective parent-child relationships each had growing up. Perhaps I’ve got parenthood on the brain, but the parallel and path-crossing childhood torment of Aomame and Tengo interests me a lot. As does the origination of Fuka-Eri’s personality disorder – we don’t know whether her parents subjected her to, or attempted to protect her from harm in a cult environment, but that’s a mysterious thread to be tugged on.

DH: JC, you make me sound like the actor in the grade B horror flick who is always insisting that nothing is going wrong just before the headless corpse walks in.

I think we are afraid to see the borderline between what is routine and what is abnormal breached. We don’t like to see the two confused. Take the Three Guys. Are we normal? Maybe there is a switch in our heads that sounds the alarm bell when a situation is spinning out of control. And maybe different people have that switch set at a different threshold or maybe have trouble deciding when to pull it at all. I think part of Murakami’s art is that he plays around with that switch.

The opening of 1Q84 grabbed me immediately. A businesswoman is trapped in a taxi in gridlock on an elevated expressway. She will be late for an important appointment. We wonder what kind of an appointment it is. I have been tempted to ditch a gridlocked cab in the middle of the street to make my appointment. But I’ve never been tempted to climb down a service ladder to the street below.

I assumed that the taxi driver was a stand-in for Murakami. After all, it’s the writer who is in the driver’s seat. And what kind of taxi driver tells you that reality is not what it seems but that there is only one reality? He even gives the plot a push by suggesting to Aoname that she can hitch down the expressway service ladder, a decidedly odd proposal for your driver to make.

Fuka-Eri! What a name! She never speaks more than one sentence at a time and the sentences often sound like questions with the question marks left out. Toward the end of Book One she speaks several sentences consecutively and that’s a highlight of the story. She nods for yes and no a lot. She doesn’t read anything herself but she has written a novel with the help of a dead goat. But I love it that she’s a smashing success at her press conference. How can she give a press conference??? Yes, she’s a fruitcake with the fruit still left on the branch.

I’m very glad that you referred to the parentage issues in 1Q84. I thought of you when I read those passages, wondering if you could relate to them because your family had recently adopted.

1Q84: if I thought that this was an alternate reality tale and the great M was presenting us with an alternative 1984, I’d be wrong. Because the taxi driver said, like on the the first page, that there was only one reality. Towards the end of Book One the parallel plots seem to start their magic dance towards each other

JC: Right, that whole first scene hurls you into the action. The driver is part greek chorus, part kick start. If he is as you suggest, the author, you can coin the phrase: Murakami is the macguffin.

Before I comment further on your statements above, I want to take a moment to give our readers a short, spoiler-free synopsis of what is going on in the early pages of 1Q84: Tengo is a submission reader for a national writing contest. He points out a novella to his mentor that, while stylistically awful, has a certain something that he can’t ignore. The mentor agrees, and they hatch a plan for Tengo to ghostwrite the novella for the teenage author Fuka-Eri, a dyslexic girl in severe disconnect from other people due to an early cult experience.

The other story thread is headlined by Aomame, who by day teaches women to crush the testicles of would-be male attackers, and by night avenges those who have been attacked.

In flashbacks, Tengo and Aomame flutter around the periphery of each other’s early existence, the similarities of their peculiar childhoods worthy of a knowing glance across the street or the classroom. Like you said, DH, it’s hard to ignore the debilitating effect on a child of a parental obsession. You hope you won’t screw up your own kids with your personal baggage. Incidentally, it seems every Japanese book I read this year will have a cult appearance, with 1Q84  following Yoshimoto’s somewhat limp The Lake on my reading list. Maybe I’ll close my eyes and pick a third one and see what happens.

I like how quickly the story is coming together, and I’m intrigued by the developing discrepancies in the “normal” world and the “question” world (the Q in 1Q84), though I don’t think I fully grasp the significance of the organization of the sections yet. I like that Murakami is crafting this complex world, and some 300 pages in, it’s coming together seamlessly and feels bigger than it did at the beginning.

Read fast, DH. Section 2 is next week.

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2 Responses to “On Murakami's 1Q84”

  1. September 7, 2011

    Rebecca Reply

    I want a copy of this book & uninterrupted time!!!!!!  To which I have neither.  sigh……………..

    • September 8, 2011

      Dennis Haritou Reply

      I wish I could give you mine, Rebecca, but it’s all marked up and battered. I’m up to page 409 of the 900 plus and it’s still awesome. I’m under the gun to finish the second book of it this week. In truth, all my spare time is now spent reading Murakami. As soon as this comment is  done, it’s back to my reading. Stay tuned for part two of our discussion!

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