Remember that childhood novel that had you holed up in your room for hours? Forgetting the world? Remember the innocence with which you solemnly undertook the journey, the experience of being changed profoundly by the story, the way reality melted into the background and you stopped only for hastily prepared meals, sustenance for the long road ahead?
It has been too long since I’ve felt that way. It seems to me that more than spa days, vacations, or binge watching Orange is the New Black, a day spent in bed with only a book is a fundamental, essential renewal. You emerge blinking into the light, sorry and sad but feeling all the more strongly the ground beneath your feet and the heights to which you might rise if you only try. You want to be a better person, make art and useful things, love well and be happier. Remember what that’s like?
I’m happy to say I felt that way after 1Q84. This is the long-weekend-stay-in-bed book of your teenage years, grown up. And I mean really grown up. Ages 21+.
Murakami is one of the most refreshing writers today. He has much in common with other magical realists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and postmodernists like John Fowles, and he has cited Kafka many times as influential in his development as a writer. I even think maybe there’s a bit of Ray Bradbury in his fascination with the innocence of teenagers. But his worlds are stranger than all of these – places where your unavoidable fate can spring upon you at any moment, where characters act as spirit guides or symbols, where the line between real life and that of the mind is not only blurred but unimportant, beside the point.
He does monotony so well – like Hemingway, he can describe the preparation of a simple meal in captivating detail – and while the fantastic often occurs in his novels it is with all of the real world’s frustrating ambiguity and complexity. If you’ve read one Murakami story, you’ll know not to expect answers or resolution or happy futures in the next. You may receive them, but they’re unpredictable and without warning.
Just like the two moons observed by the main characters Aomame and Tengo in 1Q84, things appear suddenly and then have always been there. You cannot ask why or how, but while confused you are equally satisfied with the accuracy of it. This is just like reality, you think, only more so.
During 1Q84 I was at turns horrified, outraged, bewildered, frightened, tense, exhilarated, in love. It was the best kind of love story – like an Austen novel or a modern sitcom, the couple keeps almost meeting, almost uniting, almost… Until you think if it does happen you might die of relief. All this is wrapped in the strangest of all Murakami’s plots, with deep horror and darkness as a constant thread. Like Orwell’s 1984, from which the novel’s name is derived, it is a story of escape, too, of consequences and existential confusion. Though I promise you it’s not as bleak!
Aomame is a personal trainer with a highly dangerous part time job. In a sense she is quite like Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, with hardened principles, a blunt conversational style, and a tendency toward calculated violence. But she is much more human. This is a literary novel, and her character has a degree of warmth beyond Larsson’s ability. We see all her fears, her regrets, the things she loses and rediscovers, including hope for a new life. It is easy to identify with Aomame, even as we learn she has “not an ounce of fat on her body,” and even as she descends into an underworld populated by cult members, victims of domestic violence, and Little People from another world whose air chrysalises reveal the specters within.
Tengo is a mathematics instructor and unpublished novelist whose easy manners and quiet strength are immediately recognizable: remember that smart student in high school who didn’t look the part? Like a bear he stood tall and shaggy above the rest of us, and excelled almost accidentally in all he did, sports or music or scholastic pursuits, but we could never fault him for his success as his demeanor was never one of pride nor aggression, but simplicity and unobtrusive kindness. His passion, when it emerges, is a welcome surprise to his students and his mentor, and women find him magnetic. But Tengo cannot be envied – like Aomame, his childhood was a strange and difficult one, and he made his own way without a fuss, never asking for much. His passivity and easy-going disposition lead him into trouble almost immediately in 1Q84, as he becomes embroiled in a literary scam that brings him to the same underworld, where fiction is made real and weather makes strange changes to the human reproductive system.
Air Chrysalis, A Fish Named Seymour
About halfway through this novel you may find yourself deeply offended. I don’t blame you – but as with all that Murakami creates, it’s never as simple as you’d wish. All I can say is that I’m glad I kept reading. A spoiler free review (I think I have succeeded in that, so far) makes it impossible to reveal any more.
Often fantasy can leave us feeling hollow – think of the swift wave of depression that followed the release of James Cameron’s Avatar, when audiences exited the theater into the bleak grey cold of December, greeted by parking lots and strip malls, and wondered how humanity could create two such contrasting images. Was the real world worth it at all? If we couldn’t live in harmonious congress with the hive mind of a giant beautiful tree and floating islands (I don’t know, it’s been a while since I’ve seen the film), what was the point of living at all?
Such is not the case with Murakami. First of all, it’s summer in the seacoast, which helps! But much of the fantastic in the novel is horror, the depths of the human psyche revealed. The metaphor of the Little People’s air chrysalis isn’t one inside which you’d care to live. And even if taxi drivers, talking cats, and breathtaking seventeen-year-old girls don’t appear out of the blue offering adventure and guidance as you leave your home today, after reading 1Q84 you’re still in a place of deep reverence for the world and its possibilities.
That is what the best novels do.
Haruki Murakami is an excellent, strange, reserved author who began his career after successfully running a jazz club. We can all learn something from his regimented schedule of swimming, running, and writing. Good news! The English translation of his latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, will be released next month. For a more traditional bio, visit his Random House page. See also the Paris Review interview.