What I Talk About When I Talk About Murakami: Mystery and Memory in 1Q84
by Emily Dufton
My notebook states that I finished reading Haruki Murakami’s 925-page opus 1Q84, first published in the United States in October of 2011, on March 2, 2012. Almost exactly a month earlier, on February 1, I scribbled in my book that I had finished rereading, for the third time, Murakami’s 2008 memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which is perhaps my favorite of his works. In the four weeks and one day that spanned the completion of Running and 1Q84, I left behind the stark and direct world of Murakami’s nonfiction and reentered the familiar fictional world this author has so consistently reproduced over the course of a dozen novels and thirty years. Which is to say that I left behind his essays – so clean and concise, about early morning training runs in Hawaii and traversing the route of the original marathon in Greece – and reentered that other, stranger place that I can only associate with this particular writer’s fiction. Here is a man who writes books the same way he runs marathons: methodically and purposefully, creating a world of chaos out of the mundane.
In what can only be credited to the construction of a coherent oeuvre, there exists in the fictional world of Murakami a very specific, if often troubling, place: a Japan that lives on the border of reality and imagination, a world of mystery, confusion, disorientation and delight, where men – and his protagonists are almost always men – are confronted by the fantastic and often surreal as they struggle within the context of quotidian Japanese life. I think of Toru Okada in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, whose story begins when his cat runs away. This small event seems to trigger (or release) a series of events, some of which border on the completely phantasmagoric, even as Toru remains chained to his everyday routines. Throughout the book there are these wonderful, quiet moments, far outside the scope of missing cats and missing wives and psychic prostitutes and newly acquired abilities to heal, that reveal the majesty of Murakami’s craft: it is within descriptions of Toru making small meals, drinking a beer at the kitchen table alone at night, or the thoughts Toru has as he looks up at the sky where the real beauty of Murakami’s writing lies. These moments, far more than the mysteries, seductions, and action that also suffuse the text, interested me most during my initial reading of the book and they’re the ones that I carry with me now, years after I put the book back on the shelf.
Other examples of the Murakami Man are myriad: the unnamed protagonist in A Wild Sheep Chase who follows a sheep (and a ghost) to the mountains of Hokkaido while he revels in the stark silence of the cold northern territory. There is young Kafka, in Kafka on the Shore, who runs away from home and hides in a library near the ocean, reading books as rain quietly falls and a man who kills cats wanders the streets. And there is Tengo, one of the protagonists of 1Q84, a young writer and math tutor in Tokyo whose introduction to a remarkable young woman named Fuka-Eri and his induction into a parallel world do little to stem his interest in listening to records at home or wandering through a nearby park. And these are just a few of the many Murakami men who sit idly by as the strangest and most remarkable situations draw them into their grasp, these men-boys who so often live alone and exist in that strange, liminal, crepuscular world between no-longer-adolescence and slack-jawed-adulthood, looking through the fridge for another beer or something to eat while, outside of their apartments, two moons are rising in the sky.
It’s as though Murakami himself doesn’t quite know what to focus on, probably because he loves both stories – the magical and the mundane – so dearly and so deeply, as they both so profoundly influence his work. There is mystery, challenge, tension and thrill hovering around the nucleus of all this writer’s work, but there, at the dead-center of the story’s very core, is thick description so anthropological in shape that its attention to the minute details of quotidian Japanese life could allow aliens to mistake Murakami’s books for lessons in the post-World War II, late-twentieth century Japanese experience. And this is the purposeful (or concomitant) result of a man who writes his books on the fly. In a 1997 New York Times review of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Jamie James noted that Murakami “does not plot his novels beforehand but lets the story reveal itself to him as he writes.” This makes sense. In some sense, a reader could get the feeling that if a character busies himself with stir-frying leftovers for an entire scene, it was most likely written on a day when that was all that Murakami wanted to do too.
But this is not a retrospective on Murakami’s collected works; it is a review specifically of 1Q84, which I intend to write in a specific way. March 2, 2012, is eleven months ago now, and 1Q84 still sits on my shelf. I’ve hardly opened the cover since I finished the last page and noted the date of its completion in my little book. But I’ve decided to keep 1Q84 there, shelved and unopened, while I write this review. I don’t want any new experience to influence what I want to say. Instead, this review is going to be written blind, based entirely on the memories and feelings I’ve retained after finishing the book. Why? Because it is only in Murakami’s work where I find myself paying such close attention to the quiet moments that lie so far outside of the story’s main action: to food, to drink, to a character sitting on the floor, to the moments late at night when the wind blows or there is quietly falling rain. 1Q84 is full of such moments – one might argue that these moments make up too much of the text – moments of solitude and loneliness, of characters trapped in place, of people trying to work through issues of magnificent scope (religious cults! Parallel worlds! Mysterious pregnancies! Missing children! Unanswered questions about a mother’s marital fidelity!) in a manner more befitting of trying to figure out what to have for lunch.
So, that being said, I don’t want to provide a synopsis of the tale, which is too convoluted to be adequately explained, nor do I want to focus exclusively on what I liked or didn’t like. Instead, I’m going to focus less on 1Q84 itself than on two other, very specific things: first, on how the book made me feel when reading it, and second, on what I can continue to recall about the text nearly a year after completing it. Less a traditional investigation of style and form, this will be an analysis of the reading experience and an examination of the metaphysics of memory as they concern Murakami and 1Q84.
What I remember most from 1Q84 are people stuck, trapped if you will, in places they cannot leave for reasons they do not entirely understand. Everyone seems trapped in 1Q84: Aomame and Tengo trapped in a parallel world, Fuka-Eri and young Tsubasa trapped in a cult, the Leader of the cult trapped in a painful body, and nearly all of the characters trapped somewhere in the past. Then there are the physical, constructed restrictions as well. This book features more people trapped in apartments than any of Murakami’s works I’ve ever read before, and this is an author notoriously fond of placing his characters in constrictive locales.
First there is the long period where Aomame, Murakami’s female protagonist (a trainer at a Tokyo gym when she’s not a hired assassin), is stuck in a new apartment in a new complex in an underdeveloped section of Tokyo for – what is it, days, weeks, months? She is kept there by the Dowager, her employer, for her own safety and is sent groceries, a stationary exercise bike, and weights to lift to keep her fit. Her only access to the outside world is through the deliveryman who comes weekly to bring supplies from the Dowager, a window and balcony that look out onto a park, and the NHK man/ghost who knocks on her door from time to time. She is kept there for chapters, maniacally exercising in the apartment to stay in shape, chopping and stir-frying vegetables for meals, and waiting through the time by reading or staring outside. She is caught between the interior and exterior worlds in the apartment in the same way she is caught between 1984 and 1Q84.
(Is it strange that, after reading those chapters, I wanted the same solitude? A blindingly white apartment in a place where I knew no one and no one knew me, where people brought me what I needed and I had no responsibilities other than riding a stationary bike and preparing simple meals?)
Then there is Ushikawa, the private detective hired by the religious cult Sakigake to investigate Tengo and Aomame. Usikawa, whose constant descriptions of being ugly made me pity him (surely he can’t be that bad; no one is), camps out on the ground floor of Tengo’s apartment building to keep an eye out for Tengo’s comings and goings. He has nothing in the apartment but a sleeping bag and a hot plate. He wraps himself in the sleeping bag to avoid the cold and stares out the window with binoculars and a camera, eating cans of beans that he’s heated up for dinner. Is there a more pitiful existence, even for a private eye? Staring between the slats of a Venetian blind, hoping the person that you’re looking for walks past? Not only does Ushikawa spend multiple chapters waiting in this empty apartment, but if I recall correctly, it’s also the site of his death. Poor Ushikawa – Murakami never gave you a break.
Fuka-Eri also remains housebound. As public interest in her novel "Air Chrysalis" reaches fever pitch, she is forced to remain inside Tengo’s apartment, sleeping in his nightshirt and listening to his records while he’s at work. Here is, as Murakami describes her, a preternaturally beautiful 17-year-old girl who lives with Tengo for days and weeks, forced into house arrest because of the strangeness of her visions. When she and Tengo finally have sex (in the weirdest sex scene I’ve ever read, even for Murakami), it is, of course, Aomame who gets pregnant. How? Why? Do these questions even matter? And when Fuka-Eri disappears – a clean break if I ever read one – we don’t need to know where she goes, in the same way that we, the readers, don’t seem to have to know the answers to any of the questions Murakami brings up.
Ultimately, what remains with me almost a year after finishing 1Q84 is how unsatisfying the storyline really is. More than any other feeling, and more than any other of his books, Murakami’s latest opus left me feeling sad. It was a half-finished, half-baked, coitus interruptus of a text, one that brought forth all of my favorite Murakami ideas only to leave them, half-assembled, in the nearly-1,000-page book on my shelf. There is a startling number of questions unanswered at its end. I remember being two-thirds of the way finished, then three-quarters through, then four-fifths complete, wondering when Aomame was going to get out of the white apartment, when the questions about Tengo’s mother’s relationship with that strange man were going to be resolved, how Murakami was going to explain all of these things, while the number of pages dwindled and the storyline seemed stuck. It was frustrating, watching the remaining pages on the right side of the book diminish while so much remained to be explained and understood.
There is so much beauty in Murakami’s work. The descriptions of the hothouse where the Dowager would meet Aomame for tea, where exotic flowers grew and butterflies fluttered and landed lightly on the Dowager’s shoulder, are such lovely visions of Japan (or anywhere) that I can’t get them out of my head. The meal that Aomame shares with her policewoman friend Ayumi at the Italian restaurant, with thick description of their entrees and choices of wine, seemed as comforting as eating a rich Italian meal myself. Tengo standing on top of a children’s playground slide, staring up at the moon (two moons? One moon? How many did Tengo see?) at night, is a stunning scene in its powerful simplicity.
So why then does Murakami’s book have to ultimately feel co-opted? Lost? Half-finished and unsatisfying and DOA? There was so much discussion of him receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years back, with various reviewers calling 1Q84 genius, his chef d’oeuvre. But I couldn’t help feeling a little gypped at the end, as though I bought into a promise someone made but couldn’t fulfill.
For all the reasons I love Murakami – his creativity and vigor, his intelligence and prolificacy, the quietness of his writing that centers on moments of such stunningly peacefulness even in the midst of so much surreality – I enjoyed 1Q84. But for all the reasons Murakami pisses me off – his lackadaisical style, his hanging questions, his unplanned endings and his liminal characters – 1Q84 also deeply pissed me off. Maybe it’s impossible to answer all the questions Murakami brings up. Secret religious cults, tiny creatures that emerge from dead goats’ mouths to spin an ethereal chrysalis, mysterious pregnancies, a world with two moons – I mean, it’s all a lot to deal with, a lot to convey. And I’m not suggesting that every question an author brings up demands an answer within that same book; certainly, I’d assume, neither is Murakami. Instead, what he notes, and what is necessary to understand, is that there is mystery in the world – deep and trenchant mystery – especially in a place as otherworldly as Japan, which deserves to be looked at and examined, if not understood.
And the grace of Murakami’s books is not only that he brings up such luscious mysteries, but that he cloaks them in the quotidian ubiquity of daily life: there might be a woman who covertly kills abusive men for her job, but her days are still filled with the quiet rising of the sun and the silent nights when she stays up long after everyone else is asleep. There’s still the daily question of searching the fridge to see what could be stir-fried into dinner, and that is comforting, even if it makes me upset.
But still – still – I wanted more. I didn’t want 1Q84 to end like the television series "Lost," with a quick and ill-conceived wrap-up that was superficially satisfying while doing nothing to illuminate the larger story. But it did. Both "Lost" and 1Q84 started big, making enormous promises that ultimately neither could fulfill. Did they take storytelling too far? Bite off far more than they could chew? Perhaps, and maybe that’s why Murakami didn’t win the Nobel Prize and "Lost" became a laughingstock rather than a television series that earned a rightful place in the pop culture canon.
Even so, I’ll probably never get rid of my copy of 1Q84. Like when I finished Infinite Jest, there’s always an element of pride to completing a large and monumental work. And that, I guess, is the strange relationship we have with texts: we keep our books long after we’ve completed them because, in the process of reading, they become our friends. 1Q84 will stay on my shelf even as it remains one of my most frustrating friends, a book I’ll look at again from time to time just to remind me to keep away from starting things I know I can’t complete. Still, it’s a friend I won’t abandon any time soon. Friends like these are important – or at least some of them are – because they remain meaningful long after we’ve finished reading what they contain.