Fantasy in Mainstream Clothing
by Haruki Murakami
At nearly 1,000 pages, this is a novel (in three volumes) that is not universally loved (in fact, a reviewer for The Atlantic calls it the biggest literary letdown of 2011). I can see why. And yet, I really liked it.
Let me begin with my two complaints, and then I can wax lyrical about this work. 1Q84 is a long book, and I often felt that it was longer than it needed to be. While Murakami is a very competent writer, and while his descriptions are often vivid and powerful, he sometimes has the tendency to go on a bit. Every now and them – often enough to annoy me, unfortunately – he launches into descriptions of characters, places, or events that go on for a bit, and there is a tendency to revisit key scenes without actually bringing much new information to those scenes. This is part of his artistic expression, certainly, but it didn’t work for me.
For all the length of the book, however, I also felt that some threads remained loose at the end, with only hints at how they were meant to tie up. There is a clear parallel to the central story within the story here, but it still gnawed at me when I had finished the book.
(Oh, and at one point, the narrator makes an inconsistent intrusion into the narrative, but that’s a minor point, and the single occurrence rather emphasises the consistency of the narration; after all, Tolkien made more such mistakes than that.)
This said, I quite enjoyed this book. With its parallel world, supernatural beings, magic, and paranormal powers, it is undenyably a fantasy story. At the same time, it is so straight-forwardly written, that at times, it feels as if it is completely unaware of the genre’s existence. At other times, the text enters a conscious debate with the genre in particular and literary writing in general.
The story consists of two major story-lines, to which a third is later added. Each story-line is presented from a particular character’s perspective. Tengo is a young man who teaches part-time at a cram school and spends the rest of his time trying to become a writer. Aomame is a young woman who works as a gym instructor and assassinates wife-batterers on the side. Their lives are ordered and controlled, but descend into confusion and chaos when they are dragged into events in some way concerning a strange cult/religion called Sakigake.
Unlike much fantasy, in which we expect the magical to happen, Murakami so focuses on the mundane, everyday normality of his Tokyo characters that when mystery is insidously introduced, it feels truly mysterious. That the occasional spokespersons for the fantastic (as it were) crop up to deliver infodumps so the reader and the protagonists can get up to speed with what’s happening does not detract from this sense of mystery; in fact, these infodumps are delivered in such a drawn out or convoluted manner that they feel almost banal (I did shout ”Get on with it!” at one occasion), but mostly, that’s actually for the better.
A further aspect of the novel that I found intriguing was the many explicit discussions of writing. Both Tengo and Aomame get into conversations about how to write fiction. Tengo, in rewriting the fantasy story Air Chrysalis, has to deal with the methods of writing the fantastic — how, for instance, does one portray a world with two moons to people used to only one? — and Aomame repetedly considers Chekhov’s gun: is it true that once a gun is introduced in a story, it must be fired? In dealing with this, Murakami offers his own interpretation of Chekhov’s dictum.
The title suggests obvious parallels with Orwells 1984 and (despite what Allen Barra suggests in his Atlantic review) it is easy to see numerous allusions. Yet, I’m tempted to read it from a traditional fantasy perspective, too, something the reader is clearly invited to do (but which mr Barra failed to see, regrettably). Despite the apparent ”fantasy innocence”, there is a commentary here on the way the genre borrows from myths and stories to make them their own. Even the powers of stories (there are several) are displayed, discussed, used. Reading 1Q84 from a mainstream perspective may fail to satisfy. As an attempt to negotiate between fantastic and mimetic, I found it fascinating.
I warmly recommend this book, but only if you can read it at a leisurly pace. It is a story that takes its time. The plot is moving slowly ahead, constantly switching story line and perspective, naming only the most vital characters. If one is prepared to accept this, however, it is a rewarding read.