Reviewer’s Note: I have tried not to give away too many of 1Q84‘s secrets, but a review must address the content of a novel. If you’re hoping for a carta blanca Murakami experience, better bookmark this and come back in a couple years.
All translations other than the quote from A Wild Sheep Chase are my own.
In 1985, Murakami Haruki was hitting his stride as a writer. Moving away from the characters in the “Rat Trilogy,” he received the Tanizaki Prize for the markedly more ambitious Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, made an “honest literary declaration” of his working definition of fiction (Supplement to Complete Works Vol. 5, xi) in the introduction to his short story collection Kaiten mokuba no deddo hīto 『回転木馬のデッド・ヒート』 (“Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round”, discussed previously on Néojaponisme), published his translation of Raymond Carver’s At Night the Salmon Move, and still found time to write most of the stories that would be collected in Pan’ya saishūgeki 『パン屋再襲撃 』 (“The Second Bakery Attack”) the following year. One of these stories, “The Twins and the Sunken Continent” (title translation borrowed from Jay Rubin’s Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words), remains notable today for two reasons: it is the only story from the collection not yet translated into English, and it is the final story using his original boku narrator. Technique and time separate “The Twins” and 1Q84, but they share their major theme: loss.
1Q84 sprawls 1055 pages in the hardback version and chronicles a large portion of Japanese history in passing, but the main narrative concerns just a handful of characters over a six-month period in 1984. Murakami uses his favorite device to frame the novel – alternating storylines with separate protagonists that become more closely linked as the plot thickens. These protagonists are Aomame, a fitness and martial arts instructor in Tokyo who grew up in a fictional missionary group called the Shōninkai (証人会, literally “Association of Witnesses”), and Kawana Tengo, a prep school math instructor and aspiring writer who has never met his mother.
In an interview just before publication, Murakami provided a cryptic summary of the work:
A young boy and girl meet. And they fall in love. From that point of view it’s a simple story. But something happens and the two of them go to the dark side of the moon. (Courrier 19)
To a certain extent, 1Q84 is the simple love story that Murakami suggests, centered on the image of the jazz standard “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” But, of course, the book includes an array of other themes, some handled better than others. Murakami’s word choices, specifically a couple of terms he uses with frequency, identify these major themes of the novel and reveal how he uses Aomame and Tengo within the novel.
First, something is rotten in Tokyo in 1984. Numerous intrigues are described as usankusai (胡散臭い): fishy, shady or suspicious. An editor conspires to ghost-write a novel and have it win the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious award for up and coming writers. A secret religious cult (loosely based on radical movements of the ’60s and religious cults like Aum Shinrikyo) plots some terrible evil in its Yamanashi Prefecture compound. A wealthy, landed woman wages a covert war on misogyny. The world undergoes abrupt, strange, and highly specific changes, and that trip to the dark side of the moon is more literal than you might expect.
These schemes draw in our protagonists like whirlpools, bringing in another key theme: hikareru (惹かれる) (to be drawn in) and related words make frequent appearances. Tengo is convinced to play ghost writer by his editor Komatsu, but he also admits to being equally drawn in by the book itself, which is titled “Kūki sanagi” 『空気さなぎ』(“The Air Chrysalis”) and written by the quiet 17-year-old storyteller Fukada Eriko. Aomame is recruited by the unnamed wealthy lady and drawn into her conspiracy.
Aomame and Tengo don’t seem to have had much going on their lives before becoming entangled in all this intrigue, but once involved they do not remain passive. Both knowingly withhold information and make decisions that run counter to their employers’ plans. As always with Murakami, the stakes are high, and everyone is looking out for themselves.
Another frequently appearing term is sonawatte iru (具わっている, be equipped/skilled/gifted with). Murakami uses it to describe his characters’ supernatural gifts, “that special something” that differentiates them from others and makes them useful to the conspirators. Aomame is equipped with hypersensitive fingers and an ability to read the layout of people’s bodies. Tengo seems fairly unremarkable to begin with, other than his passion for math – even his writing is clean but uninspired — but he eventually taps into some latent abilities, which are never fully explained.
Other characters include the aforementioned teenage writer Fukada Eriko, known by her pen name “Fukaeri” throughout the work; Ushikawa, a disheveled messenger for a shadowy scholarship company; Tamaru, a gay bodyguard originally from Sakhalin, Russia; Tengo’s married older girlfriend who visits him once a week for therapeutic sex; and Asami, a police officer with a tortured soul who is always looking for a good time… in bed.
Many of the book’s characters can be linked to roles in older Murakami works. Fukaeri seems to suffer from a form of semi-autism, and Tengo plays assistant to her, like Nakata and Hoshino in Kafka on the Shore. The wealthy, middle-aged lady free to pursue her own interests recalls Nutmeg in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The unexplained absence of Tengo’s mother mirrors that of Kafka’s in Kafka on the Shore.
Other familiar Murakami themes make appearances. Sex is, once again, a physical desire that needs occasional quenching but in the end should be saved spiritually for the right person:
During the sex, too, Tengo kept thinking about different things off and on, but that did not diminish the physical pleasure of the sexual act. As always, she deftly drew the week’s worth of sexual desire out of him and briskly disposed of it. (Book 1, 544)
Self-determination is questionable, evidenced by the sheer importance of coincidence and by the way characters feel drawn in to their circumstances:
“But, with food or men or other things, we feel like we are choosing things, but we might not be choosing anything at all. Maybe everything has been decided in advance from the beginning, so we’re just pretending to choose. Free will is just a perception. Sometimes I think that,” said Aomame.
“If that’s the case, then life is pretty bleak.”
“But if you can really love someone with your heart, no matter how terrible that person is, then life isn’t hell. No matter how bleak it is.” (Book 1, 344)
The imagery of warmth, and memory as a type of warmth, plays an important role as it did in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World:
“But now I finally understand. She’s not a concept. Not a symbol, nor an allegory. She exists in reality and has an active spirit and a body with warmth. And that warmth and movement is something I shouldn’t lose sight of. It took me twenty years to understand something so basic.” (Book 2, 356)
These ideas all have their moments, some longer than others. The themes that Murakami comes back to in the end, however, are loss and recovery:
Tengo suddenly remembered the fact that people lose 40 million skin cells every day. They’re lost, peel off, turn into a fine dust invisible to the eye, and disappear. To the world, we might be something like skin cells. And if so, there wouldn’t be anything strange about someone up and disappearing some day. (Book 2, 347)
This passage is eerily similar to one from A Wild Sheep Chase:
“Body cells replace themselves every month. Even at this very moment,” she said, thrusting a skinny back of her hand before my eyes. “Most everything you think you know about me is nothing more than memories.” (167)
Loss in 1Q84 is depicted in various states of permanency. Some people mysteriously disappear — Murakami uses the passive word ushinawarete iru (失われている, “are/have been lost”) rather than an active word like kieta (消えた, “disappeared”) — but memories seem to be more resolute within the characters than in many of Murakami’s previous works.
As Aomame and Tengo get closer and closer, their connection is revealed, and they seem to be fighting for similar objectives. The ending Murakami provides suggests that one of the characters might become “the egg” cracked on “the wall” of the system he referred to in his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize earlier this year, while the other may battle on and try to recover the past. By no measure is the action complete within the 1055 pages of these two volumes; the way things are resolved points to the final line of Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Little Dog,” a tale of two lovers who finally resolve to elope at the end of the story: “…it was clear to both of them that the end was still far, far off, and that the most complicated and difficult part was just beginning.”
Though written in 1985, “The Twins and the Sunken Continent” takes place between Pinball, 1973 (1980) and A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), and explores the shock boku feels when he suddenly remembers his old girlfriends, the eponymous twins with whom he lived in Pinball. As the story opens, they have been gone for six months, and boku has been working. Killing time in a cafe before a meeting with a client, boku is surprised to stumble upon their picture in a magazine:
About half a year had passed since I parted with the twins, when I found them in a picture in a magazine.
The twins in the picture weren’t in their usual cheap sweatshirts — the ones they always wore when they lived with me — embroidered with the numbers “208″ and “209″; they looked much more chic. One was wearing a knit dress, and the other was wearing something that looked like a rough cotton jacket. Their hair was much longer than before, and they even had light makeup on around their eyes.
But I knew right away that those were the twins. (125)
In Pinball, the twins just hole up in boku’s apartment for most of the book. Other than a surprising encounter with a repairman, they interact only with boku and almost seem like figments of his imagination (Rubin 54-55). Seeing them photographed out in the real world with real world clothes and makeup on, interacting with real other men, predictably confuses boku who returns to his office and examines the photograph closely with a magnifying glass.
The twins were photographed at The Glass Cage — the newest, most fashionable club in Tokyo. The club combines the natural and the unnatural: it is made almost entirely of glass, described as “an aquarium” (126) and “a transparent labyrinth” (127), but it also functions like “a precise, transparent anatomical model of the body. All the parts functioned properly according to their different principles” (126).
Boku looks closer at one of the twins and the man she is talking to:
The twin who was facing the young man and telling him something in his ear — I will never be able to tell the difference between the two — had a smile so faint floating around the edge of her mouth that you might accidentally overlook it. …
In contrast to her, the man she was talking to had a somewhat dark look on his face. He was a thin, handsome man. He was wearing a fashionable dark blue shirt and had a skinny silver bracelet around his right wrist. He had both of his hands on the table and was staring at the tall glass in front of him. It seemed almost as though the drink’s existence was so important that it was going to change his life; and he was being wracked by some kind of decision with the drink. I could see white smoke rising in the shape of some incantation from the ashtray placed next to the drink. (131-132)
Boku claims not to feel jealousy, or anything at all for that matter, but he seems at least nostalgic toward the twins and shows signs of empathy for the man:
One thing that interested me slightly was the unpleasant dark look on the man’s face. You’ve got no reason to be making a dark face, I thought. You’ve got the twins, I don’t. I lost the twins, you haven’t yet. You might end up losing them at some point, but that’s some point in the future, and for the time being you aren’t even thinking that you might lose them. Well, I guess you are a little confused. I feel like I can understand that much. But the confusion you’re experiencing right now isn’t a lethal variety. And you’ll understand that yourself at some point.
But having thought that, there was no way for me to relay it to the man. They were in a distant land in a distant time. Like a floating continent, they were wandering aimlessly in a dark universe unknown to me. (133-134)
Eventually five o’clock rolls around and boku does what Murakami narrators normally do when confused: roam the city in search of alcohol and sex. He ends up in a small bar where he “sometimes goes to drink alone” (142), thinking about loss:
I tried to convince myself that everything was something that had been lost. Everything is something that had been lost and should continue to be lost. Once something has been ruined, no one can return it to its original state. That’s why the Earth continues to revolve around the Sun.
In the end, what I needed was a dose of reality. The Earth revolves around the Sun. The moon revolves around the Earth. That kind of reality. (142-143)
The story then cuts to boku naked, in bed with a woman. He starts to tell her the dream that’s been tormenting him in predawn hours. The story is long and somewhat haunting. He is walking around the city and happens upon a building under construction. Inside, a man is building a wall, and boku stops to watch him work:
“Behind the bricks the man was stacking was the original wall of the building. Just your plain old, smooth concrete wall. So basically the man was making a new, ornamental wall in front of the original wall. Do you understand what I’m trying to say? [...]
“… If you looked hard, you could see a space about 40 centimeters wide between the original wall and the new wall. I didn’t know why he was going to the trouble to leave that space. Doing that would make the room much more narrow. I thought that was strange and strained my eyes a little more to see what the worker was doing. When I did, I gradually started to see what looked like people. It was almost like the people had come floating up like on a photograph in developing fluid. The figures were stuck between in the space between the new wall and the old wall.
“It was twins,” I continued. “Twin girls. About 19 or 20, maybe 21. The two of them were wearing my clothes. One was wearing a tweed jacket, and the other was wearing a windbreaker. Both were my clothes. They were being closed into that gap of 40 centimeters or so in uncomfortable positions, but despite that, they seemed to be completely unaware that they were being sealed into a wall and just chatted away like they always do. The worker, too, didn’t seem to realize that he was gradually sealing the twins in. He just stacked the bricks in silence. I seemed to be the only one who realized what was happening.” (148-149)
The twins, once part of boku’s real world and later an important element of his memory, have now been locked away from him completely. Ironically, seeing them as real people makes them, to boku, less real.
Boku pays the woman — who has turned out to be a prostitute — extra for listening to the story and is left alone with his thoughts.
I stared at the ceiling and thought about the ancient, legendary continent that sank under the sea. I have no idea why I thought about something like that. Maybe it was because I didn’t bring my umbrella with me on a cold, rainy November night. Or maybe it was because I’d held the body of a woman — I couldn’t remember what kind of body it was — whose name I didn’t know with my hands still chill from a dawn dream. That’s probably exactly why I thought about the legendary continent that I’d submerged to the ocean floor long ago. The light was faintly blurred, sound was muzzled, and the air was heavy and humid.
How many years had it been since it was lost?
But I couldn’t remember when it had been lost. Most likely it had already been lost long before the twins left me. The twins only made me aware of that fact. When something is lost, the only certainty we have is not when we lost it, but when we realized we lost it.
Which I guess is fine. Let’s go from there.
That three year period brought me to this rainy November evening.
But maybe I’ll get used to this new world little by little. It might take time, but little by little I’ll burrow my body and bones into the faults of this heavy, humid universe. In the end, people are able to assimilate themselves into any situation. No matter how vivid their dreams may be, they are swallowed up by the blur of reality and disappear. And at some point, I probably won’t be able to remember that the dream even existed.
I turned off the light next to my pillow, closed my eyes, and slowly stretched out on the bed. Then I began to sink my consciousness into a dreamless sleep. Rain hit the window, and dark ocean currents washed forgotten mountain ranges. (153-154)
The image of Atlantis is contrasted with the floating continent from earlier in the story. The twins have flown off, leaving boku in a fuzzy and depressing world that can, at best, be gotten used to. Loss is part of life, and while the tone of the story is dark and apathetic, Murakami’s last moments with his boku narrator focus on hope — the thought that he will be able to live on in this world.
Murakami continued to write first-person narratives for years to come, but “The Twins” is his last true boku. Two years later, he would name his narrator “Toru Watanabe” in Norwegian Wood. After writing Norwegian Wood, Murakami wanted to revisit the characters from A Wild Sheep Chase (Rubin 168-169), but Dance Dance Dance, the result of seeing those characters again, feels different from previous bokus; it shows us that boku on an expense account is no boku at all. South of the Border, West of the Sun has anonymous first-person narration, but other characters are named and the narrator, while older, is not the same person. Subsequent works for Shinchō such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore are told largely in the first person, but with extensive third-person sections; the stories in After the Quake are all in the third person. 1Q84, a 1055-page work told completely in the third person, completes the transition. The reader, however, only shadows two characters (other than one notable scene), so the distance between character and narrator is not much more than that between character and player in a third-person shooter.
Parts of 1Q84 rival Murakami’s best writing. The tale of Tengo’s father, who tried his luck as a settler in Manchuria before returning to Japan to work as a collection man for NHK; Tengo’s married girlfriend’s ominous dream she relates to him in bed at the end of Book 1 (remarkably similar in style and feel to boku’s dream in “The Twins and the Sunken Continent”); and a story within the story about a town run completely by cats from a book that Tengo reads, are three notable examples. But overall, the book feels long, inconsistent, and occasionally repetitive. Over the course of 1,000 pages, characters and themes both float in and out of the narrative, many of them seemingly forgotten by the end of Book 2. Religious cults are discussed in depth in Book 1 only to be left out of Book 2. Tengo’s father is an important part of the whole book, but it is unclear how his past is connected to the rest of the book. Ebisuno-sensei, Fukaeri’s foster father, has most of his action offstage, and we never even meet Azami, Fukaeri’s foster sister. Most of the book is spent going over the past of the characters, so much so that plot discussion more extensive than that given above would start to reveal some of the only development in the novel’s present — plot that Murakami made no secret of trying to keep a secret in the run up to the publishing date.
Aomame’s personality seems to be the most inconsistent part of the work. She is calm and collected at parts and then loud and aggressive at other times, especially when it involves getting balding men into bed. Take these two passages from Book 1 Chapter 15 about Aomame who, as a child, was determined to escape the severe minimalism of life as a Christian missionary:
However, as an adult, Aomame discovered the fact that she was most comfortable living a moderate, austere lifestyle. She preferred wearing sweats and spending time by herself in her room to dressing up nicely and going out somewhere with someone. (Book 1, 328)
Six pages later she’s out on the town with a friend:
Aomame had on a blue-gray short-sleeved dress with a small, white cardigan on over it, and Ferragamo high-heeled shoes. She wore earrings and a thin, gold bracelet. She left her usual shoulder bag at home…and had a small La Bagagerie purse. (Book 1, 334)
Shortly after this section, the characters are in a French restaurant ordering moules soup, three-onion salad, cervelle de veau in a red wine sauce, lentil soup, and angler roasted in a paper bag with polenta.
Although this might be an isolated incident, clothing choices, especially Aomame’s, are given all through the novel, almost always with brand names included. In the Courrier interview, Murakami claims that this can’t be helped: “When I write about life in the city, lots of those kind of modern cultural icons appear. People eat Dunkin Donuts and wear Armani. It’s unavoidable” (Courrier 19). And, to be fair, in 1Q84, some of this partly seems to be an attempt to place the novel firmly in 1984. There are references to Michael Jackson songs, fashion, and pink telephones. There are lots of forced phone conversations and characters who, for the convenience of the plot, either pick up or don’t pick up, and many times there seems to be an implied “because there aren’t cell phones yet” to the circumstances. Still, the strange juxtaposition of donuts and name-brand fashion from the interview suggests that Murakami has left behind the days when all that was necessary was an anonymous worn tweed jacket and khaki pants as in “The Twins and the Sunken Continent.”
1Q84‘s biggest problem, though, is pacing. Very little seems to actually happen, despite the work’s prodigious length (ironic given that Tengo spends the first few chapters of the book editing down Fukaeri’s story!). Some chapters pass very quickly, but others feel drawn out. Finally, at the end of Book 1, some interesting questions are raised, and some of Book 2 is as suspenseful as Dance Dance Dance‘s scenes with the Sheep Man in the dark passages of the Dolphin Hotel — but Murakami then proceeds to ruin this by dragging out the resolution. This is largely due to the tendency he has developed to expound at length on philosophy, art, and music. In his early works, characters would drop a name or quote a single line (the switch panel’s Kantian funeral in Pinball, 1973 comes to mind), and the rest was left up to the reader; in 1Q84, we get extended discussion of Anton Chehkov’s trip to Sakhalin, The Brothers Karamazov, Carl Jung, Aristotle, and Leos Janacek among others.
These pacing problems also defeat Murakami’s attempts to create a mythology for his universe as he did in Hard-boiled Wonderland and, to a lesser extent, in Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Without going into detail, he spends less time developing these ideas than he did in either of these works, and the details we finally get towards the end of Book 2 feel scattered and intangible — certainly no match for the golden flocks of unicorns, their life-cycle in the Town, and their relationship to the watashi of Hard-boiled Wonderland and the boku of the End of the World.
It’s hard not to wonder if Murakami realized he was raising more questions than he answers with this book. The title choice is explained by Aomame once she realizes she’s left her old world:
1Q84 — that’s what I’ll call this new world, decided Aomame. Q is the Q from ‘question mark.’ That which creates a question.” (Book 1, 202)
And later in the novel, one of the reviewers of Kūki sanagi says that after reading that novel they felt as though they had been “left stranded in a mysterious pool of question marks” (Book 2, 124). Those who have finished 1Q84 might be experiencing a similar sensation, especially readers who are familiar with his older, more minimalist works.
Jay Rubin’s comment regarding Kafka on the Shore can be quoted verbatim to describe how readers will likely receive 1Q84:
One’s reception of Kafka on the Shore, then, depends heavily on the degree of one’s willingness to “go with the flow” of the story. To a reader less willing, Murakami seems to be relying far too heavily on contrivance and coincidence, and he too easily overlooks inconsistencies on the realistic pane (Rubin 288).
In “The Twins and the Sunken Continent,” the twins are a vital memory within the mind of the narrator, and seeing them in Roppongi as different individuals jars him, making him realize that the twins he once knew have been lost to memory and even that will eventually dissipate. In 1Q84, there is much that is lost to memory and even some things that become lost in a frighteningly literal sense of the word. Like boku, some of the characters keep memories so deep within themselves that it becomes a defining point of their existence.
The ending of “The Twins” is typical ’80s Murakami: cool, detached, but with a new glimmer of hope. In a way, it is a summation of Murakami’s early work — a final break with tales of boku bumbling through love, loss, and life, passing on his experiences to readers. Twenty years later, in 1Q84, Murakami’s narrators have become more proactive: they fight for what is lost, although it is worth noting that “Fukaeri,” the name of the elfish storyteller, is a homonym for “no return.” Some are speculating that, as with The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, there may be a third volume on the way, so we may have to wait for Murakami to work things out for us.
In the end, much of your opinion of 1Q84 will, like your opinion on Murakami in general, depend on the first novel of his that you read. If your boyfriend gave you Norwegian Wood as a birthday present, you probably expected his other books to be realistic love stories with tones of the mysterious. If you discovered The Wind-up Bird Chronicle in The Hipster’s Handbook, you might have expected giant, postmodern epics that cover a wide variety of topics in many different narrative forms. If you found a first edition of A Wild Sheep Chase in a used bookstore in Tokyo, you would be expecting more of his offbeat and boozy narrator and that narrator’s “What, me worry?” take on the hijinks he gets sucked into. If you’re one of the fortunate ones like me and stumbled upon Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World sitting enshrined in a halo of awesomeness in a dark corner of a bookstore in New Orleans, you might be expecting quirky, science fiction explorations of the mind, memory and modern society.
Some unfortunate (or perhaps fortunate) souls will choose 1Q84 as their very first Murakami novel. As they follow Aomame and Tengo through the confusion of the novel and experience a Murakami world for the first time, they too will likely be drawn in by the dialogue, by the pregnant pauses, by the temple rubbing and lack of responses to important questions. By the music references, some of the lofty overtones in the first chapter, and the hints of warmth and connection implied in the final chapter. If new readers like the book, they still have the strongest part of his catalog left to enjoy. On the other hand, they might be expecting more of the same. Experienced Murakami readers will recognize connections with his old works, and if they strain their eyes hard enough, they might even be able to see flashes of the old boku as he is bricked in for good by the third-person narrative in 1Q84.
1Q84 Book 1, (Shinchōsha, 2009).
1Q84 Book 2, (Shinchōsha, 2009).
Jesus Ruiz Mantilla, “Murakami Haruki: boku no shōsetsu wa, konton to shita jida ni motomerareru,” Kōdansha, Courrier Jul. 2009: 17-19.
A Wild Sheep Chase, trans. Alfred Birnbaum (Kodansha International, 1989).
“Futago to shizunda tairiku,” Pan’ya saishūgeki, (1989; Bungeishunju, 2002) 125-154.
“Jisaku o kataru — Hosoku Monogatari-gun.” Supplement to Murakami Haruki Zensakuhin 1979 – 1989 Vol. 5, xi. Kōdansha, 1991.
Jay Rubin, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, (2003; Harvill Press: London, 2005).