When will Haruki Murakami finally get a Nobel Prize? Around this time every year, the question grumbles around Japanese literary circles. And around this time every year, the answer is the same: better luck next time. For my part, I’ve always observed this ritual with a jaundiced eye. Murakami, for all of his success and considerable stylistic accomplishments, just wasn’t Nobel-worthy (hold your flames until the end, please). His output is impressive and his fiercely devoted readership has made him one of the world’s bestselling non-English novelists. But his books, which I had once found fresh and engaging, became increasingly predictable. If he hadn’t reached the limits of his talents, then it seemed that he was at least stuck in a very deep rut.
But with 1Q84, Murakami’s latest, the bandwagon’s out of the ditch, and I am jumping on board. The book, which was a blockbuster in Japan, is Murakami’s finest work: nuanced, brilliant, gripping, philosophical but never tendentious, self-assured, cleverly post-modern yet authentic, and possessed of a haunting surrealism that by this point surely deserves its own adjective: Murakamian?
Fans will find much to love. Murakami’s personal obsessions and eccentricities are on full display: cats, oddly-formed ears, European composers and novelists, and little people with strange powers. And yet, the book feels fresh in a way that Murakami hasn’t felt in a long time. It sees the familiar with new eyes. Reading it is like falling in love again for the very first time.
Murakami’s work has always depended on subverting its readers’ sense of the familiar. His stories mostly take place in an off-kilter version of reality that seems the stranger precisely because of its similarity to the world we know. 1Q84’s brilliance is founded on more or less the same principle. It is instantly recognizable, yet inexplicably strange. A Murakami novel as it might be written in a Murakami novel. The premise is high-concept, but somehow unpretentious: two people, a novelist Tengo and a part-time assassin/fitness instructor Aomame, find that they have been transported from the “real” world into a fictional one complete with two moons, giant, glowing chrysalises woven from thin air, and a dead goat that serves as a portal to yet another world. Basically, it’s a love story. And a very affecting one at that.
As might be expected, both the novel and the world in which it’s set, the eponymous 1Q84, are self-consciously literary creations, one written by Murakami and the other by the writer, Tengo, who finds himself trapped in his own book, a high stakes literary fraud based on the work of a mysterious teenage girl. Although there are a few heavy-handed ventures into explicit meta-fictional commentary (a gun, which in contravention of Anton Chekov’s famous maxim, never goes off), the border between fiction and reality, whether Murakami’s or Tengo’s, is never explicitly drawn, and the whole enterprise is carried out with such zest and lightness of touch that it never occurred to me to question the concept.
The brisk pacing doesn’t hurt, either. The book is a doorstop of the order of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, but unlike those shambling monsters, it features a gripping, tightly plotted narrative that’s readable enough for the beach. Whereas Murakami’s previous books often built slowly and ended ambiguously, exploring in the meantime only the most quotidian aspects of his bizarre alternate realities, 1Q84 hits the ground running and never stops. Except for a slow jog of exposition in the middle, the book, which traces the mysteriously intertwined lives of Tengo and Aomame, keeps up its quick pace through over 900 pages, putting on an extra burst of speed as it comes tearing through the finish line. Most incredibly for a book of this length, it manages with only one exception to tie all of its plot threads into an elegant ending better suited to a thriller than the elephantine social novel it resembles. As a novelist, Murakami has proven himself to be a world class marathoner.
After the English release of Murakami’s last novel, After Dark, critics, myself included, began to wonder if Murakami was capable of writing something that moved beyond the intensely personal (and by definition limited) confines of his best work and into the world at large. His most ambitious previous novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, hinted at the possibility, but never quite achieved it. Although the book expanded the physical and historical limits of Murakami’s world, it failed to push beyond the psychological boundaries of his main character, a cerebral, often anonymous cipher that was not quite Murakami himself. It seemed that Murakami–like the protagonist of the classic, almost psychedelic Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World–had become a prisoner of his own mind. And as time went by, that durance became a mini-genre of sorts: noir as therapy, detective stories where the sleuth trolls for clues in his own psyche but never solves the case. The essential mystery of these novels was how do you escape your own head? It seemed the puzzle was one that neither Murakami nor his characters were able to solve.
1Q84 seems to propose a tentative solution to this conundrum: self-awareness. For the first time, Murakami does not just write, but observes himself writing. And he has expressed this new awareness of himself as a novelist in an ingenious irony. Tengo, like Murakami has so often done, literally and unwittingly writes himself into his own novel. And, yet, Tengo is not Murakami. Nor, for that matter, are any of the other characters.
The result is that, for the first time, Murakami is, as a novelist, unmoored from himself. The disassociation allows him the freedom to explore multiple perspectives, and his successful expansion into the third person has opened up a world of themes that were unavailable to him during his long period of solitary confinement. Murakami’s liberation–the book alternates chapters between the perspectives of Tengo, Aomame, and, by its third and final section, a hideously ugly private eye named Ushikawa–leads the characters to revelations that would have been unthinkable in any of his previous works. The difference is striking, and it produces some truly sublime descriptions of the human condition, expressed with Murakami’s wonderful simplicity and economy:
(Tengo) was already thirty, but yet to have a sense of himself as an adult. It just felt to him like he had spent thirty years in the world.
Or this passage, near the end of the book, that I never before would have imagined Murakami capable of:
One evening, as the cold wind blew and she kept watch over the playground, Aomame realized she believed in God. It was a sudden discovery, like finding, with the soles of your feet, solid ground beneath the mud. It was a mysterious sensation, an unexpected awareness…
In part, 1Q84’s achievement comes from Murakami’s decision to write about Japan. In previous novels, Murakami seemed reluctant to seriously engage with his own country, most often placing his characters in a world that combined a fantastical fourth dimension of his own private obsessions with a jazzy transnational “West,” built on Russian novels, Beatles music and blue jeans. Much like his characters, most of whom are expats in their own lives, Murakami refused to directly engage with his environment, choosing instead to hide his characters away in caves and wells and cabins in the woods, where the only society they kept was their own.
For all its fantastical elements, however, 1Q84 is very much about modern Japanese society. It grapples with the kind of front-page social issues we expect to find in Jonathan Franzen’s latest: the historical legacy of World War II, the aging of Japanese society, and, most prominently, the rise of religious cults that led to the infamous sarin-gas attack on Tokyo’s subways.
The difference is both superficial and profound. With the exception of his career-making novel Norwegian Wood, a work of straight realism, Murakami has generally avoided the material signifiers of Japanese culture. His characters eat pasta and other western food. They sleep in beds, rather than on futons. They move through the kind of culture-neutral spaces, business hotels and luxury apartments, that form the archipelago of the developed world. To a certain extent, this cultural shorthand is what has made Murakami’s books so popular internationally. Appreciating them requires no understanding of Japan, only a few weeks spent in any major metropolis.
While Murakami’s other novels could have taken place anywhere, 1Q84 could only have happened in Japan. The book starts and ends in a uniquely Japanese locale, one of the elevated expressways that ribbon above Tokyo, and is peppered throughout with Japanese locations, situations, and references, both historical and otherwise, that feel nothing short of integral to the whole. Even the almost reflexive allusions to Western culture–in true Murakami fashion an obscure Czech composer and several European fashion designers are name checked in the book’s first several pages–for the first time seem to reflect something essential about Japan itself, a country that connects East and West in much the same way as the elevated expressway connects the story’s realfictional and metafictional worlds.
The result is a novel that feels more complete than any of Murakami’s previous work. Where much of his oeuvre feels somehow hollow at its core, like a literary Potemkin village, 1Q84 has real substance. It lacks the sense of rootless detachment that has characterized so many of his books, instead grounding itself and its characters in something real.
A few weeks ago, in preparation for 1Q84’s release, the New Yorker published an excerpt from the novel called “Town of Cats.” In the story–one of many stories within stories that fill the book–Tengo reads a piece of short fiction, written by an obscure European author, about a man who travels by train to a town populated by giant talking cats. Fascinated by the town, he decides to spend the night, watching the cats as they go about their daily lives. By the time he’s ready to go home, it’s too late. He waits and waits, but the train never comes. After a few nights, he realizes it never will.
Tengo is fascinated by the story and reads it several times. He tells it to his dying father and his friends. Eventually, in the retelling, he realizes that he, too, lives in a town of cats, and if he’s not careful, he’ll die there. Reading 1Q84, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Murakami came to the same conclusion.
Will Murakami ever win the Nobel? A member of this year’s prize committee was quoted as saying that the prize has been too heavily weighted towards Europe in recent years. The comment has no doubt given fresh hope to grumblers across the world. Whether they will be vindicated or not, only time will tell. In the meantime, there is one thing that everyone should be happy about. With 1Q84, Haruki Murakami has finally left his town of cats.
Whether or not you like Haruki Murakami’s newest novel, After Dark, will probably depend on how many of his previous books you have read. If you’ve read two or less, you may enjoy it. If you’ve read three or four, you will almost certainly find it tedious. If you’ve read five or more you’re incorrigible and nothing I say here will deter you.For my part, I’ve read so much Murakami, it has ceased to be fun. I’ve read all of his books in translation, less Kafka on the Shore and South of the Border, West of the Sun, and several of his yet to be translated books in the original Japanese. My first journey into the curious land of his prose was Norwegian Wood, and liking it, I found myself drawn to his other novels, the best of which, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Windup Bird Chronicle, and Dance Dance Dance, more than made up for the tepid performances of books like Sputnik Sweetheart.As in all Murakami novels, After Dark’s plot is irrelevant. Nothing happens for a long time, then something creepy and inexplicable happens, then the book ends for no apparent reason, leaving any semblance of story unresolved. In the past, the pleasure in the majority of these books (with the notable exception of Dance Dance Dance, which adopted the form of a supernatural thriller) came from Murakami’s almost uncanny ability to create atmosphere and capture physical longing – whether for a piece of cucumber wrapped in seaweed or for a lover’s touch – with palpable virtuosity.The problem confronting Murakami’s readers has always been that, despite his otherworldly talents, he has nothing to say. Nothing of any real interest or significance, at least. Although his stories often hint at a metaphysics of unreality, the books are mostly surface and, unlike one of his professed influences, Raymond Carver, seem to lack any insight into the human condition (or any other condition, really). Instead, they content themselves with cataloging the discontents of the modern age, particularly the alarmingly numerous forms of ennui, all of which, after three or four volumes, begin to bear a striking resemblance to one another.While this was all well and good when Murakami started his career, with After Dark it seems he has become so enamored of his own abilities that he has ceased to care whether what he has chosen to show us actually matters. Or is even interesting. The more I read Murakami, the less his work resembles genius, and the more it comes to resemble a symptom of autism or obsessive compulsion. As Murakami translator Jay Rubin notes in his biography Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, around the time Murakami finished A Wild Sheep Chase, he began to obsess over his writing, fearing that he might die before finishing the book, a thought he apparently found untenable. His anxiety led to a major overhaul of his life. He quit smoking, began to exercise regularly, changed his diet. Over time, his books have come to reflect this obsession with writing and not necessarily in a positive way. As Rubin explains it, Murakami works not because he has an idea for a book, but because he feels compelled to write. It’s suggested that he often sits at his desk, writing whatever comes to mind, until the glimmerings of a story appear. Those who are familiar with Murakami’s novels can see this process at work. Often, the first fifty to one hundred pages of his books feature characters loafing around, looking for something to do, a reflection, perhaps, of Murakami’s own mental state. The result is a presumably faithful depiction of his inner life with an ironic lack of self-awareness.After Dark is no exception: characters loaf, they engage in small talk, and something weird happens on TV (but not nearly as weird as “Flavor of Love.”) The one major departure from previous novels is the style, which is somewhat reminiscent of a screenplay. The story is told in first person plural, complete with metafictional references to points of view and what seem to be camera directions. The end result could be pitched as Eraserhead (IMDb) meets Before Sunrise (IMDb), minus the good parts. If it weren’t for Murakami’s oath to never allow his works to be filmed (which I see has been broken, with the release of Tony Takatani (IMDb)), I would wonder if the book wasn’t an attempt to salvage a failed screenplay.Until recently, a few short stories and Kafka on the Shore represented the totality of Murakami’s efforts to separate himself from the first person novel, the protagonists of which were all thinly veiled versions of Murakami himself, a cosmopolitan pasta aficionado with a love of jazz, Stendhal, and Dostoyevsky, and a cool, rootless detachment from all things Japanese. While Murakami should be applauded for his attempts to expand his range, they have, so far, only brought attention to the areas in which his work is most deficient: dialogue and his brittle attempts at symbolism, a personal mythology consisting of, among other things, cats and mirrors that does not fare well when set loose from the idiosyncratic workings of his first person narrators’ minds. The dialogue in After Dark is particularly bad, with one character addressing a girl with the line “What’s a girl like you doing hanging out all night in a place like this?” (The line is delivered in a bar and with a complete lack of irony.) Granted, the translation might be at fault, but Jay Rubin has done an admirable job with Murakami in the past, leaving us to assume the source material didn’t leave much to work with. The story’s alternations between the dully inscrutable and the ploddingly mundane seem to confirm this.All of which begs the question, where does Murakami go from here? With the combination of his enormous popularity in Japan and critical acclaim in the United States and abroad, he could never write another word and still be guaranteed a roof over his head and a place in the literary pantheon of the 20th-ish century (at least for the foreseeable future). And writing one, or even a handful, of good books puts a novelist under no obligation to produce another. Yet, if the Murakami Rubin has shown us is the real one, we can expect he will continue to release novels until the day he dies (and if one takes into account his considerable back catalog of yet to be translated works, much longer). Will he insist on sticking with what he knows or will he find some way to transfer his preoccupations and considerable skills into a broader fictional universe? When you find out, let me know.