Friday, October 5, 2012

1Q84 - Haruki Murakami

"Things may look different to you than they did before. I've had that experience myself. But don't let appearances fool you. There's only one reality". I suspect Murakami had a chuckle when he wrote the above lines, especially the last part not only because one of the protagonist's world (or reality) does get (seemingly) altered just after the above lines are spoken but also because it is complete the antithesis of his entire work. That's how it goes with with 1Q84,  a novel about 2 people (Aomame, Tengo) bound together by an everlasting love but who seem to be doomed to not be together, a metaphysical thriller about 2 people who get sucked into events that are beyond their control. It is also is a reflection of the obsession that fiction can create among us, an obsession that can cause fiction to enter our lives or even more dangerously when we enter the world of fiction. Interleaved among these main themes are others on the periphery like domestic abuse, dysfunctional families, cults and the loneliness suffered by people.

So is this novel a vintage Murakami, with whimsical story-lines, surreal imagery and a hint of mystery as the first paragraph suggest?. You would be wrong to think like that and start reading the book expecting a vintage Murakami, because there is a subtle but significant shift in his writing here. In his previous books, the engagement the reader has is mainly with Murakami the author and not the characters. (with maybe the exception of 'Norwegian Wood'). You are not as concerned about what is going to happen to the characters as you are about what Murakami is going to do next, where he is going to take you. The characters in the books are just a means to an end, which is the magic that Murakami works. It's not due to any shortcoming in the books, but a conscious literary device used by him, where the basic theme/canvas itself is surreal and within that framework you try to relate to the characters, but ultimately it is the canvas that interests you more .  But here the roles are reversed, here it is the Murakami magic which is just a means to an end, which is the characters themselves and their journey through the novel.   In 'The Wind up bird chronicle' how many of us would have rooted for 'Toru Okada' and 'Kumiko Okada' to get together again, most of us would have been dazzled by the imagery of the dry well, the travel through walls, Mamiya's harrowing story to think about it. But here we root for 'Aomame' and Tengo to  get together, desperately yearn that nothing bad should happen to them. The reason for this shift in our engagement is because Murakami has well fleshed out the characters, with solid back stories. You can feel the tension and pain of Aomame and Tengo, who remind us of the old myth when human beings had both female and male organs and after it was split each part is is searching for the other to become whole again (which accounts for the attraction between the sexes). Aomame and Tengo come across as a single spirit split into 2 and yearning to be together again. Not just the 2, but even other characters are more real to us here. There is the deliciously(!!) creepy 'Ushikawa' who is a minor character in the first 2 books, but comes into his own in the 3rd. We actually grow a bit fond of him. Others like Fuka-Eri, Dowager, Tomaru, Komatsu Even the very minor characters like Ayumi and Aomame's friend leave a lasting impact.  Here the we have real(!) world, real characters and metaphysics comes later as a layer over them. 

Another major change is the novel's tone. A Murakami novel is generally also a kind of game where you try to figure out his moves, there is even a kind of playfulness, a thrill, a literary gamesmanship between the reader and him. This novel has this all but in addition it is the most unsettling and disquieting of his works. There is an air of malevolence, evil and even terror hanging over the novel. There are moments that chill the reader like the first time 'the little ones' come out, the time when Aomame meets the Leader when she sees only his silhouette or the time when Tengo sees . These are not typical 'Stephen king' kind of terror moments, but a sudden interjection of an visual which throws the ongoing scene out of gear and takes us out of a comfort zone we have settled in reading the novel. Lets take the scene where Aomame meets the Leader. She goes into the hotel room for a purpose. We know it and are settled in our minds for it. But the manner in which the scene plays out jolts us. This is what Aomame sees in the dark

'On the bed was a deep black object, like a small mountain. Still more time had to go by before Aomame could tell that its irregular outline indicated the presence of a human body'.
'Eventually the outline on the bed began to show a degree of motion-"
"Aomame heard the man release a long breath. It was like a heavy sigh slowly rising from the bottom of a deep well. Next came the sound of a large inhalation. It was as wild and unsettling as a gale tearing through a forest."

The scene plays out over a couple of pages, where you can see that nothing has happened other than what (You) Aomame is seeing. You go into a room expecting to see an important person, but You (Aomame) are initially shocked at seeing a black object, then you realize that it is indeed a human, but the person's actions cause some terror in you. Until the penumbra becomes clear, you are not sure about what is happening and what you are seeing. Another terrifying moment is when Tengo suddenly sees an 'Air Chrysalis' materialize in front of him and he slowly opens it. It is full of excruciating tension, terror and yes thrill too. The thrill is more of a Hitchcock kind than of a slam bang variety. In book 3, a character is hiding in an apartment building. Other than 2 other people, no one knows that the person is there and so the person is not expecting anyone. The calling bell can be rung either from outside the building if the building itself is locked or from the apartment door. One day, the calling bell rings. It is rung from outside the apartment building (i.e) whoever is ringing has not yet come inside the building. This is the first shock, but the person in the apartment doesn't respond. There is silence for sometime. The bell rings again, but this time it is the front door bell of the apartment that is ringing. Just visualize it, doesn't it give the reader a jolt, because it means that whoever is ringing has somehow got inside the building and is right outside the door. The danger has come very close, but since we are also inside the room (along with the character), we do not know who is the person outside and how did he come into the building.
The old literary device of having alternate chapters from 2 different characters view point (in the 3rd book a third character also gets a separate chapter)  can be maddeningly frustrating when you see Murakami stretching out a tense situation to the maximum extent possible, you have the impulse to skip a few pages to see what happens, you could even curse him for leaving you stranded  and moving on to another POV, but you would not dare to put down the book. 

Even considering Murakami's prodigious gift for giving us stunning imagery, this has to be his most visually realized novel. But this I don't just mean scenes of sitting in a well, or a gateway opening, but the fact that one can see Aaomame and Tengo, the size of Tengo's head, the different sizes of Aomame's breasts,  can feel pubic hair scraping against a thigh,see the slimy greasiness of Ushikawa, feel the thunder, heavy rain and  darkness that descends on Tokyo on a day when a very important thing happens. Heck, you can even see threads being plucked out of air(!!!) and an (non-existent) 'Air Chrysalis' being created from those threads, you can see the 'Little People' weaving the threads to create it.

If I had to nitpick about the book, it would be about the concepts which give a sense of deja vu. 'Maza', 'Dohta', shifting of realities, fiction vs reality, alternate viewpoint chapters are not entirely new and have been used by other writers too. (e.g A very important act in the novel reminds one of 'Mouni' short story). Maybe it is a case of unreasonable expectations, but there is no 'wow' concept like say in 'hard boiled wonderland and the end of the world'. And the writing sometimes does get frustrating in a negative way too. There are whole chapters where basically nothing happens. Now, Murakami has always been self-indulgent in his prose and normally this shouldn't be a problem. But we are not talking about 'normal' here, but a 1300 page tome. When you are at around page 900, at a point where book 2 has ended at a cliffhanger and then when you get 2-3 chapters without the story progressing it becomes a tiny bit tedious. There's a very thin line between drawing out a suspense to it's maximum and overdoing it and sometimes he does cross the line. The beginning of book 3 specifically suffers from this, but thankfully it gets back on track pretty soon. The final chapters are sure to leave one breathless, it is a kind of physical pain that you would feel along with the mental tension as you navigate the final chapters, unable to sit still, your mind wandering everywhere, thinking of all the possibilities that could happen but still forcing yourself to read each line so that you do not miss anything. The relaxation of tension and the peace that the following paragraph gave me near the end is something that I have not experienced recently in any fiction (including the so called thrillers and other novels in crime fiction genre)

"There was just one moon. That familiar, yellow, solitary moon. The same moon that silently floated over fields of pampas grass, the moon that rose--a gleaming, round saucer--over the calm surface of lakes, that tranquilly beamed down on the rooftops of fast-asleep houses. The same moon that brought the high tide to shore, that softly shone on the fur of animals and enveloped and protected travelers at night. The moon that, as a crescent, shaved slivers from the soul--or, as a new moon, silently bathed the earth in its own loneliness. THAT moon"

I was able to breathe easily only after reading the above paragraph, even thought there was still a tiny bit of tension. (This is not a spoiler and only people who have read the novel can understand the significance of this prose).

More surprisingly there were some instances of utterly corny prose that I never would have imagined of Murakami, like the part about the description of a sexual act, penis, which I am pretty sure that Murakami didn't mean to be funny, but is downright hilarious. Generally speaking he is not comfortable writing about sex :). And there are similes like hanging on the ship's mast during a storm, which are so antiquated. But there are instances like the one below (about religion and cult) which make up for it.

"Most people are not looking for provable truths. As you said, truth is often accompanied by intense pain, and almost no one is looking for painful truths. What people need is beautiful, comforting stories that make them feel as if their lives have some meaning. Which is where religion comes from."

I am not being an Murakami apologist here, but I find many responses to 1Q84 intriguing and coincidentally relative to another recent work of art. To digress a bit, as I was reading this my mind kept going back to this google plus post by Giri.

"முப்பது வருட சாதனைகளைத் தாண்டி இன்று 'நீ தானே என் பொன்வசந்தம்' மூலம் திரையிசைப் பாடல்களில் மீண்டும் ஜெயித்திருக்கிறார் இளையராஜா. இவ்வளவு சாதனைகளைக் கடந்து இந்த வயதில் புது பாணி இசையை கையகப்படுத்தியுள்ளது அவரது திறமைக்குச் சான்று. எண்பதுகளின்  ராஜா இசையை எதிர்பார்க்கும் ரசிகர்களுக்கு இந்தப் பாடல்கள் பிடிக்காமல் போகலாம்."

For those who don't read Tamil, it talks about a great musician 'Illayaraja' who has re-invented himself after all his earlier achievements, without resting on his laurels. I wouldn't say that Murakami has re-invented himself, but he has definitely gone to places where has not been to earlier, changed his narrative tone, become more intricate than ever and all of this without losing or compromising on his original strengths that made him what he is today. He has added new arsenal to his armory of story telling talent.  It does take a lot of confidence to spin out a 1300 page tome on what is basically a love story without caring a hoot for narrative conventions or past glory, having belief in oneself and the reader.  Being from Tamil Nadu myself, I can tell that there is a huge percentage who will just about accept any output from 'Illayaraja'  (not doing so would be sacrilege). But Murakami is on more shaky ground here as the reader is more fickle, he is as apt to drop you as he can embrace you. And the general reactions on '1Q84' seem to bear this out. There have been complaints that it is not like his earlier works (in a parallel the same complaints have been made about the music I have referred to above), it is lengthy etc. Doesn't that the fact this work is unlike the earlier ones is a sign that Murakami is evolving, isn't that a good thing. Now one can say that the book as a standalone is trash which is perfectly fine, but to compare this with earlier works and trashing it just means that we are reviewing the person and what we expect from him and not the work. Coming to length, one thing we can all accept is that all books of Murakami have some content that can be termed as superfluous. As I mentioned earlier, he is and always has been a bit self indulgent about his prose. We were able to accept him in that way in his previous books, so what happened here? The length I agree could be a problem. It's one thing to read a 400 page book with some superfluous content, but reading a 1000 page book can be tiring. So again the problem is not something new to this book (self-indulgence), but is only magnified by it's length. Arguably the book could be reduced by 200 odd pages, but the fact is I would have swallowed up another 300 pages if it had been there, the positives outweighing the other issues.

This is a love me or hate me kind of book with no middle ground.You can trash it but just make sure that you looking at the book as a independent one, not bound to Murakami's earlier works. As for me I recommend this book wholeheartedly, an important work Murakami's oeuvre, a work that seems to signify a shift in his writing. I have mentioned 'seems' because one can never be sure about what he will do next. I for one am eagerly awaiting his next book, to see the direction in which he is going to go. There is so much material for even another 3 book series on 1Q84 (or 1Q85) continuing with Tengo and Aaomame. 

You would want to re-consider looking at the moon from now on after reading the novel. I had a 'Murakaminesque' (it's high time we start using 'Murakaminesque' as an official term) experience during reading it when I woke in the middle of the night and with no conscious thought looked out the window for the moon and saw that it was still single and alone. Beware, the book can get that addictive.


  1. I basically hated this book. Maybe I over reacted as it did not meet my expectations. You are right many loved it and many hated it but few said it was ok. How did you react to the little people? I think they somehow turned the book off to me as I kept waiting for them to burst into song. Your great review will make me rethink the book. I wonder if this book had gotten universal acclaim if he would have won Nobel prize.

  2. I think Murakami did a great job making the little people scary. It was in the vein of Hitchcockian mystery where not everything is shown explicitly, but only implied. Similarly through most of the book, we sense the presence of the 'little people' but do not actually know much about them. Their shadow is present thorough the book, but not the actual people. We mostly see them through the eyes of others isn't and it gives a sense of foreboding to us about what they are capable of and what they are planning to do. Lot of things are left our imagination. If they had been described in detail, the sense of mystery and thrill would have been lost. The first time we see them (briefly though) when they come out of a person's mouth was spine tingling. So is the time when they pluck threads out of air (at the end). We don't know what tricks they are up to now.