Wednesday, November 2, 2011

“If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation.”

by Haruki Murakami

If you strip away everything else, at its heart, 1Q84 is a love story. But there’s quite a lot to the “everything else.” Haruki Murakami’s epic novel is the story of Aomame and Tengo, and the first two-thirds of the novel are told in chapters alternating between the viewpoints of the two. (In the last third, a new character and POV are added to the mix.)

Aomame narrates first. She’s a young professional stuck in the back of a cab. She’s hopelessly mired in traffic and concerned about being late for a meeting. Her driver proposes a way she could make it that might be a little “extreme.” Aomame follows his suggestion, and before she departs the cab, he reminds her, “things are not what they seem.” Aomame does not know it yet, but she has just gone down the rabbit hole.

In the second chapter, we are introduced to Tengo. Tengo teaches math by day.
“What do I like about math? Math is like water. It has a lot of difficult theories, of course, but its basic logic is very simple. Just as water flows from high to low over the shortest possible distance, figures can only flow in one direction. You just have to keep your eye on them for the route to reveal itself. That’s all it takes. You don’t have to do a thing. Just concentrate your attention and keep your eyes open, and the figures make everything clear to you. In this whole, wide world, the only thing that treats me so kindly is math.”
 That’s Tengo in a nutshell. He’s a straight forward, honest guy. As we meet him, he’s discussing literary fraud, because by night he writes fiction. Fraud is the sort of thing Tengo would prefer to avoid, but he’s just received an offer he can’t refuse. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s just gone down the rabbit hole.

In the third chapter, we learn more about Aomame’s “meeting” and discover that everything we thought we knew about her is wrong. It’s the first of many times that author Murakami shows who’s really holding the cards in this unfolding story. Now clearly, I can’t summarize nearly 1,000 pages of complex, strange, fantastic fiction. Gradually, both Aomame and Tengo realize that their world has altered, although they are not sure how many other people have noticed. Aomame believes she has left her present in 1984 and entered the world of 1Q84. She posits, “At some point in time, the world I knew either vanished or withdrew, and another world came to take its place. Like the switching of a track.” Later on, Tengo adds, “The boundary between the real world and the imaginary one has grown obscure.” It seems a fictional world that he helped create has become their reality.

1Q84 has been called an homage to Orwell’s 1984, and there are several references to the work:
“George Orwell introduced the dictator Big Brother in his novel 1984, as I’m sure you know. The book was an allegorical treatment of Stalinism, of course. And ever since then, the term ‘Big Brother’ has functioned as a social icon. That was Orwell’s great accomplishment. But now in the real year 1984, Big Brother is all too famous and all too obvious. If Big Brother were to appear before us now, we’d point to him and say, ‘Watch out! He’s Big Brother!’ There’s no longer a place for a Big Brother in this real world of ours. Instead, these so-called Little People have come on the scene. Interesting verbal contrast, don’t you think?”

Who those Little People are, you’ll have to discover for yourself. They are one of the many, many mysteries of this dense novel. There is so much going on within these pages on so many levels. Despite its length, the novel is quite accessible. The plot is engaging, suspenseful, and emotionally satisfying. It’ll keep you turning the pages. The characters are… They are so many things: idiosyncratic, erudite, isolated, intriguing. The language is gorgeous. I quoted heavily from the novel in this review for the simple pleasure of sharing Murakami’s words. They’re a joy to read. (Although, there were a few instances of textual redundancy that seemed slightly strange to me, and I wonder if it is an artifact of the novel having been published in three separate volumes in Japan?)

Having read this novel in a marathon week-long session, I have a great appreciation for Murakami’s achievement. And yet, I feel that having now gotten the complete picture, I would be well-served starting over at the beginning. There’s more to be discovered. And I wonder if I wouldn’t feel that way after any number of readings. There is beauty and fantasy and all kinds of social commentary, but in the end I return to where I began. It’s a romance. And as Aomame says, “I did have one person I fell in love with. It happened when I was ten. I held his hand.”

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