By R Alexander
This is part 2 of 2 of a review of Haruki Murakami's novel 1Q84. You can link to the first part here.
Structurally, non-realist narratives are no different from more standard “realistic” fictions. They create a narrative tension, often involving some sort of conflict, and then they resolve that tension in some way. What I’m addressing here is narrative structure, and what I’ve posited sounds simplistic, I suppose. Even if a story is non-realistic (as in, say, magical realism, surrealist fiction, slip stream stories, science fiction or fantasy, fabulist pieces, and whatever else), there is some sort of hook or some way that the reader can relate to what’s going on, and there is narrative tension built on conflict. In addition to this, stories provide a sense of closure, at or near their end. Non-realist stories tend to play with the conventions of these two aspects of story and to make that play an explicit part of the narrative. Kafka, for instance, tells the story of a person who turns into a bug. That story takes as its starting place an event that is impossible and also horrific. We can become involved in this story though, not because we are interested in entomology, but because we recognize something human in the situation. Sympathetic readers of the story will recognize that it is about, among other things, alienation, about the creaturely nature of our nature, and about family. So the story involves us in a very straightforward way. And the story has a very straightforward sense of closure at the end. The story ends with Gregor Samsa’s death and with changes that occur among the family because of it.
Writers of whatever stripe engage their readers in diverse ways. Gabriel Garcia Marquez' works, the sine qua non of "magic realism," plunge into family, history, and culture, into the relations of people among themselves and their struggle to achieve relationships or the way those familial, historical, and cultural relationships become entangled and complicated and fulfilled or frustrated. The dream-like fleetingness of Garcia Marquez’ style is itself part of what he is saying about the nature of those relationships. Likewise Salman Rushdie’s picaresque style enacts part of the argument he is making about the accidental sometimes indecent or inhumane shape human lives can be twisted into by historical and/or cultural forces. Samuel Beckett's pieces are musings on language, memory, and identity, and his works are like the mind at play. Borges is the master, invoking mirrors and libraries and labyrinths, and thereby taking up notions of perception, of quantum realities and the forking nature of time and causality, and of notions of historicity and knowledge.
Similarly, sometimes these sorts of non-realist fictions tend to play with the conventions of closure. A non-exhaustive survey of how non-realist fictions end might include the following. There are the standard sorts of endings, as in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, as mentioned above. There are riddle stories, which end in either a solution or the explicit lack of a single Occam-like solution. There are stories that veer off into the weird, which feel acceptable and even satisfying. These tend to work better in short pieces, short stories or novellas. There are stories — and here Borges is again the master — that explore notions of alternity, forking paths, or absurdity itself, and these have a sort of resolution, the pondering of new concepts, new ways of looking at reality. These are only a few methods.
Haruki Murakami's fiction is not overly concerned with closure, it would sometimes seem. His shorter pieces preserve a kind of possibility for closure, but the longer he makes a piece, the less a sense of closure seems possible. In 1Q84 in particular, coherency starts to sag, and this can feel frustrating. Or rather the feeling of endlessness or of the labyrinthine creeps in. Or perhaps labyrinthine gives a wrong sense. It’s more that Murakami’s indulges his inventiveness, and the weave of the story loosens and the narrative thread threatens to get lost.
Murakami's language, his prose style, is interesting and perhaps revealing in this regard. The writing is simple. Some would accuse it of being simplistic and even repetitive. I see it, rather as being unobtrusive. There is a naïveté to it.
As mentioned in part 1 of this review, Murakami is well known in Japan as Raymond Carver's translator. And two of Murakami's favorite writers appears to be Anton Chekhov and F Scott Fitzgerald, and these writers must have rubbed off on him. The Carver influence is clear. The use of language is, itself, taken up explicitly, in the work. Not only does Murakami point to Chekhov but he is also clearly influenced by Kafka, whose mood of frustrated impulses or thwarted expectations touches his writing.
This is, I think, a key passage in 1Q84.
During his revision, Tengo had created most of the external features of an Air Chrysalis and added them to his descriptions, including the gracefully narrowed waist in the middle and the swelling, round, decorative protuberance at either end. These came entirely from Tengo’s mind. There had been no mention of them in Fuka-Eri’s original narrative. To Fuka-Eri, an Air Chrysalis was simply that — an Air Chrysalis, something midway between an object and a concept — and she seemed to feel little need to describe its appearance in words. Tengo had to invent all the details himself, and the Air Chrysalis that he was not seeing had these same details exactly: the waist in the middle and the lovely protuberances at either end. [Chapter 24, p 1340.]
Here we see some of all of it: the clear language, the sexual undertone, the way it builds to an off-kilter mood and sense of confusion. In Murakami the confusion or the blurring comes at the edges of meaning. Again the relationship of physicality to concept occurs in an exchange late in the book:
The man shook his head. “What you saw was the outward manifestation of a concept, not an actual substance.” [Chapter 14, p 1065.]
This is how the writing is, throughout. Murakami’s style tends towards the “realistic” in the sense that there are detailed descriptions of objects and actions, but there is often a sense that these descriptions of objects and actions are the “outward manifestation of a concept, not an actual substance.” The plot, the happenings of the novel, reside somewhere between the real and the imaginary, somewhere between the important and the ephemeral, “something midway between an object and a concept.” This is, in fact, the feeling of the whole novel. In a sense it’s unreal, rather than unrealistic, because there is, as I mentioned, a kind of hyperrealistic style in the attention Murakami pays to physical description.
And yet there is a kind of tension within the plot itself, a tension between his realist prose style and the non-realist setting. Murakami gets considerable mileage out of the conceit of “Chekhov’s gun,” for instance, as mentioned in part 1 of this review. What I mean is that, though the characters are conscious of Chekhov's cause and effect dictum in fiction and are therefore able, they think, to not be bound by it, to circumvent it, he nonetheless finds that Chekhov's narrative dictum propels the action of the book and heightens the narrative tension. Expectation and fulfillment, tension and release, these are the pegs on which a plot must hang, and Murakami's challenge is to invoke them, to set up an expectation and then fulfill it, and yet to keep twisting the kaleidoscope ring.
The plot of 1Q84 revolves much around sex or rather around sexual acts. Or rather sexual acts figure prominently in the plot and even move the plot along. But the sexuality of the novel is troubling. Promiscuity is a characteristic of one of the main characters. Aomame, one of the novel's two protagonists, engages in reckless but controlled behavior, picking up strangers in bars, which contrasts with the sexual crimes of the cult. One of Aomame’s friends, a police woman, dies because of her promiscuity. Rape is also a major plot element. Where, in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, history and genocide hang behind the plot as major elements, here the backdrop is sexuality, sex, and paedophilia.
Sex has long been a recurring motif in Murakami’s fiction. His characters often represent a bimodal distribution, when it comes to their sex lives. His books often give us a sexually passive male protagonist who is confronted by or must deal with two contrasting female friends. One of these is a somewhat asexual or unavailable friend, someone the protagonist cares deeply about but who is for some reason sexually unavailable to him. She is often young or younger and/or traumatized in some way, often by a loss. Often this character is someone else's girlfriend. The other character is more sexual, but is perhaps carefree and/or promiscuous or somehow not as deep a friend as the other female character, the less sexually available one.
In 1Q84 Murakami does twist the kaleidoscopic ring just a bit with this set of characteristics but the basics remain the same. Aomame turns out to be Tengo's true love, but he hasn't seen her since the fifth grade. She is promiscuous and also, oddly, rigid in her sexual behavior, rigid, actually, in her promiscuity. Fuka-Eri is the younger character, the unavailable one; here she is a seventeen year old girl who is exceedingly sexually attractive but is also emotionally vacant. Tengo and Fuka-Eri become friends and allies but are not meant to be lovers, though they do have sex once in the book. Or rather they have "ambiguous congress."
This scene, the sex scene between Tengo and Fuka-Eri, is paradoxically not convincing, and this inauthenticity is where the book shows its fundamental structural flaw. This sex scene is clumsy and unrealistic, unrealistic because of its odd emotional mood. The problem is not just the element of paedophilia here — she is seventeen and he is thirty — but also that it is just so awkwardly, embarrassingly done. It is a set piece and comes across as an indulgent sexual fantasy: the nubile girl who somehow, magically gives herself to the unwilling or anyway circumspect (but attracted) older man.
Murakami is not unaware of the paedophilic aspect of the coupling. Tengo articulates the inappropriateness even as the act is unfolding. “The very fact of our embracing each other in bed like this is far from appropriate, no matter how you look at it.” But still the lawyerly emotional distance — “far from appropriate, no matter how you look at it” — is odd, especially for this narrator, so it’s as if Murakami places the set piece there, in spite of his own characters’ better judgments. It’s unreal even to them, outside the bounds of what may happen in a fiction like this.
The book tries to mitigate the discomfort here by portraying Fuka-Eri’s sexual behavior as detached from her physicality, “disembodied” in the almost academically philosophical sense, corresponding in a sense to the way her breasts were described earlier. The novel describes Fuka-Eri as having a passive or “husked” way of being, as a complex result of having been a cult member. The book takes pains to mention that its not brain-washing and it’s not “PTSD.” It’s something much more specific to the plot of the novel, having to do with her self having been split into symbolic halves.
In any case, the entire plot revolves around acts of physical and sexual violence perpetrated against young women. Various versions of sexuality are enacted without comment throughout the story: the promiscuous female protagonist, the female sidekick who ends up murdered because of her promiscuity, several female victims of domestic violence, the noble and celibate very masculine and ultimately murderous homosexual body-guard, the older married woman having an emotionally detached affair with a young single man, the cuckolded husband simmering in his rage years after his wife has left him, and several pre-pubescent hand-maidens who must sexually engage with the charismatic religious cult leader. The main characters are all involved in one or more of these sets of couplings, and Murakami deliberately places them in opposition for the sake of contrast, but he never emphasizes one over the other. The effect is that of a sort of non-hierarchical tableau or shifting triptych. The language used to describe the sexual aspects of the plot, it’s precise and matter-of-fact prose style, the “realism” or objectivity — all this creates a kind of emotional vacancy that permeates not just the sex in the book but all aspects of the book. Murakami's challenge, the novelistic transaction, is to invent, to set up an expectation and then fulfill it, but he invents and inverts so nonchalantly that the set pieces don’t cohere in a way that the reader feels anything convincing, because the characters themselves fail to feel anything convincing. The plot tension fails to be clear and then fails to resolve, because the reader becomes as detached from the characters and events as the characters themselves do.
I haven't read all of Murakami's fiction, but among the pieces I have read what I enjoyed most, besides his short stories, was The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is a long book in which he manages his project more entertainingly. That book takes up a wide range of questions, from the individual's sense of purpose to a nation's responsibility and/or culpability in historical crimes against another nation and the relationship of the individual to this wider national identity. 1Q84 has been called Murakami's magnum opus, and it's clear that he's stretching himself in this piece. The book is capacious, and Murakami is well-informed, displaying wide-ranging interests and tastes, much of it from Western culture.
Murakami's books owe something to the noirish. The shadows of Dostoevsky and Raymond Chandler fall across the entire work as well. Magic Noir is a better term to describe his writing, perhaps, than Magic Realism. This, I think, is what Murakami is up to, and he achieves it more effectively in his shorter or mid-length pieces than his longer ones.