March 14, 2013

Book Review: 1Q84

George Orwell's "1984" is a novel of socialism gone extreme where life itself has no meaning because meaning is a commodity controlled by government propaganda. Haruki Murakami's "1Q84", on the other hand, is a novel of isolation in the midst of Tokyo's crowded city streets where the meaning of life is derived from the internal landscape of each character, a meaning they then force upon one another through their actions, and sometimes inaction, in the shared fictional reality of their parallel worlds. "1Q84" is a dark, nightmarish expansion on the same counter-culturalism behind "Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World". It is no mere coincidence that the central metaphor in both books is eschatology.

In line with this, it is surprising how many reviewers have stumbled over Murakami's use of "The Little People" as a kind of shadowy, gothic villain. Murakami's "Little People" represent normal, everyday people driven by cruel necessity to manipulate their world in ways that help them survive. George Orwell's "Big Brother" is government gone astray while Murakami's almost elvish "Little People" are stand-ins for the faceless, nameless, hardworking masses driven to madness by the deprivations of social and cultural forces they cannot control and do not understand. This passage on page 236, for example, is one almost every reviewer quotes in whole or in part because it is here that Murakami himself (speaking through the character of Professor Ebisuno) explains the relationship between the two books:

"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 any place for a Big Brother in this real world of ours. Instead, these co-called Little People have come on the scene. Interesting verbal contrast, don't you think?"

On the surface, "1Q84" is a surreal love story of two people, Tengo and Aomame. Tengo is the grown son of a dedicated NHK subscription collector while Aomame is the grown daughter of a woman wholly and completely dedicated to the "Society of Witnesses". The adult Tengo teaches mathematics in a cram school for his daily bread while dreaming of being a novelist. For her day-job Aomame works as a martial arts instructor/physical therapist and spends her nights killing abusive husbands whose wives have fled their homes and are now under the care of a wealthy dowager. As adults the two do not know one another, but they went to the same elementary and middle schools. Because of their parents, in school both children were social outcasts whose paths became linked when Tengo intervened one day to stop Aomame from being bullied. Shy and reserved, that one rescue made them aware of one another but they never actually interacted until after cleaning the classroom one day when Aomame grabbed Tengo's hands, stared deep into his eyes, and then ran from the classroom in embarrassment. That event also marked the point when each child broke from the oppressive rule of their parents which in turn meant their paths would never cross again.

That, however, is only the surface. The real story runs much deeper.

Haruki Murakami was born in 1949, putting him firmly in the middle of the post-World War Two baby boom generation. Just like his American and European counterparts, for Murakami the core assumption has always been that the primary purpose of their generation was to redefine the world and through that redefinition to bring about a unified global culture. Unfortunately, like so many of his generation, Murakami cannot conceptualize a clear distinction between individualism and collectivism except for the simplistic understanding that individualism is rebellion against "the system". This dichotomy, this paradox, is what has driven Murakami's entire generation into embracing the single greatest collectivist social movement in the history of our world. The dark side of Murakami, the "shadows" he tried to cut in "Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" and having cut now seeks to explore in "1Q84" are nothing less than his generation's horrifying realization that they have failed to bring our world into the utopia of their dreams and through that failure, they have created an "end of the world" just as destructive of human potential as the global thermonuclear war nightmare they inherited from their parents.

The destruction that so horrifies the baby boom generation is their perception of society being a fatal poison inflicted on their generation's human spirit. They have spent their entire lives seeking out that one narcotic, that one perfect sexual position, that one mystical piece of music, the one perfect sensual experience which will carry them away from the pain, guilt, and privilege of their lives and into a spiritual awakening capable of carrying them to the threshold of utopia. Consider, for example, this passage on page 242 where Aomame is contemplating the existential consequences of rape versus her own rape-free childhood:

"But decent motives don't always produce decent results. And the body is not the only target of rape. Violence does not always take visible form, and not all wounds gush blood."

What the baby boom generation and its quest for enlightenment has failed to realize is that their own narcissism and self-absorbtion is, in fact, the chief cause of the psychic damage that so horrifies them. Tengo's father was trapped in an endless parade of Sundays spent going house-to-house seeking out radio and television owners who had not paid the required fees for NHK broadcasts. Aomame's mother had likewise dragged her through a childhood of identical Sundays only instead of service to NHK's quasi-governmental bureaucracy, Aomame's mother was a sincere follower of the "Society of Witnesses" seeking to warn a dying world of impending divine judgment. Now, as adults, just like their parents were trapped in lives of daily toil so are Tengo and Aomame. Their upbringing coupled with their devotion to not following in their parent's footsteps alongside their dedication to living life in accordance with their own internal reality, has trapped them in orbit around one another where they are constantly circling and never fulfilling the passion that has grown between them. The real question of the "Q" in "1Q84" is not the identity of the Little People, the coming of the end of the world, or the success of the book-within-a-book titled "Air Chrysalis". The real question behind the "Q" is what is stopping Aomame and Tengo from being together? The answer, of course, is their own refusal to seek each out.

The Little People themselves finally make an appearance on page 249 emerging in the light of the alternate world's two moons from the mouth of a pedophile victim who Aomame's dowager friend has taken under her protective wing. The child is a girl found bruised and beaten in a train station after fleeing from Sakigake, a cult that up to now, has been pictured as mostly harmless but with odd, evil overtones. Fuka-Eri, the writer of the book "Air Chrysalis" that Tengo rewrote in order to insure it would win a contest, is the daughter of Professor Ebisuno's friends, the Fukuda family. The Professor has not been able to contact her parents in several years. He fears they are imprisoned within the cult compound after having been supplanted by someone as religiously radical as his friends were politically radical. The appearance of this girl (named Tsubasa) here late in the first book as a victim of violent, vicious rape at the hands of an unidentified messianic new Sakigake leader, takes us a step closer to discovering what great trauma Fuka-Eri endured right before she fled the cult and her parents vanished. To have the Little People make their first appearance from the mouth of this victim is grotesquely ironic, moving Murakami ever closer to tradition of writers like Tanizaki Junichiro, a tradition Murakami early in his writing career was dedicated to breaking away from.

He doesn't stop there, of course, he builds further by having the Little People engage in their signature activity, building an air chrysalis,

"Then they sat in a circle around the object and started feverishly working on it. It was white and highly elastic. They would stretch their arms out and, with practiced movements, pluck white, translucent threads out of the air, applying them to the fluffy, white object, making it bigger and bigger."

A few pages later (page 251), Murakami uses similar language to describe Tengo as he works on an original story he hopes to publish,

"Writing at night for the first time in ages, though, using a ballpoint pen and paper, Tengo found his mind working smoothly. His imagination stretched out its limbs and the story flowed freely. One idea would link naturally with the next almost without interruption, the tip of the pen raising a persistent scrape against the white paper. Whenever his hand tired, he would set the pen down and move the fingers of his right hand in the air, like a pianist doing imaginary scales."

This kind of parallel language in two scenes only a few pages apart occurs frequently throughout the story. By invoking similar metaphors in this way Murakami is using one storyline to expand the depth and breadth of the other. In this particular case, he is intentionally creating a sense of magic in both the creation of the air chrysalis and the writing of Tengo's new story. This congruence also builds on one of the underlying principle themes running throughout the story, a theme that is common in almost everything Murakami writes because it is key to the worldview of his entire generation. Taking their clues from Vonnegut and Kerouac, the baby boom generation accepts as an almost divine truth the Aristotelian ideal of the sacredness of all forms of art and creative venture. The plain, simple life of Tengo's hardworking NHK fee collecting father is not for them. This generation as a whole has long assumed that they are more evolved than their parents. Being more evolved also means they feel more entitled to live better and enjoy greater wealth without the backbreaking, knuckle busting, sweaty labor of their parents.

One of the thinly veiled condescensions running throughout "1Q84" and so many other literary works written by baby boomers is disdain for anyone who dares to criticize their artistry or their way of life. And yet, at the same time, like Tengo and Aomame, they have nothing but disdain for the way of life embodied in their hardworking, industrious parents. Earlier writers (such as Soseki in Japan and Fitzgerald in America) felt that same sense of personal evolution but they did not treat honest work as something too far beneath their station to even consider. Just the opposite, in fact. In both Soseki and Fitzgerald hard, honest work was both a means to an end and an important aspect of a character's moral development. But not here. No, in "1Q84" honest work serves merely as a cover for the far more important tasks of Tengo's fiction writing and Aomame's assassination of abusive husbands. So it is not surprising in the least when on page 252, Tengo has this thought,

"The concept of duty always made Tengo cringe. He had lived his life thus far skillfully avoiding any position that entailed responsibility, and to do so, he was prepared to endure most forms of deprivation."

In the end, "1Q84" becomes something I had hoped to never see Murakami attach his name to, an existential exercise in nihilism, a form of literary masturbation. I stopped reading Murakami when he came out with "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" because when I skimmed through that book in either English or Japanese (at the time my Japanese was much better than it is now!) I could see right away that a profound change had occurred in Murakami's approach to writing. Where "A Wild Sheep Chase" and "Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" had been playful, metaphorical flights of fantasy, "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" was dull, dreary, and about as entertaining as watching a dog chase its own tail. "1Q84" has much in common with "Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World". Both books are explorations in the schizophrenic nature of life in the modern world, both books are dark treatises on the failure of the modern world to live up to the baby boomer's utopian ideals, and both books carry the writer's own fear of death into a metaphorical and nightmarish exploration of eschatology. However, "1Q84" feels less like a brilliant, visual mind playing with ideas and more like a dark, brooding condemnation of life itself. For all his obvious hatred of the "Society of Witnesses", in "1Q84" Murakami reveals that he and they share a common philosophy: life is cruel and the reason it is cruel is because the human race is mostly composed of self-destructive idiots.