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Altered Realities, Rearranged Lives

If you make the decision to tackle Haruki Murakami’s massive new novel 1Q84—925 oversized pages—it won’t take long to conclude that the going is fast-paced, addictive, often perplexing and sometimes annoying, but also intellectually demanding and, finally, rewarding for the many hours you will have to invest in your reading.  Moreover, it’s only about thirty pages before you realize you’re hooked and that—at least for this book—you are going to be a compulsive reader.  There may be a few lapses in pace, especially during the final third of the novel, but once the rip-roaring denouement begins, you’ll be stuck to your sofa or chair until you turn the final page.

And what about that opening?  A thirty-year old woman, named Aomame, dressed in business attire, enters a taxi somewhere in Tokyo, gets stuck in a traffic mess on an expressway and tells the driver that she’s got an important meeting and that she can’t be late.  The driver reveals that there’s an emergency escape near-by, warning her that if she takes it, her world may be changed, but Aomame leaves the taxi, climbs down the escape ladder to the level below her, takes another mode of transportation, and reaches her destination on time.  Minutes later, she misleads a man in a hotel room into believing that she is hotel staff and needs to check the air-conditioning system, and then—after tricking him into believing that there’s some paint on the back of his clothing—murders him with a makeshift ice pick she has concealed in her bag.  All that in the first 1/30th of the novel.

Turns out that Aomame (whose name means “green peas”) has done this on other occasions, that she is a serial killer of men.  Not just any men, but men who have abused women, and she’s part of a clandestine organization that settles the score with such men by killing them, including men who have abused little girls. Central to the story is a fanatical religious group that practices spiritual awakenings for young girls by raping them.  “The parents were informed that the ritual had to be completed before the girl experienced her first period.  Only such an undefiled girl could be granted a pure spiritual awakening.  The excruciating pain caused by the ritual would be an ordeal she would have to undergo in order to ascend to a higher spiritual level.”  Just a little sick.

An older woman, who spearheaded the organization for eliminating these deranged men, tells Aomame that people are, sadly, nothing more than gene carriers, which prompts Aomame to think of several people she has encountered, including herself:

“A man who finds joy in raping prepubescent girls, a powerfully built gay bodyguard, people who choose death over transfusion, a woman who kills herself with sleeping pills while six months pregnant, a woman who kills problematic men with a needle thrust to the back of the neck, men who hate women, women who hate men: how could it possibly profit the genes to have such people existing in this world?  Did the genes merely enjoy such deformed episodes as colorful entertainment, or were these episodes utilized by them for some greater purpose?”

I have quoted the above passage because the phrase men who hate women was the original title of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo before it was translated into English.  Anyone who has read the novel knows that that is the more appropriate title for Larsson’s novel, for his entire Millennium Trilogy, but, this is largely true of Murakami’s 1Q84 also, which—if it is culturally accurate about Japanese society—implies a troubling attitude toward women, mirroring the right-wing religious fanaticism that Larsson spent much of his life exposing in Sweden.  Which is only to say that there are numerous parallels between 1Q84 and the Millennium Trilogy, including similarities between Aomame and Lisbeth Salander, as well as publication connections. 1Q84 was originally published in three volumes in Japan.  The American publisher has released all three novels in one lengthy volume, so readers need not wait to read the entire sequence as they did with Larsson’s trilogy.

What is different in 1Q84, however, is that Aomame’s story is only half of Murakami’s tale, the other part being the life of a struggling creative writer, named Tengo, who as a child was a mathematical genius and as an adult (the same age as Aomame) teaches at a “cram school” that helps Japanese children improve their test scores.  The work at the school pays his bills, but Tengo has for some time been much more interested in writing fiction than mathematics.  One day an editor he knows tells him that he’s read a strange submission by a seventeen-year-old girl whose prose is so basic that it has no chance of being published unless it is rewritten—in spite of the eerie world revealed in the story.  Tengo reluctantly agrees to the rewrite and subsequently gets drawn into the parameters of a weird religious cult because the young girl, Fuka-Eri, ran away from them and dictated her story to a friend.  When the book, Air Chrysalis, is published, it wins a major literary award and becomes a best-seller.  For Tengo, the rewriting of the young girl’s work has liberated him from his earlier pedestrian narratives, as his own creative juices are released for his own fiction.

So what do the two stories have to do with one another?  Although Tengo is no Michael Blomquist (of Larsson’s novels), he is nevertheless drawn into the dangerous lives of others because of the re-writing and publication of Air Chrysalis.  That novella by the teenage girl describes a transcendent state of altered reality, a dystopian world which she fled when she was ten years old, which takes us to George Orwell’s 1984.  When Aomame left the taxi and climbed down the emergency exit of the expressway, she entered the same world—was aware of her altered state—which she began calling 1Q84, instead of 1984, the year of Murakami’s story.  Of that world, Aomame muses, “It’s 1Q84 now.  The air has changed, the scene has changed.  I have to adapt to this world-with-a-question mark as soon as I can.  Like an animal released into a new forest.  In order to protect myself and survive, I have to learn the rules of this place and adapt myself to them.”  Among other things, 1Q84 has two moons, which only those who have entered the altered state can perceive.

Most of 1Q84 alternates chapters told from the perspective of Murakami’s two main characters, their lives—at least initially—seemingly unconnected.  That will all change as the plotting becomes intricately connected, as the author explores the psychological ramifications of childhood abuse, of repressive religiosity, of violence mostly against women (though men also to a lesser extent).  A quirky detective becomes central to the narration, as love story is fused with family secrets, pop culture, fantasy, sci-fi, literary homage to famous writers, and mystical double consciousness.  It’s quite an eclectic mish-mash.  For all his novel’s seriousness and violence—Murakami is often playful (instead of Orwell’s Big Brother, he introduces menacing Little People) and prophetic, offering a warning for the future (though the story is set in the past).  By the end, the reader needs to assume a willful suspension of reality as the narrative finally sinks under the weight of sappy sentimentalism.  You almost expect that when you turn the final page, music will come from the book.

Still—for all its foibles and often unevenly translated passages (by two translators, apparently not working together but serially)—1Q84 will no doubt be the literary craze of the season.

1Q84
By Haruki Murakami
Translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
Knopf, 925 pp, $30.50

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.