Satellites of Love: Realities split and merge in Haruki Murakami's new cosmic romance
by Dennis Lim
Haruki Murakami’s stories are forever slipping from one plane of existence to another. Whether it happens at the bottom of a well (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) or atop a Ferris wheel (Sputnik Sweetheart) or through a television screen (After Dark), most of his characters at some point find themselves transported from what they thought was reality to a strange new unreality. But Murakami, for one, would argue that, amid the confusion of our new world disorder, those concepts are not exactly what they used to be. Writing in the International Herald Tribune last year, he wondered, “In an age when reality is insufficiently real, how much reality can a fictional story possess?” Spinning out a thought experiment, Murakami calls our actual world Reality A and the hypothetical world we might have had if 9/11 never happened Reality B. Could it be that Reality A has a “lower level of reality” than the “more rational” Reality B? Is our world less real than an unreal world? And if our sense of reality has fundamentally changed, how does that affect the stories we tell?
The characters in Murakami’s massive new novel, 1Q84, spend a good deal of time puzzling over the relationship between two realities. One is the Tokyo of 1984. The other is not exactly a parallel world—“You’ve been reading too much science fiction,” an oracular figure scoffs when someone raises that possibility—but a subtly and ominously tweaked variation, the new reality that materialized when the old one “switched tracks.” One of the book’s two main characters calls it 1Q84, “a world that bears a question.” (It’s also a pun: Nine in Japanese is pronounced “kyu.”)
An apotheosis of sorts for Japan’s most popular living novelist, 1Q84 combines the distilled melancholy of Murakami’s short stories and slimmer novels (Norwegian Wood; South of the Border, West of the Sun) with the grand unpredictability of his epic, more self-consciously serious works (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore). Three books in one totaling 944 pages, it is Murakami’s most elaborate and sustained riff yet on themes he has reworked for thirty years: solitude, thwarted desire, Japan’s (and humankind’s) latent violent streak, the shadow of mortality, the shape of time, the elusiveness of the self, the malleability of reality. His detractors fault him for repeating himself, but repetition and (its flip side) defamiliarization are vital tools in this obsessive author’s arsenal. Transmigrating characters and enigmas, rearranging leitmotifs into new patterns, his stories are paradigms of the uncanny, premised on the peculiar coexistence of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Déjà vu is both the dominant mood and the organizing principle of his work.
The protagonists of 1Q84, Aomame and Tengo, whose stories are told in alternating chapters, are versions of the “ordinary lonely girl” and “ordinary lonely boy” of one of Murakami’s best-known short stories, “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning,” who knew from a young age they were meant to be together and somehow lost each other. As with the adolescent soul mates of South of the Border, it is a single moment that seals their fate as ten-year-olds. Responding to a kind gesture by her classmate Tengo, the bullied outcast Aomame, shunned for uttering prayers out loud (her parents belong to a fanatical Christian sect), reaches out and clutches his hand. This electric, tactile connection marks them indelibly. And then, without exchanging a word, they disappear from each other’s lives for years.
Murakami’s romantic quests are typically first-person accounts of a forlorn male narrator, pining for a girl who has pulled a disappearing act. But in the third-person 1Q84, the quest is mutual: doubled, mirrored, and amplified to cosmic proportions. Tengo and Aomame’s initial attraction is so profound that their long-deferred reunion—at age thirty—calls for nothing less than the course correction of the universe. And while Tengo recalls any number of diffident Murakami everymen, the poised, pensive Aomame is a somewhat surprising creation for an author who has often positioned women as narrative catalysts or male projections: a fully imagined female character with complex desires and a rich inner existence.
Aomame’s and Tengo’s lives have apparently evolved in concert. Both left home and severed ties with their tyrannical families in their early teens, and although hardly celibate (Tengo is seeing an older married woman, and Aomame frequents singles bars), both shy from romantic attachments. Their orbits begin to overlap when Tengo, a math teacher and aspiring novelist, is hired to rewrite Air Chrysalis, a novella by a withdrawn seventeen-year-old girl named Fuka-Eri. This surreal tale of a young girl who lives on a commune and encounters a possibly malevolent tribe of Little People turns out to be inspired by actual experience. Fuka-Eri’s father is the leader of a cult called Sakigake, from which she escaped a few years ago. The book, which becomes a best seller, also takes on a life of its own, and some of its weirder details have a way of leaping off the page and showing up in the physical world of 1Q84, where both Tengo and Aomame have ended up without quite knowing how.
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