Friday, October 28, 2011


I've been flying through Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. It's a really massive book, a bit over 900 pages in a large hardcover. Or, to be a bit more accurate, it's three good-sized books that have been put into one binding for the American market, in kind of an inverse from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Despite the length, it's been an incredibly engaging read for me so far. The plot moves along at a nice clip, with a steady trickle of revelations and explanations and new mysteries, but more than that, the language is as beautiful as always, drawing me ever more deeply into the story.

I've just finished the second book, at a tad under the 600 page mark, and figured I'd take this opportunity to jot down some initial reactions to the book. First of all, my head feels full to overflowing, and I'm worried that I'll lose some of these memories if I wait much longer. Second, from the little I've heard about the book's release in Japan, it sounds like Murakami had initially intended the story to end after the second book. There, the first two volumes were written together, and published separately on the same day; then, after they came out, Murakami decided that he wasn't finished yet, and returned for a third book. (He says that he doesn't plan on writing a fourth volume, but is also unwilling to rule out the possibility.)

I very deliberately stayed away from as much knowledge about 1Q84 as possible during the (very long!) run-up to its US release. This was a LONG process. I've mentioned before that I attended a Murakami interview at UC Berkeley back in 2008, where he announced that he had just finished "... a BIG book." Despite the voracious and growing appetite for Murakami here in the states (a trend which I whole-heartedly endorse), it still took them about three years to translate it, even after dividing the work among two translaters. Jay Rubin translated the first two volumes; Rubin has translated a majority of the most recent Murakami novels, including masterpieces like The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and After the Quake. Philip Gabriel, who translated my personal favorite Murakami novel, Kafka on the Shore, handled translation duties on the third volume. Personally, I think it would have been amazing if they could have gotten Alfred Birnbaum to do the first volume, which would have made the whole effort nicely reflect the chronology of bringing Murakami to America's attention. Alfred Birnbaum was responsible for translating Murakami's very first books into English, long before anyone here had any idea who he was, and this includes some of the most touching and idiosyncratic works, like A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

It's been pretty fascinating to consider the various translators and how they interact in creating our perception of who Murakami is and what his books mean. I get the impression that most fanatic Murakami devotees settle on a favorite translator, and that's usually the first one they encounter; the early adopters who "discovered" Murakami before he was "cool" will swear by Birnbaum's style and construction. More recent converts like myself are mesmerized by the intricate yet unadorned sentences found in Rubin. Ultimately, of course, 99.99% of American readers won't ever be able to compare the English with the Japanese versions of these novels, and so it's nearly impossible for us to disentangle what parts that we admire are from the original author, and which hail from the translator.

The surprisingly strong publicity campaign for 1Q84 has included a lot of interesting extra information around this book and these issues, including some great interviews with the translators about, well, translating. Rubin and Gabriel had to do their work in parallel in order to bring the book to market on time. Rubin got a head start, but also had more work to do. This sounds like it led to a fascinating three-way collaboration, where the translators would share notes with each other to make sure that they were being reasonably consistent with one another, and checking in with Murakami once a week or so to help resolve any items that they found particularly difficult or confusing. While they were collaborative, it doesn't sound like any one was dictatorial, which ultimately led to more variety and more flavor. A few tidbits that I recall from an interview with The Atlantic: Gabriel tends to use more contractions (like "it's" and "they'll") than Rubin or Birnbaum; but, in this case, he ended up using fewer than usual in order to match the sound of the earlier volumes. There was some discussion around how to translate the slangy name of one minor character who appeared in both volumes Two and Three. One suggested "Buzzcut", the other thought "Skinhead". They eventually brought this to Murakami, who cast the deciding vote for Buzzcut. Even after all the translation was done, it still passed through a final American editor who helped pull everything together and make the work as a whole unified.

It probably helps matters a lot that Murakami is not only fluent in English, but also an avid reader of American novels. He has famously translated many great American authors, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver (all of it!), and J. D. Salinger. I imagine that this significantly helps his engagement with the translation, as he can not only weigh in on the most literal equivalent for a Japanese phrase, but also what words are most likely to convey a similar emotion or sentiment. That being said, all the translators have cheerfully denied any hope of truly capturing Murakami's essence in any language other than Japanese. Which is just incredible - given that Murakami is possibly my favorite contemporary author, the thought that he might be even BETTER than the diminished form in which I encounter him just blows my mind.

Oh, yeah, there's also a fun video out there that describes the design of the book - how they (meaning Chip Kidd) came up with the jacket cover, the endleaf pages, and so on. There are minor spoilers within the video, so if you want to remain 100% pure you should hold off, but this was one of the few things I consumed before reading the book and it didn't affect my enjoyment of it.

Since this book is so new, I'll be more cautious than usual in my spoiler marking. I'm avoiding any plot or character revelations whatsoever up here. I'll generally and vaguely cover characters and a bare minimum of early plot develops in mini spoilers. Mega spoilers are fair game for everything in the first two volumes.

So: just how good is this book?

Pretty darn good. I feel like it's still sinking in, but so far I've just been loving it. I'm enjoying it much more than the most recent Murakami novel(la), "After Dark". At the moment I'd put it at about the same level as The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

The book has a lot of the elements that I love about most of Murakami's novels: the realistic world that gradually slips into a slightly askew, dreamlike environment; the pleasant people who are swept up by baffling events; the portentous omens that heighten stakes while remaining opaque. His writing is probably even better than before, and it was already excellent. He perfectly captures emotions, tableaus, the beats of conversation, the silences within conversation. I think it's that combination that makes me most love Murakami: even though the cores of his stories are often mysterious, each sentence is sparklingly clear.

Oh, and he's funny, too. This isn't a comedy, of course - while Murakami has written some flat-out comedic short stories, like The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes, I don't think he's ever written a fully comedic novel - but the characters' wry observations on their untenable situations often make me crack up, as do their musings on the world around them. And, some of those thoughts can also bring me close to tears. The center of this novel is driven by... a kind of lacuna, an aching gap, and while I sometimes feel like this was written specifically for me, I'm guessing that most readers will feel the same way, so effectively does Murakami convey that particular heartache.

Okay, that's all very vague. Let's dip into some


Structurally, 1Q84 bears some similarity to Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. As with that book, this one follows strictly alternating chapters, each told from a distinct point of view. Here, the voice is third-person, and the limited narrator seems to be the same or similar, as opposed to the very different voices in HBW. But still, there's a similar rhythm that the book gets into, and in each chapter, while I'm getting progressively more interested in Tengo's or Aomame's stories, I'm simultaneously looking forward to seeing what the other character has in store.

For both characters, we gradually learn more about each as the story progresses; in a way, we're moving both forward and backwards in time. Both of them are around thirty years old (like me!). We see what they're doing in the present day; as they keep doing it, we learn about the people who brought them into these situations; and gradually, we learn about their experiences in college, in high school, and so on, drifting back to childhood. It's a wonderful, gradual unfolding of the characters, which proceeds organically, constantly offering new depth about each even as the story advances.

Tengo, while not a repeat of any earlier Murakami protagonist, does fit comfortably into the Murakami mold: like the "heroes" of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, A Wild Sheep Chase, etc., Tengo is a fairly passive individual. At least he has a job, but it's something far beneath his abilities: even though he was a math prodigy in school, and has a passion for writing novels, he contents himself with teaching high-schoolers in a cram school. It isn't much work, and he seems content to do something simple that doesn't require much effort from him. Like those other passive heroes, amazing stuff tends to fall into his lap without any initiative from him. He has a steady stream of attractive young women who wish to be with him, but is content with a long-running affair with an older married woman. The main action in the novel kicks off when he is approached by his editor, who persuades him into a scheme to rewrite a novella submitted by a high-school girl. Much like Toru's search for a missing cat ends up taking away his wife and everything else in his life, Tengo's ghost-writing jaunt will irrevocably remove key pillars from his life and force him into another world.

Boy oh boy... Murakami sure is amazing at crafting three-dimensional characters. At one point Tengo's father describes Tengo as a "vacuum", which is a beautiful phrase, but totally contrary to how I experienced him. Tengo is a large, solid, gentle man, not physically attractive, but who radiates solidity and trustworthiness. He has a good heart, and a strong sense of justice, though they inform his life quietly. Tengo has only rarely asserted himself, and then only in reaction to some external stimulus, though we (and perhaps even he) can't directly draw a line between the two: holding hands with a pretty young girl in the fifth grade gives him the courage to tell his father that he hates accompanying him on his collection route; being persuaded to ghost-write one book, he becomes able to start writing his own book; a visit from a dislikeable and sinister man gives him courage to resist his offer. Tengo has many conflictions - he has never reconciled with his father, and has been unwilling to search for his missing mother or a woman who means much to him - and while he can keep living his normal life without resolving them, they continually percolate below the surface, surprising even him when they bubble up.

The other protagonist, Aomame, feels like a wholly original Murakami character. I guess she has a little of the drive of Crow from Kafka on the Shore, but she is far more self-assured. Like Tengo, she currently takes direction for her assignments, but you get the impression that she would get things done even without the nudges... she's just been lucky to find some kindred spirits who can supply her with useful missions.

I'm fighting the urge to say just what those missions are... I think we find out in the second one of her chapters, so it should hardly count as a mini spoiler, but it was surprising enough that I'd like to leave it unstated for now. In any case, it isn't totally essential for describing her character.

Like Tengo, Aomame is a fully-realized character. At first she seems like she might be a kind of action-movie heroine, and at one point near the end of the second volume she self-consciously apes Faye Dunaway from the (original) Thomas Crown Affair. That isn't what she's really about, though... this is kind of a weird analogy, but she's a little bit like a marine, someone who spends hundreds of days preparing their minds and bodies before a single day of playing with the highest stakes imaginable. We learn a lot about her perfectly toned body, her workout regime (she is an instructor at a health club), and her physical attributes; this isn't just to communicate her attractiveness, although it certainly does so, but also so we can eventually realize that her drive for self-reliance and self-improvement goes all the way down. From her childhood, she has focused on perfecting herself as much as she can, and all the ways she takes care of herself help her ultimate mission of protecting those who are close to her.

Speaking of her body... it's been long enough since I've read Murakami's novels that I had almost forgotten how freaky his sex scenes could be. Well, consider myself reminded! I don't know how one can, or should, rate these things, but this is pretty high up there with what I remember from his other books... the same discomforting scenes of almost-certainly-incest, rape, wildly inappropriate age pairings, and so on. It doesn't really diminish my overall appreciation of the book, but does make me shake my head and wonder if Japanese mores are really that different, or if Murakami comes across as that shocking in the original books.

As I noted above, I had been particularly interested during the run-up to 1Q84's release in reading about the translation efforts. This proved to be oddly fortuitous, since much of the early/middle portion of 1Q84 deals with the publishing process involved in printing a rough manuscript to market. I've experienced a form of this in the technical books that I've worked on, and it was wonderful to see Murakami kind of explore that process in the literary world. Like with translation, there are multiple characters at play: the raw inspiration and creative vision from an author; the eye for quality and the ear attuned to a new voice that a reviewer contributes; the technical skills and writing prowess of an editor/writer; the political and sales work done by a proper editor. In the context of this book, it's meant to be a slightly shameful thing that Fuka-Eri's name alone appears on the front of Air Chrysalis; but really, any book, even one as magnificent as 1Q84, is improved by the work done by reviewers, editors, copy-editors, and the many other people who work behind the scenes to bring the book to market. Heh... to borrow and mis-use Murakami's excellent metaphor, it's a little like a cocoon: the author creates life, and the author alone can make the new thing, but that new life may initially be weak and unprepared for the harsh world outside. The publishing company builds a cocoon around it, sheltering it, and giving it time to strengthen and grow. Then, once it is ready, and no longer needs the cocoon, it sheds it, and flies off into the world. By the time it reaches our hands in the bookstore, all that we see is the butterfly, the beautiful thing created by the author, but it could never have arrived if not for the care and shelter of the cocoon, built by the editor and no longer needed.

1Q84 has a LOT of GREAT analogies for writing, fiction, and the creative process. Many of these were collected into "Town of Cats," a wonderful short story that ran in The New Yorker a few months back. Town of Cats collects several sections that were scattered throughout the first few hundred pages of 1Q84, all from Tengo's chapters. We learn about Tengo's earliest childhood memory, of his mother with another man; his distressing Sundays collecting fees for the NHK and his estrangement from his father; and, in the core of the story, Tengo's trip on a train ride up to his father's nursing home, where he reads him a (fictional?) German story called "Town of Cats," and gently tries to get answers to some of the questions he's had all his life. The story-within-a-story is powerful, and simultaneously seems like a great Murakami story and like an authentic northern-European legend: mysterious, portentous, both direct and strange. The episode ends on an incredible dialog between Tengo and his father; Tengo's questions receive answers that don't seem to line up at all (such as queries about his biological father being answered with a complaint about how people don't appreciate the importance of subscription fees - "Radio waves don’t come falling out of the sky for free like rain or snow"). For much of the conversation, his father seems totally out of touch, and just plain wrong about the things he does say. But, in the end, he utters words that, I think, may be the best, most concise description I've seen yet for Murakami's writing. "If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation." I think that just perfectly captures what Murakami tries to do, and why he's so effective. People who complain about how his stories lack resolution, or how he doesn't make sense or doesn't explain his plots, are kind of missing the point. Murakami is operating one level higher than that of plot, of story, of logic. When I'm reading one of his novels, I feel like it takes my entire mind, as a whole, moving together, to grok what he's saying. It ends up being just as much about feeling, and experiencing, and KNOWING, as it is about explaining. An explanation would cheapen and diminish the outcome, forcing a big and complicated world to fit into a narrow box that happens to accommodate a bulleted list of action points. Murakami creates these big, great structures, and then floats them up for us to look at and ponder. In some ways, I think that approaching his novels is more like appreciating a fine painting than like reading Hemingway.


Boy, the Little People sure are creepy, aren't they? I loved the slow reveal that Murakami used on this. Actually, the whole way he used Air Chrysalis in general was terrific. It's introduced very early on, but at first we get only occasional nuggets of information about its contents. It isn't until close to the end of the second volume, when Aomame finally reads it, that we finally get a full start-to-finish understanding of the story. In between, of course, we're able to piece much of it together, between the little we learn from Fuka-Eri's biography, the elements that Tengo inserted during his revision, and a few brief horrifying incidents like the Little People's invasion of the safehouse.

In some ways, it seems like the Little People are analogs to ancient European folklore about fairies; they aren't necessarily evil, but they certainly aren't good either, and they are so different and so powerful that it's wise to be wary of them. Of course, fairies/faeries have been so diluted by hundreds of years of infantilization that, even if Murakami was European, he would have been wise to create something new to convey that sort of dread, as he has done here. I keep harping on this, but what I love about Murakami is the combination of his incredibly clear prose and his incredibly opaque meaning. Once we do see the Little People, both in Air Chrysalis and walking through the ten-year-old victim's mouth, we see them very clearly: we know that they are a few inches tall at first, that they can change their size but max out at about a meter tall, that they build cocoons in the middle of the air by pulling white bits of fluff out of the space around them. All perfectly straightforward, and simultaneously incomprehensible.

Other than the Little People, I think the two most chilling scenes in the book for me were scenes involving the second moon. Not the part where Aomame first notices the second moon - that was a bit odd, and fanciful, but you don't really know what significance to attach to it, other than a confirmation that she seems to be operating on a different timeline from our own. Rather, I first got shivers in the scene where Tengo describes (I believe it's to his editor Komatsu, or possibly to his girlfriend) how you can tell the world of Air Chrysalis apart from our "real" world: the Air Chrysalis world has a second moon in the sky. That's the point where I realized that Aomame had become a character in a novel, instead of a person in the world. That's creepy enough, but what's worse is that, by that point, we've figured out the connection between Aomame and Tengo. We know that these two people love each other, that they've wasted the last two thirds of their lives apart from one another, and we badly want them to get back together. And now... we know that one of them is, in a sense, no longer "real."

(The way Murakami plays with the second moon in Aomame's world, incidentally, is great. We sense a significant disconnect between Aomame and the people around her, since she notices the second moon and nobody else does. However, we can never be completely sure just what the other people perceive. Does everyone else see one moon while she sees two? If so, that would make her seem a bit more like a crazy person, seeing something that isn't there. Or, does everyone else see two moons, but think that they have always seen two moons and so it isn't worth commenting on? If so, that would make it seem more like Aomame has entered an alternate world.  The book treats this very believably, since it's the sort of question that could be cleared up quickly with a single question, but the consequences of ASKING that question are so dire that Aomame doesn't dare do it. I do suppose that she might have tried something else, like checking a star atlas out of the library while she was looking up old newspaper articles, but I'll gladly let that slide. Ultimately, of course, we learn that the truth is somewhere in the middle - I think that Fuka-Eri may be the one who says that only certain people are able to see the second moon. Naturally, this isn't completely explained, but given the logic of the story I presume that the people who can see this are Perceivers, Receivers, and those directly affected by a Receiver. Oh, and that proved to be an unexpected perk of Murakami setting the novel in 1984 - it's kind of refreshing to go back to a world before the Internet, when people's questions couldn't realistically be immediately answered on their mobile phones. I like that Aomame needed to go to the library to find old news stories, and that her policewoman friend needed to contact the appropriate people in other departments in order to find out about potential crimes.)

The second, and bigger, shock comes near the very end of the second volume, when Tengo rests by the slide in the playground, looks into the sky, and then sees the second moon for himself. This is, of course, a huge jolt. How can an author become a character in his own novel? This forced me to re-evaluate my understanding of 1Q84 (the world, not the book). Well, more accurately, I guess it made me realize that 1Q84 is a world, and not a book. I had thought that Aomame was "just" a character, but no, she's really a person, and so is Tengo as well. The act of creativity started by Fuka-Eri and brought to fruition by Tengo, has become that thing that I so often proclaim to like, "a fully-realized world." Tengo's role has now become inverted, moving from the subject of the story to become its object. He has power in this world - since he helped create it, he's safe from the Little People - but he's also trapped in it, just as thoroughly as Aomame. Hmmm... I wonder if that might somehow be tied to the "purification" ritual that Fuka-Eri insists they perform? What was the importance of "going to the Town of Cats"? Was it his meeting with his father, or was it his absorption into another work of fiction? If the former, then the danger might have been that Tengo was leaving the world of fiction he had created for the "real" world, and so slipping out of the realm he controlled, and into a place which the Little People could penetrate and harm. In that case, the importance of the ritual might have been to bind Tengo's memory with Aomame, who is now in 1Q84 with him, and so keep him from the real world. Or, if the latter, then the problem might have been that Tengo is bringing another work of fiction into 1Q84, a powerful one that affects him, but one that he did not create and does not control. If so, that could have caused the dissonance (thunder and lightning) that he experienced, and by weakening his authorial privilege, he might have made himself vulnerable. In that case, the purification ritual's importance might have been more to distract him from the father-oriented concerns of A Town of Cats, and return his attention to the female-oriented concerns of Air Chrysalis.

I'm sure I'm way off-base on those ideas... but hey, I'm an English Lit major, and I do love my literary theories!


There's lots of other great stuff in this book... oh, even if you haven't picked it up yet, you should totally check out the wonderful Spotify playlist that Knopf put together for the book. It has a bunch of the many, many pieces of music referenced in this book. The list is long, and still isn't exhaustive - for example, there are quite a few more Rolling Stones songs mentioned in the book, including some more purely bluesy ones. As with Murakami's other books, the music is far from just background or scenery. At the least, it conveys important insight into characters' personalities; at most, though, it can powerfully drive the story. The single most important piece of music is "Sinfonietta" by Janacek, which plays a prominent role in the very first chapter, and returns and repeats throughout the remainder of the book as its significance amplifies. I'm feeling more regretful than usual about my lack of classical music knowledge, but this is inspiring me to rectify that situation... at least where central European composers are concerned.

Anyways! I must wrap up this post quickly so I can return to Book Three. I'll weigh in again on the entire novel after I've finished it. Right now, though, I'm pleased to report something that I was afraid I wouldn't be able to say: it was worth the wait.

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