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It’s Only a Paper Moon

by Josh Potter on January 12, 2012

1Q84
by Haruki Murakami; translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
Knopf, 925 pages, $30.50

Much is often made of the “music” of Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s work. The 62-year-old best-selling novelist owned a jazz club as a young man and riddles his stories with bits of lyrics and references to background music as a scene-setting device. Yet, even as an ardent fan who has gobbled up every word he’s written, I’ve always struggled with this characterization. In English, Murakami’s prose is unadorned, straightforward and, in places, quite overwritten—a fact I’d long attributed to clunky translation but nonetheless always struck me as particularly unmusical.

In the opening chapter of 1Q84, Czech composer Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta is playing in the taxicab where one of the novel’s two protagonists sits stuck in traffic. The unsettling score at first serves to underscore the character Aomame’s agitation, then later becomes a recurrent leitmotif, as other characters encounter the Sinfonietta at critical moments in the plot. Ultimately, the mini symphony can best be understood as a formal model for how 1Q84 itself unfolds. At more than 900 pages (originally published over three volumes in Japan), the novel is far and away Murakami’s most ambitious (some are calling it his master work) and certainly his most musical, with violent allegro sections giving way to sweet andantes and patient moderatos rewarding the final allegretto.

Furthermore, 1Q84 relies on a type of counterpoint in its narrative structure, alternating between Aomame and male protagonist Tengo Kawana’s perspectives. For the first 200 pages or so, you might as well be reading separate novels, both incidentally set in Tokyo during 1984, that year George Orwell projected as the dawn of a new world. As Tengo and Aomame each drift into their own alternate worlds, the uncanny gravity of Murakami’s surrealism draws their threads together. For Aomame, things start to shift when she climbs out of the gridlocked cab on the highway overpass and makes her way down a hidden utility ladder to the street below. Before she goes, the prophetic driver warns her, “After you do something [out of the ordinary], the everyday look of things might seem to change a little. . . . But don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.”

This assertion is immediately called into question as Aomame finds herself at the center of a plot to assassinate a reclusive cult leader suspected of raping young girls. To Aomame, this sudden turn of events is akin to a second reality, one she dubs 1Q84, a Japanese pun inserting ambiguity into the year’s date, corroborated by a second moon that appears to her in the sky. For Tengo, a mild-mannered mathematics teacher and aspiring novelist, things begin to shift when an opportunistic magazine editor asks him to surreptitiously rewrite a 17-year-old girl’s submission to a literary contest. The story wins the prize and becomes a sensation, and suddenly Tengo finds himself in the middle of a scenario in which elements of the fictional narrative begin bleeding into mundane daily life.

“What a strange world,” Tengo’s editor Komatsu says, late in the novel when things have become so convoluted and surreal that the two meet at a bar to drink away the sober common sense with which they’ve been handling things thus far. “With each passing day, it’s getting harder to know how much is just hypothetical and how much is real. Tell me, Tengo, as a novelist, what is your definition of reality?”

“When you prick a person with a needle, red blood comes out—that’s the real world,” is Tengo’s reply. The problem, of course, is that characters are bleeding red in both 1984 and 1Q84, forcing everyone involved to surrender to the dream logic that prevails.

This form of mundane surrealism is what Murakami does best and what distinguishes the “mystery” end of his canon: A Wild Sheep Chase, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore. His characters are bright but unassuming, rocked from an ordinary and melancholic existence by a strange coincidence that would drive a Philip K. Dick character/reader into full sci-fi psychosis but instead leads the character/reader to trust in what’s unveiled, squeezing elements of magical realism, surrealism and allegory into a genre not so unlike straight realism. 1Q84 weds this approach to the other end of his canon, the romance fiction (which generally suffers even more from the aforementioned translation issues), and mixes in a writerly self-reflexivity, making this Murakami’s most robust and readable novel yet.