By Haruki Murakami

One of the inconvenient truths about the writing life is that very few great authors stay great for very long. For most a sort of “rule of ten” applies, a single decade when they will be really productive and do all of their best work. After that, especially in the modern era, they can comfortably coast into their senior years on reputations that, once established, will only continue to expand in the echo chamber of a lazy media.

One could point to countless examples. In the U.S. it’s clear that Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, and Cormac McCarthy, all great writers in their day, have passed their “best before” date. The same goes for BritLit leading lights like Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan. But in each case public decline has done little to tarnish critical reputation.

Some years ago, Japan’s Haruki Murakami was a name that belonged in any conversation about the world’s greatest living writers. With books like Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Sputnik Sweetheart, and South of the Border, West of the Sun Murakami established himself as a master, enjoying both popular and critical success.

After that, he became a rock star. Reviewers fell over themselves to laud each new work a triumph and the literary prizes and awards began to pile up. A reality check, however, would have revealed that he was fading fast. After the Quake, Kafka on the Shore, and After Dark were all weak. Very weak. Like many writers with a distinctive voice Murakami had become a parody of himself, his style turned into a shtick.

Which, of course, didn’t make a bit of difference. It’s not going too far to say that Murakami has become a cult figure (this despite the fact that criticism of cults is one of his recurring themes). His new book, 1Q84, only took a month to sell a million copies in Japan, and Jay Rubin, one of its English translators, has even declared that “Murakami can get away with anything now. If he scribbled on his toilet paper, they would publish it.”

1Q84 is not Murakami’s best book, not by a long shot, but it is his best work in over a decade. It is also his longest book. So long that after a while its weight makes you think there just may be something to these e-reader devices after all.

The story deals with a pair of star-crossed lovers named Tengo (a math teacher/budding novelist) and Aomame (a personal trainer/contract killer). Set in 1984, it begins with Aomame stuck in a traffic jam, her escape from which causes her to enter a parallel universe she dubs 1Q84 (the Q stands for question mark). Basically 1Q84 is the same as our world but for the fact that there are two moons in the night sky and a bunch of morally ambiguous faeries known as the Little People are climbing out of people’s mouths causing trouble.

It’s impossible to briefly outline all that happens, but suffice it to say that it involves a lot of Murakami’s trademark border-hopping between a rational, material, “real” world and a world of imagination, spirit, magic, and the subconscious. Like characters in a Philip K. Dick story, Tengo and Aomame seem caught in another novel, or someone else’s dream.

The point everything is moving toward is bringing Tengo and Aomame, separated since childhood, back together. Apparently the fate of the world depends on this but it turns out to be surprisingly hard to do. For the novel’s first two sections (and the book was originally published, Victorian-style, in three parts) the chapters alternate between what is happening to Tengo and Aomame. In the final section a grotesque private investigator named Ushikawa is added to the mix.

That Murakami had to add the character of Ushikawa is telling. In the final part of the novel there isn’t much going on. Characters spend a lot of time locked up in rooms, waiting for things to happen. The only action involves Ushikawa figuring things out that the reader already knows. This sense of stasis isn’t helped by the fact that Murakami seems to forget things he’s already told us, leading to much repetition. The characters are also stuck in mental ruts. When Aomame looks in the mirror and wishes that her breasts were bigger she is also aware of the fact that she has thought this 72,000 times before. And so is the reader.

That said, most of the book moves quickly. Murakami doesn’t overwrite, and he’s obviously been to the X-Files school of building suspense through having a series of characters possessed of special knowledge mutter vague, forbidding hints about how there are things going on that ordinary people just can’t begin to comprehend. When, for example, Aomame questions a prophet about what makes her so special in the world of 1Q84 she runs into a wall:

“You will discover that eventually.”
“When the time comes.”
Aomame screwed her face up again. “I can’t understand what you are saying.”
“You will at some point.”

“Why are you unable to explain?” she later asks, in mounting frustration. “It is not that the meaning cannot be explained,” she is told. “But there are certain meanings that are lost forever the moment they are explained in words.” Or, as Tengo is told by another oracular figure, “If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation.”

A little of this goes a long way, and there is a lot of it.

Much of 1Q84 seems at war with itself. Murakami is a wonderful storyteller, crossing over from the quotidian to the supernatural in a way that still manages to keep magic and realism on different sides of the ledger. Names like Orwell, Chekhov, and Proust get dropped along the way, but the point never seems to be allusion and Murakami wears his reading lightly. It doesn’t even seem all that incongruous when a professional killer takes time out from torturing someone to engage his victim in a discussion of the life of Carl Jung.

On the other hand, Tengo and Aomame take self-absorption to obnoxious new levels (“they were the only two people in the world”), and in the book’s final, weakest part the romantic clichés practically drip from the page. The broody and underserviced Aomame, for example, finds that Tengo’s “solid, massive body gave her a deep, natural sense of warmth and security,” and imagines him bringing her to otherworldly orgasms: stirring “my mind and body the way a spoon stirs a cup of cocoa, down to the depths of my internal organs and my womb.”

As the Little Rascals used to say: Mush! Though perhaps it sounds better in Japanese.

While most of the loose ends are nicely rounded off, it’s hard to walk away from the world of 1Q84 with any clear idea what it was all about. Some readers may decide that Murakami, who views the role of an author as mainly being to act as a medium for the unconscious, never had a clear idea of where he was going or what it was he wanted to say. Others may recall the warning that any explanation, at least in words, is impossible.

Either way, you don’t ask questions of “the world that bears a question.” You either “get” 1Q84 or you don’t.

Review first published in the Toronto Star November 12, 2011.

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