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This article was written on 17 Aug 2013, and is filled under Literature.

Feedback Book Review: Haruki Marukami, 1Q84

 “That’s it. 1984 and 1Q84 are fundamentally the same in terms of how they work. If you don’t believe in the world, and if there is no love in it, then everything is phony. No matter which world we are talking about, no matter what kind of world we are talking about, the line separating fact from hypothesis is practically invisible to the eye. It can be seen only with the inner eye, the eye of the mind.”

“Who switched the tracks?”

“Who switched the tracks? This is another difficult question. The logic of cause and effect has little power here.”

“In any case, some kind of will transported me into this world of 1Q84,” Aomame said. “A will other than my own.”

“That is true. You were carried into this world when the train you were in had its tracks switched.” (463)

At the heart of Marukami’s sprawling recent novel is the digital switch interfacing two jarringly distinct virtual worlds. In one of these, the characters lurch forward in their conventional “lives.” She (Masami Aomame) is a gym trainer and self-defense instructor who occasionally accepts and executes contracts to kill misogynists with proven records of crimes against women. He (Tengo Kanawa) is an aspiring author who makes ends meet by teaching math at a cram school; also, occasionally by taking odd ghostwriting assignments. Yet shortly after the novel opens, Aomame finds that she has entered an alternate universe to the Tokyo conventionally represented in cinema and journalism. This “other” world is indistinguishable from “reality” save for its doubled moon, its Little People, and the “air chrysalises” (succubi) that they manufacture, fiber by fiber, and the religio-political cult, Sakigake, dedicated to the Little People.

This perspectival double-vision is, of course, a staple of the world’s diverse Romanticisms. The discrepancy between realistic and “other” worlds insinuates itself in very different ways into the respective lives of the novel’s protagonists. The shared invasion nonetheless ensures, after a cascade of painful “life events” including the murder of Aomame’s closest chum in a Tokyo love hotel and the death of Tengo’s estranged father, whose biological paternity had always seemed a long-shot, the ultimate triumph over the long-term separation and mutual yearning that have benighted their young lives.

There is absolutely nothing unusual about imaginative fiction structured by shuttle-diplomacy between worlds demarcated by strikingly different degrees of tenuousness. Au contraire. Set in the fictively charged year of 1984, Murakami’s latest full-scale fantasy accentuates the high-tech feeling of its swerves between the worlds dominated, on the one hand, by the corporations and sleek plastic techno-toys of contemporary Tokyo, and by the elfin Little People of folklore on the other. The gateways and portals between the “two worlds” of traditional fantastic literature are unexpected and diverse: a rickety fire-escape on a central Tokyo freeway that Aomame descends on her way to executing a target at the outset; a best-seller by an adolescent girl that Tengo gets roped into rewriting, line by line; even the hashish that Tengo imbibes with his partner during a casual one-night stand. (Eriko Fukada, a.k.a. Fuka-Eri, the young author of Air Chrysalis, the novel that Tengo is commissioned to ghost-write, turns out to be the daughter of the Leader of the cult whose impact on ensuing events is all-embracing.) What matters in this novel is the fictive technology making it “work,” the embedded platform powering its marked intergalactic loopings, is, like so many features of our contemporary lives, cybernetic to the core.

It so happened that fate conspired to separate Aomame from Tengo early in life, but not before their hearts had been mutually joined and pledged. “Tengo” resonates with “Gengi”: even in an early grade of elementary school Tengo had played the hero to an Aomame bullied by their classmates. As Murakami sets about his own radical contribution to the contemporary canon of sci-fi, crime fiction, and the thriller as well as to the tradition of children’s literature, he operates out of a context definitively coded Japanese. He productively grafts the Tale of the Heike (97) and Tales of Gengi (524-25) into the narrative; he weaves in the love hotels, the compulsive consumerism, and the underground religious cults claiming a disproportionate share of global boilerplate regarding the country over recent decades. Yet Murakami’s broader constituency in this novel is nothing less than World Literature itself. By the end of this truly epic love-story, it has been made explicit that Tengo and Aomame are the adult Hansel and Gretel (908), who have, both individually and collaboratively, negotiated the forests of cult-religion, organized crime, and the child-Imaginary.

Marukami negotiates the post-global galaxy as deftly as he expands the rhizome of World Literature. He is a virtuoso mix-Meister in orchestrating the maximal supplemental resonance from epic, Märchen, sci-fi, fantastic literature, and mystery writing. 1Q84 commands our current attention in part owing to the cyber-technology powering its shifts between two ever so slightly incongruent universes, each odd in itself, mirroring the other in a fractured—and fractal—way. This is a novel obsessed with its internal simulations—what makes 1Q84 a copy of 1984, the difference between an air chrysalis and a human being—and indeed with the process of simulation itself. Even air chrysalises hover between maza and dohta, the original and the clone-like simulacrum. “Do I get split in two?” the author-surrogate of Air Chrysalis asks as Aomame’s reading of the novel is recapitulated.

“Not at all,” the tenor says. “This does not mean that you are split in two. You are the same in every way. Don’t worry. A dohta is just the shadow of the maza’s heart and mind in the shape of the maza.” (539)

A girl’s dohta may be fetching and irresistible, as Tengo discovers during his consummate single sexual encounter with Fuka-Eri, but she will never get her period or give birth. (An uncanny assonance links dohta as virtual simulacrum to the English daughter.) While the level of dohta or simulacrum enchants throughout the novel, it falls to the mundane maza or “originals” to cope with the burdens and complexities of the reproductive cycle and domestic life.

Within this overall context of simulation and the broadband of uncertainty that it opens, the characters and the story engulfing them fluctuate between greater and lesser degrees of virtuality. To a disproportionate degree, these sudden sea-changes are what endow the novel with its own fascination and flow. Tamaru, Aomame’s protector once her situation has been gravely compromised by her having executed the Sakigake Leader—again at the behest of the wealthy dowager whose own daughter had been savaged by domestic violence–recalls his fellow inmate at an orphanage with an intensity describable only as virtual:

“I often think of him, Tamaru said.” Not that I want to see him again or anything. I really don’t. We wouldn’t have anything to talk about, for one thing. It’s just that I still have this vivid image of him ‘pulling rats out’ of blocks of wood with total concentration, and that has remained an important mental landscape for me, a reference-point. It teaches me something—or tries to. People need things like that to go on living—mental landscapes have meaning for them, even if they can’t explain them in words. Part of why we live is to come up with explanations for these things. That’s what I think”

“Are you saying that they’re like a basis for us to live?”

“Maybe so.”

“I have such landscapes too.”

“You’d better handle them with care.” (516-17)

At a turning point in the novel when matters are grim, Tamaru recalls a childhood chum whose concentration, in carving rats out of random scraps of wood, resided in his absorption to a virtual degree. The boy and the figurines he manufactures, one of which he has retained into adulthood, are for Tamaru a Wordsworthian “spot of time,” a show-stopper, a scene of Virtual Reality dredged up out of real life and real time. It’s precisely this absorption and fascination, Tamaru tells Aomame, defining the interface between literature and cybernetic media in the novel, that enable life, with all its disasters, to go on. Aomame concedes that she too is constantly reverting to such scenes, whether in an elementary school classroom where she bonded with Tengo or the imaginary hotel room where she relives her friend Ayumi’s brutal murder.

This is a novel indirectly appealing to cybernetic thought and processing while constantly straining, in the manner of Douglas R. Hofstadter’s “strange loops,” against the limits of linear story-telling. Leaning heavily on time-honored traditions and conventions of fantastic literature and the vacillation “between two worlds,” it nonetheless attains a contemporary embedded technology of plot-twists, virtual turns, and the bizarre parallelism by which, for most of the novel, Aomame and Tengo’s “lives” track one another. As in the Freudian dream, it is often during the most tangential plot-developments where the novel’s profoundest interests come out. Indeed, it is during the casual encounter with Kumi Adachi , the nurse attending Tengo’s father in a hospital on the west coast of Japan, that Tengo attains virtual recall of his bonding with Aomame, thus finally reconciling him to his glorious fate. This moment transpires with the instantaneous speed and jarring discontinuity that we expect from the electronic devices with which we interact over increasing stretches of our day:

He could hear laughter again from the comedy next door. Applause as well. The show’s assistant, off camera, was probably holding up cue cards to the audience that said Laugh and Applaud. Tengo closed his eyes and thought of the woods, of himself going into the woods. Deep in the dark forest was the realm of the Little People. But the owl was still there too. . . .

Suddenly, all sound vanished, as if someone had come up stealthily behind him and stuck corks in his ears. Someone had closed one lid, while someone else, somewhere had opened another lid. Exit and entrance had switched.

Tengo found himself in an elementary school classroom.

The window was wide open and children’s voices filtered in from the schoolyard. . . . Aomame was beside him, holding his hand tightly. (690)

As in the epigraph to the present review, the image of the switch enters the narrative at the moment when Tengo moves from the nurse’s apartment, with its blaring TV and plastic furniture, to what may have well been the deciding moment of his life. “Exit and entrance”—switching back and forth between everyday life and simulation, between 1984 and 1Q84, between distraction and the cognitive hyper-intensity common to literary language and cybernetic processing—are everything in this novel. It is on a deep cognitive level, of eardrums and eyelids, that Tengo “exits” the banality of an inconsequential one-night stand and “enters” the persistent virtual fulcrum of his Imaginary. In a nutshell, this is the work performed by the novel as a whole, the great contribution it makes to contemporary literature: to underscore and recalibrate the entrances into the virtual Imaginary of our day.

Haruki Marukami is to be commended not only for the fluid and persistent inventiveness that has given us, among others and in addition to 1Q84, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood, Kafka on the Shore, and Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche. (As successor to Orhan Pamuk, he would be a splendidly apt Nobel laureate in Literature.) In its every substantive dimension, 1Q84 is a rallying cry against the unabated and planetary pandemic of violence against women. He thus points the way toward a fictive practice at once absorbing and setting into play the technological as well as conceptual Prevailing Operating System while insisting on strategic political responsiveness and intervention.

 Haruki Marukami, 1Q84, trans. Philip Gabriel, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011, 925 pp.

-Henry Sussman

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