John Gardner writes in his book The Art of Fiction that if fiction had recognisable universal laws, one of those would be that all questions raised in the reader’s mind by the text should be satisfied in the work. All loose ends must be tied; the story should be a full circle.
That being said, Murakami’s 1Q84 is so thoroughly enjoyable in large part due to the fact that it flamboyantly flouts said universal law. It is a whole book, in that it tries to encompass a wide range of literary devices as well as real world issues, two factors which usually make (or break) a novel for me. Literature is an art. At the same time, (I am of the opinion that) Wilde’s comment, “art for art’s sake”, should be considered satirical at best. Yet, if works of art have loose ends seeking to be tied, following our previous analogy, 1Q84 is, and remains till its end, in a stubborn state of unraveling.
1Q84 is an extraordinary, almost epic journey through a strange, undulating fictional fantasy land. Its main intertext, obviously, is Orwell’s 1984, where Orwell writes of a dystopic version of reality: of Big Brother’s pervasive gaze, warped leadership and disillusionment. Similarly, 1Q84 is a tumble down the rabbit hole into a nightmarish world, where everything is just slightly off-kilter.
1Q84‘s protagonists Aomame (meaning green peas in Japanese) and Tengo are two star-crossed lovers. They meet when they are children, as classmates. Although they never get the chance to talk when younger, they form a deep, unbreakable emotional bond one day when Aomame holds Tengo’s hand. As an adult, Aomame is a hired assassin who kills the abusive, tyrannical male partners in romantic relationships, in order to save the woman, who would otherwise have been trapped in such a relationship for life at best, or get killed at worst. On the one hand, this serves as social commentary for the unequal power relations between men and women in Murakami’s culture. On the other hand, Aomame’s belief in her actions speak of her own deep mistrust of and wounds inflicted by men over the course of her life. Tengo is a part-time mathematics teacher as well as a fictional writer and editor in a publishing house (Hooray Murakami for thrashing the false dichotomy between the arts and mathematics).
1Q84 is written from Aomame and Tengo’s simultaneous perspectives. It is set in the year 1984 (sup, Orwell), beginning with Aomame, a taxicab, a traffic jam and music. She is on the way to murder somebody– her next mission. To avoid being late, she alights from the taxicab and takes a shortcut through a fire exit flanking the highway. At the same time, Tengo is assigned with the task of ghostwriting for a novella manuscript by a girl named FukaEri. The manuscript has a lot of potential but is a tad too raw for publishing, being but a monotonous verbatim description of a world in which there are little people who make an air chrysalis. Tengo’s boss believes that combining Tengo’s skills with the manuscript’s storytelling will result in it cinching the coveted first prize in a competition.
1Q84 takes metafiction and breaking the fourth wall to a whole new level– as Tengo writes this fictional world into existence, it becomes a reality, bridging the gap between FukaEri’s story and the real world. As Aomame is inexplicably bonded to Tengo, she enters this world, one where two moons hang in the sky exactly matching that of Tengo’s fictional description, malicious little people control events, and where she and Tengo’s connection become the catalyst for a series of bizarre events. Eventually, Aomame and Tengo find each other and escape the world 1Q84 back to their original world through the same gate through which she came– a fire escape along the highway. Only there is a nagging question: after escaping 1Q84, Aomame questions if the billboard along the highway has been flipped in the mirror image of itself at the beginning of the novel.
1Q84 includes multiple strange rabbit trails and simultaneous story lines that weave themselves into the all-encompassing, strange whole that is the novel. As it turns out, FukaEri has escaped from a political cult called Sakigake, where they worship a leader who communicates with the little people during intercourse with young girls. The little people, who may or may not be real entities, are the “voices” the leader hears and control events by harming specific people, or creating natural disasters such as storms. Also, FukaEri may or may not be a real person– she might be merely a clone fashioned by the little people.
1Q84‘s commentary encompasses the realms of the political, social, psychological, even physiological. Murakami invites us through the looking glass of a fictional dystopia, and uses it as a lens through which to view reality’s problematics: gender imbalances, political extremism, manipulative power struggles, blurred definitions of rape and consent, murder and mercy, life and death He takes each of these issues and, using literary devices whose various functions have been stretched to the extreme as the apparatus, performs dramatic thought experiments on each of them. 1Q84 is, of course, an invitation to deeper discussion on all of these issues, but like a well-trained English major I will have to narrow down my scope of criticism.
I have grown to love Murakami’s style in all its unashamed weirdness, in its unapologetic confident flouting of unspoken literary rules. (As much as I have grown to love how I am allowed to say simply that I love a book or an author in blogging about literature, compared to the unemotional, objective criticism demanded in a university dissertation.) Fiction, and the ways in which it is judged has evolved, creating expectations such as one where not answering a question raised in a work is a sign of bad writing. Yet 1Q84, as well as many (if not most) of Murakami’s works, abound with loose ends. We never find out who, or what, rather, FukaEri is. Where she is from and where she has gone. There is never a definitive description on what the little people actually are. There is no follow up on the fate of Sakigake after their leader has been killed. Yet, 1Q84 is clearly a work of art in its own right. This raises questions and challenges definitions on what good fiction is: on the expectations that should be met, qualifications fulfilled and boxes ticked. In examining 1Q84, a novel that so overtly pushes and explores the boundaries of fictional normatives, it is hard to resist delving into a discussion, however cursory, about the nature and standards of fiction writing.
Taking this as a framework for our critique, could one of the literary “red flags” of 1Q84, its loose ends, be a literary device in themselves? A way to make the story unforgettable; of ensuring the reader carries it with them. Particularly interesting are the questions about fiction and reality raised by Tengo’s literal creation of a fictional world through writing and its engagement with political conspiracy and censorship.
Art is commonly seen as a lesser function of society, as compared to the concrete (no pun intended) contributions of engineering, technology and business, for example. Sakigake has other “more important” issues to worry about, like the threat of assassins (Aomame), funding and new and old members. Yet, the community directs so much of its efforts into silencing a lowly, unknown (ghost) author (Tengo), an aspiring novelist. Is society’s disparaging of novelists and the arts really disdain? Or is it a covert attempt at self-preservation? (Who is this “self”?) Perhaps Tengo is such a threat specifically because he is an author, and because art creates reality, in this case, literally.
My personal take and conclusion? I think what makes fiction great is not so much its adherence to rules and its ability to pull off good storytelling in itself. Rather, it is good storytelling combined with its ability to make its readers come away with questions about the nature of truth; about the perception and auteurs of reality. Murakami isn’t the only author to acknowledge as well as take on this daunting task– many others do too, sometimes explicitly, as in Ursula K. Le Guin’s preface to The Left Hand of Darkness. It is becoming increasingly clear that the sustained efforts of society to undermine the influence of the writer must only mean that the writer is a threat at worst, an invitation to think for ourselves at best.
And what of us? The readers of such writing? What is good reading?
Which brings me back to why I write, in particular, about reading. I truly believe that reading can improve a person’s life, not just his or her language ability. But only if the person reads well, that is, with an awareness of the author’s message and perhaps challenge to the world at large, and that the said reader responds to that challenge. Be it merely gaining an increase in awareness about a particular issue(s) or topic(s), or receiving a provocation to action. Because reality is ultimately a narrative, one determined by the stories we tell, don’t tell, suppress and respond to. Like I say in my blog’s description: read more. Live bigger.