‘You know,’ a teenage girl says to Toru Okada, the narrator of Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, whom she’s found at the bottom of a dried-up well doing some thinking about his missing wife and cat, ‘you’re pretty weird.’ Later she refines the idea: ‘I mean, you’re such a supernormal guy, but you do such unnormal things.’ It’s a fair description of Murakami’s first-person narrators, who are often referred to by the writer’s fans under the generic name ‘Boku’ – a word meaning ‘I’, as Jay Rubin explains in his guide for Anglophone readers, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words (2002), ‘but an unpretentious one used primarily by young men in informal circumstances.’ (It’s part of Murakami’s unstuffiness to use it instead of the more formal personal pronouns commonly used in literary Japanese.) Boku tends to be an easygoing type, fond of staying in, cooking, having a couple of beers and listening to music, especially jazz. When unusual things happen to him, he plays along in a deadpan, quasi-hardboiled way, coming out with rueful one-liners and trying to keep his feet near the ground.
In his public appearances, Murakami himself similarly likes to offset his otherworldly material with jokes and displays of commonsensicality. Japanese writers are expected to act as sages and to go on television; Murakami prefers to commune with his readers online, setting up forums with titles like ‘“That’s It! Let’s Ask Murakami!” Say the People and They Try Flinging 282 Big Questions at Haruki Murakami. But Can Murakami Really Find Decent Answers to Them All?’ In interviews he speaks with Boku-like modesty and emphasises his work habits: getting up at 4 a.m., writing for five to six hours, running ten kilometres or swimming 1500 metres (or both), going to bed by 9 p.m. and doing the same every day until he’s finished a novel. People are disappointed, he told the Guardian, by his stress on application and stamina. They’d prefer him to say something ‘more dynamic, creative, artistic’. At the same time, he speaks insistently of his work as a descent into the darkness, a bringing back of images from another world. Exercise, he says, is important because it takes strength – ‘literally physical strength’ – to open the door to ‘the Other Room. Metaphorically, of course.’
Jumbling up what’s literal and what’s metaphorical is a favourite tactic of Murakami’s. A dreamworld of hollow men, femmes fatales, unexplained disappearances and symbolically multivalent animals leaks out from the inner lives of his humdrum Japanese urbanites. He made his first sustained visit to that world in his third novel, published in Japan in 1982, A Wild Sheep Chase. (His first two novels have fewer eerie touches and are available only in samizdat outside Japan because Murakami isn’t proud of them.) It uses the voice of a disgruntled, detached Tokyo hipster, self-raised on Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Chandler and Dostoevsky, to tell an unlikely noir story: a nameless Boku goes in search of an old friend and a mysterious sheep on the orders of a shadowy tycoon. It’s a consciously Chandleresque set-up, which, in Murakami’s words, ‘meant, first of all, that the protagonist would be a lonely city dweller … And when he finally found what he was looking for, it would already have been ruined or lost.’ The plot has supernatural elements, some whimsical, some sinister. At the climax there’s a full-blown visit from the Other Room. The story also encompasses drinking, rooting through the fridge, being left by one’s wife and brooding on deceased ex-girlfriends from one’s days on the fringes of the Japanese student movement.
Having heaved the building blocks of his world into place, Murakami polished and recombined them prolifically: a further eight books came out in the 1980s. Norwegian Wood, an uncharacteristically realistic love story, became a huge bestseller in 1987. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, published in three volumes in 1994-95, brought a warmer embrace from the Japanese literary establishment, which had previously filed him among ‘vacuous manufacturers of disposable entertainment’ (Masao Miyoshi) or complained that his books failed to ‘appeal to intellectuals in the broad sense with models for Japan’s present and future’ (Kenzaburo Oe). The novel was written in the US, where Murakami, hiding out from the fan attention occasioned by Norwegian Wood, reconsidered his earlier wish ‘to run as far as I could from the “Japanese Condition”’. After the Kobe earthquake and the Tokyo sarin gas attack in 1995, he returned to Japan in order to take up a national writer’s responsibilities.
By then he was established as an international writer too. From early on he found many readers across East Asia, which Ian Buruma – who profiled him for the New Yorker in 1996 – attributes to large numbers of lonely city dwellers leading atomised, post-traditional lives. ‘He told me that he couldn’t write about his native roots,’ Buruma said, ‘because he had grown up in a modern suburb, which could have been anywhere … “I can’t express roots, and I don’t want to write about families. I don’t like families.”’ Murakami didn’t get on with his father, a teacher of Japanese literature; Boku sometimes has kindly uncles but rarely mentions his parents, and the novels usually portray nuclear families as sites either of social indoctrination aimed at crushing dreamy individualists or of occult psychosexual trauma. Escaping from oppressive communal structures into a world of international brand names and liberating private fantasies: on this view, that’s what Murakami is about. In the West, where he supplanted Paul Auster on student bookshelves before acquiring widespread middlebrow acceptability, his books have picked up an additional aura of artiness and ineffableness which causes hard-nosed readers to denounce them from time to time as a rich country’s brand of depthless magic realism.
It’s true that he isn’t a writer to go to for three-dimensional depictions of reality. His characters tend to be variations on a limited number of figures: a passive yet stubbornly resourceful male protagonist; a wife with an unguessed-at hinterland; a kooky, flirtatious, sexually unavailable girl; a mysterious, confident, sexually available older woman; a creepy, slick professional man and so on. He seems to have a Chandler-like rule for constructing storylines: when in doubt, instead of bringing in a man with a gun, have someone recount a disturbing dream or vanish or unexpectedly do something sexual. And though his writing works well in English, it sometimes comes out a bit inertly, with assorted tics depending on which of his translators is at work. Alfred Birnbaum uses lots of slang and a more hardboiled tone; Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel use strongly American English; Gabriel and Rubin favour flatness and don’t worry much about freshness of diction. All the same, Murakami does a serviceable impression of Raymond Carver, one of the many American writers he translates in his spare time, and profits in translation from liking clarity and tautness.
At his best, he also has a compulsive storyteller’s ability to hustle the reader over the threshold of assent and create a feeling of being led into a coherent inner landscape. Chiefly in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, but in some of his poppier performances too, he turns depthlessness and self-absorption to account, using them as Joyce uses paralysis in Dubliners, while conjuring bizarre scenes which externalise more serious and worldly phenomena in ways that can’t easily be unscrambled. (In this respect he resembles David Lynch, with whom he sometimes seems to have a doppelgänger-like relationship; six years before Twin Peaks he published a story beginning: ‘A dwarf came into my dream and asked me to dance.’) Toru Okada’s search for his cat, for example, becomes a wide-ranging survey of Japanese anomie that trails out from a failing marriage to the occupation of Manchuria. The intermediate steps don’t make much sense – they involve attacks with a baseball bat, a sadistic television economist and coming in one’s pants, among other things – but the weird episodes aren’t unmotivated and suggest a half-glimpsed dream logic.
Since around the time of Sputnik Sweetheart (1999; translated 2001), however, Murakami’s longer novels have been more coherently incoherent, putting dream logic under scrutiny in a way that’s less effective. In ‘All God’s Children Can Dance’, from the collection after the quake (2000; translated 2002), a young man raised by an evangelical Christian mother follows a stranger he thinks might be his father to a baseball field at night. The stranger disappears and the young man has an epiphany: ‘Animals lurked in the forest like trompe l’oeil figures, some of them horrific beasts he had never seen before. He would eventually have to pass through the forest, but he felt no fear. Of course – the forest was inside him, he knew, and it made him who he was. The beasts were ones that he himself possessed.’ In Kafka on the Shore (2002; translated 2005), which dramatises an Oedipal struggle in ways by turns silly, literal-minded and over-cute, we’re zapped with discussions of Freud, Jung, Bergson and spirit projection in Japanese literature. Explaining and intellectualising what he’s up to seems to have become one of the responsibilities Murakami feels he has to shoulder.
1Q84 – the title plays on ‘q’ and ‘9’ being homophones in Japanese – was published in Tokyo in three volumes in 2009-10 to great mass media excitement. Translated by Rubin (Books 1 and 2) and Gabriel (Book 3), it comes from the same template as A Wild Sheep Chase and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, but complicates the picture by using parallel storylines – see Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985; translated 1991) and Kafka on the Shore. This time there are two lonely city dwellers, each looking for the other, though each takes quite a while to work that out. The first is Aomame, a self-contained young woman who teaches fitness and martial arts at an upmarket Tokyo gym in 1984, and does freelance jobs driving an ice pick-like implement into the back of men’s necks, untraceably causing instant death. After one such appointment, she senses – no mean feat in this context – that something strange is going on. The police have unfamiliar guns, the news reports plans for a US-Soviet moon base, and there are two moons in the sky, the extra one ‘somewhat lopsided’.
Tengo, the other focal character, is a self-contained young man who teaches maths at ‘a private cram school’. He’s also an unpublished novelist with a pleasing prose style and little idea of what to write about (unusual condition). Komatsu, a raffish editor, comes to him with a proposal concerning a manuscript submitted to a prize competition by a 17-year-old unknown called Fuka-Eri. Air Chrysalis is a clumsily written yet haunting novella about a girl, a dead goat and certain ‘Little People’. If Tengo fixes up the writing, Komatsu says, Fuka-Eri will realise ‘every writer’s dream! Huge headlines in the paper! TV news!’ Tengo suggests that this scheme is kind of nuts but, impressed by the novella, agrees to put it to Fuka-Eri, who turns out to be oddly affectless and very good-looking. In particular, his eyes are drawn to her breasts ‘as if toward the centre of a great whirlpool’. She gives Komatsu’s plan a casual go-ahead, apparently so wrapped up in her story that she doesn’t think of it as fiction. In her uninflected voice she tells Tengo: ‘The Little People really exist.’ Experienced Murakami readers will immediately understand that we’ll see these beings outside the pages of her book.
From here on in, the two storylines slowly converge. Fuka-Eri, we learn, is an escapee from an agricultural commune called Sakigake (‘Forerunner’). Set up by her Maoist father in the early 1970s, Sakigake made a name for itself with its tasty organic vegetables before abruptly and mysteriously turning into a cult; Fuka-Eri’s book is aimed at stirring it up in order to find out more. At the same time, rumours that the cult’s enigmatic Leader has been raping prepubescent girls have reached a rich old woman known as ‘the dowager’, who runs a private campaign against sexually violent men, and in extreme cases, such as this one, sends in Aomame to administer the ice pick.
As predicted, Air Chrysalis, rewritten by Tengo, becomes a bestseller. Aomame prepares to assassinate Leader, keeping to herself a feeling that she’s slipped into another reality, a reality she christens ‘1Q84’. We learn that Tengo and Aomame were briefly at school together, and once, aged ten, moved by a shared sense of being outcasts, held hands in an empty classroom. But they haven’t seen one another since then, and each has made loveless sexual arrangements. Tengo has a married older girlfriend, while Aomame likes to pick up balding salarymen in bars with a friend who says things like: ‘Say, have you ever tried four-way sex?’ Every now and then they round up strangers for what the narrator, with a tone that’s hard to gauge, calls ‘intimate but fully erotic all-night sex feasts’.
1Q84’s first 600 pages are an imposing display of narrative engineering. Information is dispensed in a controlled, thrifty manner; tropes from high and low culture are handled with easy showmanship; further plotlines and curlicues are effortlessly thrown out. Towards the end of Book 2, with Aomame entering Leader’s hotel room and Tengo experiencing a kind of waking sleep paralysis, Murakami pulls together a suspenseful, impressively outrageous climactic sequence, topped by an alarming sexual encounter and a suicide attempt.
On its first publication, the novel ended there. Book 3 came out a year later in Japan, and the eventual happy ending was a feat of audience-tweaking on a Dickensian scale. Being unembarrassed about tricks of that sort, and page-turning qualities in general, is part of Murakami’s charm: discussing novels with parallel storylines in a talk at Berkeley in 1992, for instance, he lighted on Ken Follett as an example. Even judged by such standards, however, the last third of the book is a let-down, with all the narrative tension coming from the question of how long Murakami can keep throwing up obstacles to the long-promised Tengo-Aomame reunion. Ushikawa, a hideously ugly investigator hired by the cult to keep tabs on Tengo, helps the book along by taking up duties as a colourful focal character. But the central love story is sentimental, underdeveloped and overblown, as in: ‘Tengo could hardly believe it – that in this frantic, labyrinth-like world, two people’s hearts – a boy’s and a girl’s – could be connected, unchanged, even though they hadn’t seen each other for 20 years.’
The collapse of the main plot isn’t the only thing that muffles the book’s large statements about reality, fantasy and Japanese society. A sprinkling of references to ‘thought crime’ and so on turns out to be mostly decorative, another iteration – via Orwell’s transposition of 1948 into 1984 – of the notion of alternative realities. This notion is connected to Murakami’s apparent view that everyday existence in the early 21st century, thanks especially the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq, is unreal. ‘In the 19th and early 20th centuries,’ he told his Paris Review interviewer in 2004,
writers offered the real thing; that was their task. In War and Peace Tolstoy describes the battleground so closely that the readers believe it’s the real thing. But I don’t. I’m not pretending it’s the real thing. We are living in a fake world; we are watching fake evening news. We are fighting a fake war. Our government is fake. But we find reality in this fake world … We are walking through fake scenes, but ourselves, as we walk through these scenes, are real. The situation is real.
‘In the gap between Reality A and Reality B, in the inversion of realities,’ he wrote in 2010, attempting to explain the kind of question he wanted to get at in 1Q84, ‘how far could we preserve our given values, and, at the same time, to what kind of new morals could we go on to give birth?’ In practice, the novel’s new morality comes across as another expression of Murakami’s ‘generational sense of responsibility’, as he put it in 2003 (‘I myself don’t have any children, but if I did … it would be time for me to pass something on to them’). Stop fucking around, stop living in a dream, get over your social isolation, start a serious relationship, have a child: these are more or less the precepts the protagonists act out. In a way that’s simultaneously nebulous and simplistic, the novel also suggests that Hollywood-style love and the quest for an authentic reality are much the same thing.
As usual it’s possible to read the outlandish stuff as emanating from less extravagant personal problems – to interpret the cult material as an outgrowth of Aomame’s religious upbringing, for instance. A subplot concerning Tengo’s father throws up some Oedipal business but also some fine, creepy scenes. Mostly, though, the protagonists’ inner conflicts come across as being reverse-engineered from the fantastic situations instead of giving rise to them. Another favourite device – analogies between the story’s dark forces and the ungovernable writerly imagination – cuts awkwardly across the plot’s cartoonish aspects. The Little People are repeatedly said to be beyond such notions as good and evil, but since their actions include causing a dog to explode, assigning nasty fates to women and making a man have sex with cocoon-grown doubles of children, they seem to function as baddies. And the dreamworld is too undreamily structured: as in science fiction or fantasy, it has discoverable rules and loopholes.
If all this isn’t a problem in Murakami’s best writing, which wrings its pop surrealism out of real-world emotions, it isn’t because the characters are more lifelike or the plots less gothically bodged together. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is equally full of fantasy figures, and even more loosely assembled, but isn’t as dependent on a schematic mobilisation of sentiment. Another difference is that 1Q84 is written in the third person, which dampens the wisecracks, deprives the central characters of Boku’s buttonholing powers and generally takes the edge off Murakami’s storytelling. (It also leads, throughout the translation, to the use of italics for interior monologue and bold type for heavy thoughts.) Another is that the fantasy women are depicted more lubriciously than usual. Boku often hangs out with teenage girls but, unlike Tengo, rarely obsesses about their breasts, sniffs their pyjamas or has sex with them in a trance. As for Aomame, though it’s perhaps fair enough, in a novel themed around fantasy, for the female lead to be a part-time assassin in a designer suit who only kills abusive husbands, making her ‘an invincible sex machine’ might be asking too much. Her obsession with breasts exceeds even the narrator’s: remembering a friend, dead by suicide, with whom she had a lesbian experience as a schoolgirl, she’s pierced by the thought of ‘those beautiful breasts … gone forever’.
Some of the numerous breast-obsessed passages – Aomame notes that she must have worried about the size of hers ‘at least 72,000 times’ – are plainly humorous in intent, but they raise questions about cross-cultural transmissibility. A lot of the social satire and criticism – on cults, on attitudes to women and sex, on competitions for first-time writers as mass media events – loses force outside its original context. As always, the experience is a bit like watching a Hollywood-influenced Japanese movie in a version that’s been dubbed by American actors. This time, sad to say, it also reminded me of stretches of the second season of Twin Peaks: familiar characters do familiar things, with the expected measure of weirdness, but David Lynch has squabbled with the network and left the show.