Decoding the Murakami Formula- 1Q84

Courtesy: Thomke Meyer

Haruki Murakami: the Japanese author who has become the darling of the discontented millennials in the English-speaking world, thanks to Instagram quote pages. Murakami masters the surrealist genre. With his writing, that spans over decades, mostly celebrates the lonely protagonists, mysteriously silent women who dress in a navy blue cardigan, as well as a small amount of autobiographical theme and objects. 

The majority part of the novel takes place in Japan, however, his work has been deemed as “over the top”  presented with a layer of American foil by other contemporary Japanese writers. Yet, the success of his work isn’t formidable to Japan. He has been selling millions of copies worldwide. 

After my recent read of 1Q84, I couldn’t help but wonder, is the surrealist formula that he has so intelligently crafted fading away after all these years? 1Q84 doesn’t emerge as some masterpiece or an epitome of the author’s style, but rather a diluted version of surreal to the real theme that makes it less and less striking.  

About 1Q84

1Q84 comprises the perspective of two iconic characters that travel to an alternate reality “1Q84” in the year 1984. Both the worlds are identical except for the Little People, a bunch of seemingly magical dwarfs who communicate through a religious cult Sakigake, and the presence of an extra moon. 

The female protagonist is Aomame, a gym instructor by day who transforms into an assassin of sexual abusers by night. Her “soulmate” is Tengo, a cram-school teacher who has attracted the wrath of Little People by writing a novella with a 17-year-old teen Fuka Eri with the mention about their existence. Although they both knew each other for as little as 3 years in elementary school, they are pulled together after almost 20 years by something only describable as “destiny.” 

In a nutshell, 1Q84 deals with the plots by the Little People to destroy Tengo and Aomame with the help of the magical powers. Yet, the underlying theme is that Aomame and Tengo are meant to be together which brings me to the question of why Murakami chose to create such a long length of a book about a simple story of a happy ending. 

The Murakami Formula 

After reading everything written by Murakami, I’ve concluded that a “standard” Murakami novel will contain three parts: 

  • Otherworldliness
  • Bizzare depiction of sex
  • Loneliness

Along with these, you’ll find pet topics mixed from author’s life itself, for instance, jazz (he owned the jazz club during the early twenties), cats, smoking (try and find a Murakami novel that doesn’t mention “slim, gold lighter”) and endless references to American Pop culture. References to a lonely young girl smoking, coffee-drinking foraying into nighttime Tokyo is pretty common. For example, Kafka on the Shore features a villain who travels to the real world with the help of stone, the time when the fish rain from the sky at Nakata’s command, how ever-lonely protagonist has sex with his mother and sister both and how can we forget his travel through a magical forest. 

After muddling through the first few chapters, 1Q84 attracts a pretty heavy resemblance to this oft-called “magic realism” genre most associated with Gabriel Gracia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. In this genre, we often observe amalgamation of mundane miso soup dinners with surreal elements such as outwordly dreams and access to normally inaccessible places. So when the lead character Aomame pulls up her skirt and climbs down the monkey exit of a national highway from the “real” 1984 into 1Q84 to the background music of Janacek’s “Sinfonietta,” only a frequent reader of Mr. Haruki can guess that this is the inception of a parallel world into something as sinister as the novel’s namesake. 

But the plot of 1Q84 is quite literally a misnomer compared to the insanity of prior Murakami endeavors. In Kafka on the Shore, Murakami stretches to the height of what one may call “crack fiction” by having the villain dressed up as Johnnie Walker from the whiskey brand. Ironically, the only foreign portrayal in 1Q84 is the head of cult Aomame is sent to kill (the Leader) and the gods with whom he communicates (the Little People). This creates a sort of strange feeling when readers often find them babysitting by Murakami. Likewise, the other element hard to contemplate is the plot of Little People (hard-to-believe-as-sinister) only to prevent the two romantic leads from uniting. 

If we discuss loneliness, 1Q84 is pretty much similar to former Murakami novels as each of its characters employs Murakami’s self-practice isolation. Aomame spends hundreds of days shut in an apartment to the company of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, exercising on a stationary bike and sipping hot cocoa on the balcony. Similarly, Tengo lives by himself and shutting himself in his apartment or cafes trying to write his dream novel. The long tracts of days going by devoid of human contact are nothing new when it comes to Murakami. Both Protagonists of Kafka on the Shore and its 1987 predecessor Norwegian Wood are happy to spend hours reading by themselves in a sort of illusionary world. In Sputnik Sweetheart, Surime is a lonely writer who is chain-smoking with unkempt hair and passing hours in front of her typewriter attempting to channel Jack Kerouac. 

But neither loneliness or “outworldliness” can hold a torch of light to the unorthodox sexual practices of Murakami’s characters. Mark my words, Murakami will always ponder into some form of incest or age-difference sexual routes. However, with 1Q84, the usual sexually mentions falls into the category of rather “awkward” than surreal. Aomame engages in “all-night orgies” with one her female friend. At the same time, the head of the cult, the Leader, is described practicing sex with underage young girls, including his daughter, to communicate with the Little People. Tengo is stuck with a dream playing on a loop in his head of an unknown man sucking one of her mother’s breasts. And his sexual encounter with Fuka Eri which he explains “he was having sex with Aomame while Fuka Eri was a surrogate vessel.” This scene even won the Guardian’s worst sex award. Wow! 

Yet sex takes a backseat when we discover that the lead characters are attracted to broken and troubled people more than ever. 

The Question Remains

Is 1Q84 meant for a different kind of audience than Murakami’s earlier works? I feel, it is. It is not for those who want to deep dive into the darker parts of the soul. It is not for those who want to be an escapist and read about the world different from our own. Once you finish the book, you don’t want to travel to the magical world Murakami throws at you. You rather want to head back home and go to bed. The audience that 1Q84 attract will surely be different, one that is not quite familiar with Murakami’s more experimental works and who rejoice the escapism from the routine of everyday life. 

With this novel, Murakami has branched out into a different kind of author than he was for me. Maybe he wants to expose the subtle ideas that made him popular to a larger audience in a more accessible format. 

The only question remains is if it is a conscious decision and why. 

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