By Phil Anderson
Planting a garden and writing a book are not dissimilar. When you plant a garden, you lay your seeds in the soil and water them and hope that the light shines often enough and in the right spots so that the flowers you intended to sprout grow and create a beautiful thing appreciated by passers-by and, if you're really good, other horticulturalists. Sometimes seeds die, but that's fine--they're buried deep in the soil out of view.
When writing a novel, though, all seeds are visible. The darkest roots dangle on the same page as the brightest petals. Everything, in essence, is exposed. And when the novel is a large, complex garden, as in Haruki Murakami's latest, 1Q84, there's evidence of every seed that didn't grow, every root that died at exposure, and the reader cannot help but notice.
Murakami's novel is long. At a whopping 925 pages, it's an extensive story of boy and girl meet, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl don't see each other for twenty years. Meanwhile there's an organic farming cult, ominous "Little People" who crawl out of a dead goat, a vengeful old lady and her gay bodyguard, rapes, assassinations, and two moons--our heroes, Tengo and Aomame, the would-be lovers, have entered a parallel universe that is no longer 1984 Tokyo, but instead 1Q84.
Murakami's writing has always had two strong points. First, he can create an air to his world as if the flowers in his garden do not, in fact, produce oxygen but something else, and, as you breathe it in, you experience a true feeling of "other." His noir-esque writing combined with the elements of magical realism is uniquely Murakami. According to a recent interview in the Times, Raymond Chandler is one of Murakami's favorite authors, and the dark aura that subsumes the readers of Chandler's novels hangs deftly over every page of Murakami's latest book.
His second great talent is telling a story within the story. He uses nice long soliloquies, often by bit players, to further illuminate the meaning of the story as a whole. These bits are the most captivating parts of his novel--Reiko's piano lesson story in Norwegian Wood, or the skinning of humans in Wind-up Bird Chronicle.
In 1Q84, we have too few of those moments considering the novel's length. Many of the stories involve literature--a direct passage from a Chekhov memoir, and a Kafkaesque short story about a "town of cats." There are, however, some passages that come close to the fascinating personal histories of Murakami's previous characters.
One of those comes from the gay bodyguard, Tamaru. In an enthralling scene, Tamaru tells another character about Carl Jung's stone house--how Jung keeps expanding this house despite its original intent of a simple place to think, and how Jung carved on a stone at the entrance, "Cold or not, God is present." The significance of this phrase is admittedly lost on Tamaru, but he notes that it's something that he often thinks about, unable to forget it. He tells it to someone at the most opportune and interesting time, giving that story the punch one expects from Murakami.
But Tamaru is one of those seeds that didn't grow. He is a defined character--gay, Korean, orphan, professional--but around the end of the novel Murakami gives him a strange additional detail that seemed not only out of character but set up only to add unnecessary mystery. He does the same with Kumi Adachi, a nurse at the sanatorium in which Tengo's father resides. She's a minor character, but as if to answer a question asked within the first couple pages of the book, she has a mysterious memory of a past life. She may or may not be the reincarnation of someone we'd heard about. A seed with roots and not much else, and an ugly nothing plant. There's also a gun that, despite Tamaru concisely explaining Chekhov's rule, does not go off. And there's an end that seeks more.
Murakami originally wrote this as three novels, and that's how it was published in Japan. In the English edition, the book is nicely divided in three units split up by time moving along easier--one can finish the first part and still feel a sense of accomplishment, ready to plunge into the second section, then the third. Upon finishing the novel, I longed for a fourth section. Only there wasn't one. But there's hope. Murakami hadn't planned on writing the third section, but it came to him. With luck, this story will continue, if only to see some of those dying seeds mature and blossom and continue exhaling more of that mysterious air.