How to Read Haruki Murakami

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Master of the subconscious: Murakami’s latest opus is greater than the sum of its parts Gueorgui Pinkhassov / Magnum

When Haruki Murakami agreed to let me interview him in his Hawaii home, I couldn't believe my good fortune. It was 2006, and Murakami was one of my favorite writers. I frantically underlined passages of his work, searching for clues and connections between the talking animals, labyrinths, and historical references that dotted his prose. I couldn't wait to ask the author in person: what does it all mean?

Murakami, it turned out, didn't seem to know. While he spoke eloquently about history and the Japanese education system, the author seemed peculiarly detached from the products of his own imagination. It was as if his novels emerged from some sub-conscious passageway whose door slammed shut once he put down his pen. "When I'm not writing, they are gone," Murakami said of the mysterious creatures that populate his novels. "I don't even dream."

I was dismayed. I'd always thought of Murakami's work as a treasure chest of meaning, and now I'd learned there was no master key. I took a five-year vacation from Murakami. So it was with some reluctance that I picked up his new opus, 1Q84, whose plot seemed nonsensical even by Murakami standards. But now I can confidently say that not only did I finish the book, I even enjoyed it. I just stopped searching for hidden meanings, and I suggest you do too.

Here are a few other tips for reading 1Q84:

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Murakami's strength is in his storytelling, his imagination, and his ability to lure readers into an unrecognizable universe. At 925 pages, 1Q84 is a serious commitment, not only because we've become accustomed to 140-character soundbites. But length has its benefits too. The more time you spend in Murakami's world, the less you question your surroundings. And the story of 1Q84, as crazy as it will sound from the description that follows, is captivating in its own way. 1Q84 tells the parallel stories of Aomame and Tengo, two characters with a deep connection from the past. Aomame is an assassin who targets perpetrators of domestic violence. She sets out to kill an enigmatic cult leader who has been victimizing young girls. Tengo is a math teacher and aspiring novelist who rewrites "Air Chrysalis," an imaginative but terribly written work by a girl named Fuka-Eri, who escaped this very same cult. Somewhere in all this, Aomame and Tengo fall out of the year 1984 and into 1Q84, a parallel universe where there are two moons. The cult commissions a semitragic villain named Ushikawa to trip them up.

1Q84's overall story is stronger than some of its individual phrases, and certain images are repeated too many times. Yes, we know that Ushikawa has a misshapen head, that the second moon is green, that Fuka-Eri doesn't use question marks, and that calls from Tengo's editor have a particular ring. These repetitions add length and little more. But let them go. Ultimately, they don't obstruct the narrative tide.

IQ84 by Haruki Murakami

Be one with the Japanese. Japanese cultural phenomena don't always translate so well overseas. And yet Murakami has a truly dedicated following all over the world. Some would argue that he isn't a "representative" Japanese writer, in part because his books reference the likes of Sonny and Cher. There's also the fact that he occasionally refers to his own Japanese characters as "inscrutable." Still, there's no question that Murakami somehow captures the tone and rhythm of Japanese life, which in part explains why his books fly off the shelves there. Certain characters in 1Q84, most notably an NHK fee collector and a cram-school instructor, illuminate particular segments of Japanese society. At the same time, Murakami's books touch on universal sentiments of fear and vengeance and enduring love. So enjoy living with the Japanese, at least for 925 pages, under the same two moons.

Murakami is not George Orwell. This comparison is hard to avoid, given the title of 1Q84, its direct references to Orwell, and the inclusion of the sentence "Big Brother Is Watching You." Yet while Orwell's "Big Brother" represents some dark, totalitarian force, the characters known as "Little People" that flit in and out of 1Q84 are far more elusive. We learn that they are "an invisible presence. We can't even tell whether they are good or evil, or whether they have any substance or not." We also know that they come out of the mouth of a dead goat. Orwell's seemingly deliberate decisions about metaphor and allegory help ensure that author and reader interpret the world in the same way. Put more simply, Orwell had an agenda. Murakami, on the other hand, sets his images free and leaves us to decipher them at will. Or, better yet, to not decipher them at all. If Murakami is writing from his subconscious, after all, then why are we consciously analyzing him? Yuko, my closest friend in Japan, perhaps gives the best advice for reading Murakami: "I never try to figure out what he is trying to say. I simply enjoy the flow of his words and transfer them into my own film in my head. You know what I mean?"