Guest review: Andrew Wrathall on 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Harvill Secker, 2011
(hardcover, ebook: books 1 & 2book 3

by Andrew Wrathall

Aomame is warned: ‘Things are not what they seem,’ before she leaves a taxi on a backed-up freeway in Japan and walks down an emergency stairway, which causes her to slip out of 1984 and into the alternate reality of 1Q84. Aomame is a gym instructor, who has lived alone since leaving her family of doomsday proselytizers as a girl. She is also contracted to kill the husbands of women who’ve escaped domestic violence.

There’s also Tengo, a mathematics teacher at a cram school, whose love for literature leads him on a dubious path as a ghostwriter. While reading manuscripts for a literary award, Tengo is intrigued by the story Air Chrysalis, written by a strange young girl called Fuka-Eri. When asked to rewrite the story, the offer is far too compelling to turn down. The rewritten book wins the literary award and becomes a bestseller, with the media lapping-up the story of Fuka-Eri as a gifted 17-year-old emerging writer.

Fuka-Eri’s story is about mysterious beings known only as the Little People, who enter the world through the mouth of a dead goat. The metaphysical Little People are a manipulative entity with an unknown agenda and originally exist as fiction within Fuka-Eri’s novel, then later appear within the world of 1Q84.

Murakami’s idea of the Little People, as an invisible and malevolent controlling force, is juxtaposed against the idea of Big Brother from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, as the totalitarian force that causes people to rewrite history so often that they forget which history is the true history. One character says that upon arriving at the year 1984, ‘There’s no longer any place for a Big Brother in this real world of ours,’ because Big Brother would be too obvious to people since the concept is universal. The Little People, however, are unheard of, and can easily remain hidden.

The characters identify the world as an alternate reality by the change in news stories which places the cult of Sagikake into the world, and by the appearance of two moons—a large one and a smaller moss-green one.

The three-part book is an epic 925 pages and is a slow-going read, but rewards the reader with richly painted scenes that border between the real and surreal. At times Murakami’s fantasy elements can seem incomprehensible, but readers should allow the narrative to unfold rather than attempt to decrypt the fantasy. Readers may question whether the original Japanese had other meanings, but certainly the prose in the translation (by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel) is flawless.

The story contains an adolescent connection between the main characters that drives the plot as a love story. There are sexual depictions that tread the line between erotic and disturbing. While Aomame is a tough and highly sexual character, she can easily be seen as an action hero born of male fantasy.

The narrative contains stories within stories, which inwardly explain the direction of the plot, then outwardly and self-reflexively reveal the motives of Murakami in writing the narrative. For example, Tengo explains why he thinks Anton Chekhov went to Sakhalin Island in Japan, as though Murakami were explaining why he created the world of 1Q84.

Murakami most likely bases Tengo on himself. Aomame at one point says, ‘Are you telling me that I was transported to this other world of 1Q84 by Tengo’s storytelling ability […] ?’, which can be viewed as a metafictional reference to the author.

In reference to Air Chrysalis the story reads, ‘Her readers followed along, very naturally adopting her point of view, and before they knew it, they were in another world—a world that was not this world,’ which could refer to the readers of 1Q84.

Murakami also seems like he is mocking the literary community when he writes sentences like, ‘More than a few of the reviewers seemed perplexed by—or simply undecided about—the meaning of the air chrysalis and the Little People […] “we are left in a pool of mysterious question marks. This may well be the author’s intention”.’

There are few references to Japanese ideas within the book, but very many Western references, which may be designed to appeal to Murakami’s Western audience. 1Q84 does appeal to a wide audience, but the fantasy may scare some mainstream readers away.

Andrew Wrathall is publishing assistant at Bookseller+Publisher and enjoys a quick trip to fantasy-land via the pages of a book before bed.

20 classics in 2011 #6: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011. Read more about this project here.

Why did I want to read it?

I love Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and dystopian fiction in general. Plus, the sections of my work-in-progress that people have read have been compared to Brave New World. I thought it was about time I read it (also to make sure I’m not accidentally riffing on it too much).

When was it published?

In 1932. Several years before Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) and in many ways containing more progressive ideas. Huxley wrote to Orwell in 1949, congratulating him on his book, and predicting:

‘Within the next generation I believe that the world’s leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience.’ (via)

My edition was published by Longman, and of course there are many editions (see Aus, US, UK).

What’s it about?

Set in London in the year 2540, children are grown, rather than born, and are conditioned via Pavlovian methods and sleep-learning to be citizens of different castes. The idea is that society will be stable, and that people will be happy. They are essentially free to pursue pleasure through multiple sexual partners, soma (a form of medication/recreation) and ‘feelies’, which are movies with added sensation. The Model T Ford and Sigmund Freud are the fathers of this society. Ford is their God.

Bernard is a bit of an outsider both physically and mentally. He thinks his fellow Alphas are ‘morons’, and he fights internally against his own conditioning. He is able to see that happiness is a construct, and is therefore, of course, not happy. He sees the value in delaying gratification, and in being alone (both blasphemous in this society).

Bernard takes a woman he likes, Lenina, to a Savage Reservation, where they meet a woman from their World who had been lost there, and her son, who has learnt English through Shakespeare and who is curious about this place he’s heard so much about. The second half of the novel then deals with ‘the Savage’ and his encounter with civilisation.

Tell us more about the author.

Aldous Huxley was born into an educated family in Surrey, UK in 1894. He was educated at Eton college and was disqualified from service in the WWI due to an illness that left him mostly blind for two to three years. He would struggle with eyesight problems all his life. He studied English literature at Oxford and graduated with first class honours.

Huxley began writing seriously in his 20s. His first published novel was Chrome Yellow in 1921. Brave New World is probably his most famous novel. He moved to Hollywood in 1937 and became interested in Vedanta (and introduced Christopher Isherwood into the circle of Hindu Swami Prabhavananda). He earned a bit of money as a screenwriter, but his synopsis of Alice in Wonderland was rejected by Walt Disney ‘on the grounds that “he could only understand every third word”. (via) Huxley was at the time beginning to experiment with psychedelic drugs as an experiment in the search for enlightenment. I’d like to read that synopsis…

Huxley famously requested and took LSD on his deathbed in 1963. He was 69.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

‘What fun it would be if one didn’t have to think about happiness!’ – World Controller Mustapha Mond

For a book that was apparently completed in just four months, Brave New World is almost shockingly prescient, dealing with issues of consumption, conformity and complacency. The idea that citizens will be conditioned to be able to fulfil themselves through the means available in order to create stability (as opposed to through threat or punishment) is even more relevant today. Other aspects are dated, of course, such as the psychoanalytic overtones, and the hypnopaedic ways of learning. But then again, some people do still buy into ‘subliminal learning’!

The retro-future aspects are still enjoyable, aesthetically, such as the fact there are lift operators, and helicopters are the advanced mode of transport. It’s like seeing the DOS computer systems in Blade Runner. You can’t read a futuristic novel written in the past and not think about what has and hasn’t come to pass, and what might by the date in which it’s set. There is still an environment in 2540, for example, where as any futuristic novel written today would surely grapple with the issue of climate change.

Bernard is a great character, both inside and outside his society – conditioned by it, like everyone else, but also fighting against it. He has a weak personality, and a large ego, and is easily buoyed by popularity and praise in the rare instances it is bestowed upon him. I think readers of the novel over time would have related to his character, particularly in the earlier chapters, when everyone else is loosening up and having a good time and he feels something is a little off. He is painfully aware of himself and the way he’s feeling. He is interested in ideas of the benefits of feeling pain and of delaying gratification – ideas I’m fascinated by in this era of rampant consumerism. Natural human desires have always been ever-renewing, but what happens to us when they can be fulfilled easier and easier? Huxley deals with the way dissatisfaction or boredom might set in with soma, where citizens can take a little drug-holiday. Soma reminds me of both valium and ecstasy. It calms, and it also creates heightened sensation. Bernard is too aware of its effects (but he still uses it). The Savage refuses to use it.

I enjoyed the ideas, too, about the way we are constructed through language – about how powerful language is. In the brave new world, all ‘old’ texts have disappeared, because they are unnecessary and will interfere with the conditioned ideas. A language of worship to a commercial god has replaced them. But the Savage, too, is constructed by words. His ideas about the world come from Shakespeare. He cannot reconcile himself with the (normatised) promiscuity of the world, and repeats phrases like ‘impudent strumpet!’ from Othello. He thinks and speaks in Shakespearian, and so becomes subversive to both his Savage society who do not read in English, and to his mother and civilisation, who are conditioned to think in specific oppositional ways. There is an Oedipal undertone, too, where he tries to kill the man in bed with his mother. His love and disgust for her is then transferred into his love and disgust for Lenina. He does not wish to ‘defile’ her, thought she literally throws herself at him. Conditioned to be sexually open, she doesn’t understand his response at all. The Savage is a tragic character. The greater message, here, I think, is that none of us escape some kind of ‘conditioning’ through language, during our socialisation process.

I was quite disturbed by the Savage’s repulsion of Lenina, though it is justified in the story. I was worried about a parallel message of nostalgia for female chastity and virginity. I suppose Huxley could have wanted to explore these thoughts (as he’s exploring the dangers of excess in general), and that’s also why Linda, the Savage’s mother, is rendered so repulsively (not just to the civilised, but to the reader). Lenina is a character who, if the novel were written now, I believe could have been developed further. Her tiny awakenings were due to the male characters she encountered and her desire for them. She could be more active, now.

I underlined and dog-eared much in Brave New World and I think it’s a novel that will continue to make people think, and definitely to entertain. I forgot to mention that it’s funny – particularly in relation to Bernard. The style is a little all-over-the-place, but it works. It’s a brilliant piece of art.

‘What you need,’ the Savage went on, ‘is something with tears for a change. Nothing costs enough here.’

What’s next?

I’m currently reading The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. It’s a big’un so be patient with me.

Have you read Brave New World? What are your thoughts? I have to say that the mood of Nineteen Eighty-Four is quite different. I remember it well: a certain weightiness. Is there a dystopian vision you prefer?

Moon dust will cover you: the story of David Bowie and me

After James Bradley’s ‘Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)’.

David Bowie was really the first artist I found on my own as a young adult. Bowie came to me in a humorous, intertextual way, through watching Zoolander at the age of about 16 at Birch, Carroll & Coyle Cinemas, Coffs Harbour. I worked there so movies were only 50 cents, and I must have seen Zoolander about four times. Some of you may remember the moment where Bowie shows up, to call the ‘walk-off’. When the legend steps into frame, just a small section from ‘Let’s Dance’, plays: ‘Let’s dance… duh, duh duh duhduh’. Well this refrain haunted me. I found myself sitting in class, trying to concentrate on Othello and ‘duh, duh duh duhduh’ would repeat, over and over. I knew this song, from one of my favourite teenage movies Gia, starring Angelina Jolie as the tragic, bisexual, gorgeous and wild ‘original supermodel’ Gia Carangi. I’d liked the song watching the film when I was 14, 15, 16 – but now, it was absolutely glued in my head. I also remembered reading, in the biography of Gia (Thing of Beauty by Stephen Fried), about her being a ‘Bowie kid’ in the ’70s, and I remembered the fact of his open sexuality – this being a big thing that attracted me to cultural icons in my teens as I was struggling with being open about my own attractions.

But it was the song itself – that tiny part, which began the obsession. The first CD I bought was ChangesBowie, a best-of, which of course included ‘Let’s Dance’. It features magic from all eras (‘Space Oddity’ through ‘Blue Jean’). I recognised many of the songs though never knew they’d been by the same person. My parents had the Pretty Woman soundtrack when I was a kid, and there on ChangesBowie was ‘Fame ‘90’! Those-in-the-know started to recommend albums, the first being Hunky Dory – and I fell in love with the song ‘Life on Mars’ and, being an Andy Warhol fan, dug the song about him: ‘I’d like to be a gallery/Put you all inside my show’.

Every time I bought an album I was astounded by the lyrics, and then the way the music & lyric combo had this sad, nostalgic pull on me. What was I nostalgic for? And yet the songs also made me feel wrapped-up and warm (perhaps covered by moondust). I find that the songs are complex – the upbeat songs often have an undercurrent of collapse; the blue songs have a playfulness to them. There’s history and science and spirituality and love and mirrors and magic and intellect and the ordinary and the universe in an album. And definitely transience, and death. There are stories – the album Diamond Dogs, inspired in part by Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a glam-carnivalesque, tragic, epic science fiction ode to desire, dreaming and oppression. In the past two or three years this has become my favourite album (along with Low – particularly the second half). From ‘We Are the Dead’, a fucking amazing song:

‘We feel that we are paper choking on you nightly
They tell me, Son, we want you to be elusive
But don’t walk far
For we’re breaking in the new boys
Deceive your next of kin
For you’re dancing
Where the dogs decay defecating ecstasy
You’re just an ally of the leecher
Locator for the virgin king
But I love you in your fuck-me pumps
And your nimble dress that trails’

For my seventeenth birthday my good friend Simon bought me the Best of Bowie DVD: two discs of his incredible film clips (now my most-watched DVD). I was fascinated by the weird, druggy, soft-focus post-modern direction of David Mallet, who did many of his film clips. I was inspired by the transgressive, chameleonic appearance of Bowie – his camera-flirt face, his bony hips in tight circuit-patterned jumpsuits, his ‘coolness’, his glamour, his paleness, his sadness, his out-of-itness (the hilarious ‘DJ’ clip), his regret, his silliness (‘Dancing in the Street’ with Mick Jagger, his evolution (jazz, synth, metal, hip hop, techno – see ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ or ‘Hallo Spaceboy’). He’s always new. He’s the artist you never get sick of because you just go through moods with him – the different albums, the different eras, the different styles – and this through-line of drama, emotional complexity, and other-worldliness (fighting the constraints of this world).

Although my parents had listened to Bowie when they were young, he wasn’t someone they listened to when we were growing up. Bowie belonged to a certain set of memories and emotions, particularly for my Dad, who was in his teens and early 20s in the 1970s. In the early days of my Bowie discovery, I sat down with my dad and played Hunky Dory. ‘Space Oddity’ is a great song, my dad said. When it came on, he cried, and I hugged him. It was a song that had made me cry, too, in the privacy of my room, but I wasn’t sure why. ‘Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing we can do’. For my dad, it brought back a specific time and place, and was also a reminder of the time that had passed since then, I’d imagine.

In 2002, when I was in Year 12, the album Heathen came out – a predominantly melancholy, lamenting album. ‘For in truth, it’s the beginning of nothing/and nothing has changed/everything has changed’. And in 2003 Reality was released – a little more upbeat, with some themes of getting older, change again, time, memory, art, conflict, love and still the fantastical. From ‘Fall Dog Bombs the Moon’:

‘Fall Dog is cruel and smart
Smart time breaks the heart
Fall Dog Bombs the moon
A devil in a marketplace
A devil in your bleeding face
Fall dog bombs the moon’

In 2004, David Bowie came to Australia on the Reality tour. My boyfriend at the time bought us very expensive tickets – we were in the twelfth row at the Brisbane concert. It was one of the best nights of my life. I remember feeling smug that I was one of the only people at the front who seemed to know the lyrics to both the old and new songs. Bowie looked incredible – blonde, fit, dressed modern and relaxed. When he sang Life on Mars and Five Years my heart beat so fast. In Be My Wife, I sang along, pointing at Bowie as I sang ‘please be mine, share my life, stay with me, be my wife’. To my delight, Bowie and I locked eyes as I was pointing and singing – he pointed and leaned back, smiling broadly at me. My face burnt red, my stomach left me. I turned to my boyfriend and said ‘DID YOU SEE THAT?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘David Bowie looked at you.’

For all the joy of that night, Bowie and I have shared some dark times. Because, really, he spoke to a part of me that not a lot of people around me saw, or wanted to see – or, I wouldn’t let them see. Wouldn’t, y’no, ‘burden’ them. I’m sure my teenage problems aren’t any more special than anyone else’s, but at the time I felt alone, and often: alone, swallowed, at the end of the world. I have the greatest family and friends, there were no visible problems, no causes. My dad was sick, and that was hard, but it wasn’t that, the word ‘overwhelmed’ came into my mind a lot. Everything required so much effort. Being, living, making something of it all, knowing the things you can never change, knowing that when you’re happy that moment will end, etc. I was extra-sensitive and kinda shocked by reality. And Bowie was one of my saviours, a space blanket, an inspiration. He told me I could be creative and open and eccentric and do big things and that it would be okay if, on some level, this feeling remained.

And so I write.

There is one more major role Bowie has played so far in my life – one of connection. When I lived in Coffs Harbour I’d try and put on Bowie at a party, and be practically booed from the room. They didn’t want Bowie, or Pink Floyd, or the Doors, or even Elton John. My stupid old sad music, my ‘bring down’. Don’t get me wrong, I like to dance, too. I love it, actually. But just once, I wanted them to listen, and appreciate (and connect). My mates. Some did appreciate him in private, but there was this type of person you always had to become in a party context – and there is that in me – but some part always felt thwarted. I still feel sad when I think of some of those nights – On my nineteenth birthday I was desperately unhappy. Hardly anyone came to my birthday, I watched a video the next day of my drunk-on-Schnapps self watching a music DVD, despised what I saw, and over the next year I lost over 20 kilos becoming what I thought I should be.

But now, oh, Melbourne! I can play Bowie to my heart’s content. My friends like Bowie. They also like jazz, and musicals, and sad country music, and Nick Cave, and Fleetwood Mac, and then even that stuff you can dance to. About two years after I’d moved to Melbourne, I was spending the afternoon with one of my best friends at ACMI, sipping red wine, and we had a conversation about life, the universe and everything, then he went off to a movie and I went home to watch Rocky Horror and Stingray Sam. We texted each other all though our movies (pictures of round faces and corsets) and afterwards I asked G what he was up to. ‘Just walking around the city, looking at the stars’, he said. I invited him over to hang out, we’d been hanging out more and more lately and I was jittery and yet ecstatic about what was possibly growing. After all, he was the best person I knew. When he arrived, we watched my whole David Bowie DVD, both discs, and I thought – how wonderful it is to find someone who loves this like I do. At the end of the DVD, Bowie shot his Cupid arrow and our hands, so naturally, came together.