Do Nothing, Be Nothing

Violence, idleness, and nihilism in Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84

Clocking in at just short of a thousand pages, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 is the author’s ostensible pitch for the Nobel Prize and what many expect will stand as his magnum opus. Published in Japan in three installments beginning in 2009, the novel was released in North America in a single volume this past October.

True to form, Murakami sprinkles artificial flavoring from the likes of Franz Kafka and Raymond Chandler throughout, and begins the novel with a tribute to another of his great influences, Lewis Carroll. In 1Q84, Murakami’s Alice is an assassin named Aomame; a stairway off a congested Tokyo expressway takes the place of the rabbit hole; and Wonderland is not a strange and amazing place but an eminently similar-but-different universe called 1Q84. The novel is set in 1984, and after her decent down the staircase, Aomame’s world mysteriously and — at first imperceptibly — shifts.

Violence appears in much of Murakami’s prior work. It is impossible to forget, for instance, a haunting passage in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle describing the meticulous skinning of a man’s entire body. While perhaps excessively explicit, it stands alongside Dostoyevsky’s most poignant illustrations of human cruelty and vileness. However much the theme of violence may have been explored in his earlier work, in 1Q84 — and unlike in any of Murakami’s other work — violence is the constitutive element at the novel’s core. Violence manifests itself, or else lies in wait, at every turn of the page.

In 1Q84’s dystopia, the exterior world is not a complex multifaceted otherness but instead simply a bad and nasty place, the habitat of violence. Consequently, Murakami’s characters are faced with a limited set of responses. The first and most obvious is to fight back, battle with that exterior world with violence of their own to overcome it. In 1Q84, this strategy is epitomized by Aomame, who assassinates domestic abusers with the help of “the dowager,” her ethereal partner in crime. But this approach has obvious moral hazards. Doesn’t violence breed violence, even when deployed for laudable ends and in homeopathic doses?

Murakami himself seems ill at ease with this solution and proposes a second option for dealing with an inherently violent world: idleness. Like Bird, who spends days at the bottom of a dried-up well in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or Kafka, who spends weeks alone in a secluded cabin in Kafka on the Shore, many of 1Q84’s characters spend a lot of time not doing much. Aomame may well be forced into hiding, but it remains that she spends nearly the entire third book following a daily regimen of exercise, looking down from her balcony, looking up into the sky, and reading (Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, no less). The novel’s other primary character, Tengo, for his part, does little more than read, write, wait for the phone to ring, go to work, and visit his comatose father — no surprise here — at a sanatorium.

In fact, there is nary a character in 1Q84 who is not either (a) resigned to inactivity or (b) the victim of violence in the broad sense, i.e. either a perpetrator of violence or its object. Murakami appears deeply convinced that the specter of violence everywhere in the world creates this dilemma. Indeed, the book’s sole outgoing, devil-may-care character, Ayumi, merits the most gruesome death of all. The message is clear to the free-roaming sheep: The wolf in the midst will find you and tear you to pieces. Since Murakami’s protagonists are constantly seeking refuge from violence, they are necessarily reticent about interacting with the outside world. They have no other choice than to stay home. Do nothing. Be nothing.

But is idleness the only way to elude the penumbra of violence? Almost. Murakami also explores withdrawal’s biological extreme: suicide, which also pervades the novel. Aomame’s friend and the dowager’s daughter, the reader learns, opted for suicide to escape domestic abuse. Aomame herself exhibits suicidal tendencies throughout the novel as well.

Suicide and the deliberate withdrawal from society (Tengo’s father’s coma is apparently self-induced) are varying degrees of the same compulsion toward self-denial and death and a direct consequence of Murakami’s elevation of violence as the world’s true — albeit amorphous — subject.

The consequences of this worldview are considerable from a literary standpoint. By positing the exterior world as nothing but sheer violence, the individual is rendered little more than an object-for-violence. Murakami’s characters become immobile statuettes yearning for a time when they were free and independent. Stripped of both life instinct and free will, they are coerced into action by forces beyond their control and duly destroyed by an author who, rightly, sees them as nothing but living corpses.

Indeed, in 1Q84, Murakami’s protagonists — it is perhaps a misnomer to describe them as such — remain passive observers or reluctant participants in the narrative’s unfolding. They are merely figurines on a game board waiting for someone else to activate them. This creates a need for “secondary protagonists” (like Tamaru and Kamatsu in 1Q84) to fill the void left by those characters the reader was initially led to believe had secured the novel’s starring roles.

Consider 1Q84’s main axis: Tengo and Aomame feel a cosmological urge to seek one another out. They separately realize that they have been in love with one another since what appeared to be an inconsequential encounter in their childhood. At best, their concrete endeavors to locate one another can only be considered half-hearted. Enter Tamaru, who calls Tengo to arrange the fateful reunion. Enter Ushikawa, whose spying unintentionally leads Aomame to locate Tengo’s home. Enter Komatsu, who tips over the first domino, launching an unassuming Tengo into a convoluted plot that ultimately leads him to his true love. In other words, a host of entirely forgettable and interchangeable secondary characters become a sort of scaffolding without which the story would inevitably stall. Remember too that Tengo is a ghostwriter and Aomame an assassin: both invisible actors, hired hands, anonymous entities.

Another device Murakami uses to pull his protagonists out of their idle slumber is magic, inexplicable cosmological forces or spontaneous inklings compelling one toward action. At one point, Tengo decides to go out after “staying holed up in his apartment, waiting for something to happen.” He sets out and “suddenly realize[s] what he had been doing all along… He tried shaking his head a few times, but the idea that had struck him would not go away. He had probably made up his mind unconsciously from the moment he boarded the inbound Chuo Line train.” Without knowing it, with no definite purpose, and in spite of a profound disliking for him, Tengo, we learn here, is off to visit his father.

But the most irritating and facile of Murakami’s devices are the unlikely coincidences and arbitrary connections characters make. They are invariably at the right place at the right time (e.g. Aomame happens to be confined to an apartment that overlooks the very playground where she will eventually spot Tengo), or surprisingly know more about something which they would be expected to know little or nothing (e.g. the dowager has inside information on a spurious, cultish commune headed by an eventual victim).

Like an overcreative child inventing a story in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, Murakami strains the reader’s patience by inviting him on the next scarcely believable episode, which may or may not have relevance to future developments. Why bother to make coherent links when the end has already been decided? The narrative reads like a foregone conclusion, rendering the text into a sort of residue rather than the subtle expression of its invisible substrate. Objects, descriptions, places, even subplots can be added or subtracted in the editing phase. Who knows? Maybe the original draft of 1Q84 was twice as long.

But it is unsettling, if not flat-out dangerous, to reduce a character to pure objectivity. And this is precisely what Murakami does. From a literary standpoint, his characters are not only objects-for-violence but simply objects. Consider the novel’s culmination, when Tengo and Aomame are finally united:

Inside him, 20 years dissolved and mixed into one complex, swirling whole. Everything that had accumulated over the years — all he had seen, all the words he had spoken, all the values he had held — all of it coalesced into one solid, thick pillar in his heart, the core of which was spinning like a potter’s wheel. Wordlessly, Tengo observed the scene, as if watching the destruction and rebirth of a planet.

Not unlike Tengo’s experience, the reader witnesses something like the destruction and rebirth of the novel: a reverse Big Bang. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that Murakami compresses the entire novel into these three sentences.

By collapsing Tengo’s existence into one revelatory moment, Murakami negates the wealth and variety of human experience essential to self-knowledge. It is indeed somewhat surprising that Murakami appears so compelled to indefinitely expand his characters in time and space if they are doomed to destruction through the miracle of revelation. For Murakami, whether a person is contracted into a single lead marble or spread high and wide across a canvas, it all comes out to the same thing. Why bother with character development, plo, and all the rest when the foreplay is so bad?