by Haruki Murakami
944 pages / $30.50 Buy from Amazon
Please do not read this or any other review if you intend to read IQ84. A Murakami novel is best read without knowledge of its plot.
Few books are about life itself.
Part of the reason we live is to see what happens next. Will we go to college? Go on a road trip? Whom will we marry? When? Will we have children? Will we move? Will we get that job? Meet eyes with a girl who reminds us of someone we once knew? What will we have for dinner?
IQ84 is alive with its own life. Start from the beginning and see what happens next. The less you know, the more fun the discovery will be. All you need to know is this:
The book takes place in Tokyo. There are two main characters, Tengo and Aomame. You must bring to this book your own preconceptions about everything—God, existence, love, morality—not mine or anyone else’s. Your reading will be your own.
Your wrists may hurt as you read—the novel is almost 1000 pages. It’s a heavy tome because it’s a whole universe. The pain in your wrists will be worth the wormhole.
Now get out of here.
Below I will discuss major and minor themes and plot points, but will not spoil the answers to what I perceive to be the central questions that drive the book.
How to Read / The Rules:
IQ84 is a metafictional novel that operates on multiple dimensions in multiple worlds. We, as readers, are given signposts almost immediately to help us read the novel. The first sentence in bold type we encounter is:
“Don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.”
The characters of the novel operate in a world much like ours, where the rules are fallible and made to be broken. I understood the sentences in bold as rules I, as a reader, could hold onto. We do this in our own lives, but a tenet of my existence (for example, do onto others, or, eat the pizza—you only live once) may not hold true for you. The bold sentences are the truths of this world, IQ84, this novel.
Early in the novel, Aomame gets a gun and immediately our minds turn to Chekov, then of course IQ84 goes on a three-page tangent discussing Chekov’s gun and the rules of plot. There are many rules of novel writing, a central one being that the author must be forthcoming with the rules of a new, strange world. There are no rules; there is nothing that is always true in IQ84.
We don’t always know what is true and real and what is not. The characters don’t always understand what’s happening either. They are learning about their worlds as they go along, running on intuition, gut feelings, half-truths and faith. We are living and experiencing with them. Tengo’s father tells him, “If you don’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation.” Tengo repeats this line over and over throughout the novel. He is slightly confused, so we as readers don’t feel pressure to understand every nuance of the novel. In reading the book, we are nudged by typographical cues to just go along with the characters and discover what there is to experience and learn.
I will be honest here. I fake-read 1984 in high school and never got around to actually reading it. We all know the gist of it. Big Brother, dystopia, brain washing, etc.—these themes are present in IQ84 (Little People and/or metafictional readers/creators as Big Brother, cults) and in both novels there is a man and a woman who are separated. The world of IQ84 would not be possible if the book were set in modern times. We can no longer make it into adulthood wondering whatever happened to that old classmate of ours, as with the case of Tengo and Aomame. We cannot predict who is calling when the phone rings. We cannot rely solely on chance and coincidence to run into someone, hear a song, or stumble upon the answer to a question.
I think in terms of scope, theme and ambition, IQ84 is our generation’s Don Quixote. They are both astounding, gigantic books encompassing strange new worlds including the world from which you are reading, stories within stories within stories and in the end both are about the power and beauty of storytelling itself. I also found myself frequently thinking of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy—characters move between worlds, religion is suspect, and humans are accompanied by externalized portions of their souls.
When the Little People climb out of the mouth of the dead goat, thus connecting 1984 to IQ84, something about the action seems entirely plausible and intuitively right.
The other characters get to IQ84 via different paths—Tengo through rewriting a novel, Aomame through climbing down an emergency stairwell on the side of a highway. She descends into another world, and another time flow—a place with two moons.
Aomame and Tengo are our anchors. Aomame is meticulous, calculating and reasonable. She hates constipation, abusive men and religious fundamentalists. Who can argue? Tengo is a math teacher, patient and kind. The reality we are in is perplexing and nonsensical, but the characters are not.
We escape into IQ84, but it is the best kind of escapism. A story can take you outside of yourself and back in, to your deepest self, to a part of yourself you may not even be able to speak to or consciously speak from, and the story tells this nugget inside you that you are not alone, it presents you with insights on how best to live your life. IQ84 says: with faith, with hope, with pain and with wonder at the myriad of endless possibilities.
We are introduced to Tengo as he is being asked to rewrite a novella called Air Chrysalis, written by a seventeen-year-old girl named Fuka-Eri, who is probably the most subversive character in the book. We learn, though, that she did not physically write the novella, but dictated it to her adopted sister. Right now, I am writing about a book that was translated from Japanese to English, a book in large part about reading a book and rewriting a book that has already been written by someone who dictated a book to someone else, a book which then inspired Tengo to write a book that may very well be the book that we are reading. This is a Mobius strip that is maybe about the essence of writing itself. There is no beginning or end in creating and there is no creator or createe. Stories burst forth on their own.
Good and Evil:
The worst of humanity is a recurring theme in IQ84; domestic abuse, child abuse, child rape, murder and to a lesser extent, cults, religious fundamentalism, and the emotional and physical abandonment of children. But there is also the running theme of balance. Where there is bad, it is the law of nature that good must rise up as a force against it. Every force has its own opposing force. Aomame, the dowager and Tamaru, (one of my favorite characters) are a band of assassins who hunt down and painlessly, quietly murder bad men. Aomame’s morality is never called into question, but the book also discusses the fact that the concepts of good and evil depend on perspective. The more one side uses their power, the more another power will rise to resist it. “THIS FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLE IS THE SAME IN ANY WORLD.” It certainly feels true for ours.
IQ84 is also a love letter to the moon and to the things that unify us. There is “a sense of human gratitude toward the moon…imprinted upon human genes like a warm collective memory.” When I was fourteen, I was in a lot of pain like Aomame, and I went around with a metaphorical gun in my mouth. (I am not as hardcore as Aomame.) I had a friend who told me to look at the moon and think of him whenever I felt lonely. I thought he was the world’s most gigantic dork but one day I tried it. I felt unbearably sad. I looked at the moon and thought of him. He was thousands of miles away but he could see the same moon, and so could everyone else in the world, now and 100,000 years ago. It anchors us. So Tengo, Aomame and we readers are hurled into space when this other moon shows up. We are no longer anchored.
Being Lost and Secrets:
“Town of Cats,” is one of IQ84’s stories-within-a-story, much like Quixote’s “The Impertinent Curiosity” Both are stories about the place where you delve too far, maybe too far to ever turn back. The place where you become irretrievably lost. This place can also be called madness. It can be the cycle of thinking within which you’re cocooned. Addiction. Obsession. There are many worlds and flows of time, but we are all living in the same reality.
“There are some things on this earth that are better left as unknowns.” Sometimes, it’s better to let a secret remain a secret. This is a difficult lesson for me because I operate like a garbage truck. I want to know everything. I want to squish it all inside of me and press it together to make more room in my giant belly. But there are supporting characters in IQ84 who urge Tengo to let go of the past and other people’s secrets and lead his own life. Sometimes its best to let the dead take their secrets with them, as there are some secrets only the dead can understand.
There is almost no mention of god, but this book is about god.
I grew up in Catholic school, but sometimes my grandmother would take me to Italian mass at her church. There were paintings of birds everywhere in this Italian church. I could have misinterpreted her, but she said that in this church they believed god was a bird. Every time I passed that church, I thought, that’s where god is a bird. The bible seemed like a wacky story–exactly like the Greek and Roman myths I loved to read. Stories were, and are, real to me, but real in that the coexisted as bubbles, simultaneously, little worlds outside of us, created by us in order to help us figure out how to live life.
Even as a child, I thought religion was ridiculous, but God is not religion. I believe in God. I believe having faith in God is the same thing as admitting you don’t know the first thing about the universe. You cannot say for sure that anything is true. My belief that this universe exists at all, in all its complexity and beauty, blows my mind so completely that I can’t actually conceptualize anything beyond my own plane of existence. But I will try to live my life in wonder. Stories can recreate this. IQ84 is, more than anything, about God and the million things God can be.
(Now is your last chance. If you haven’t read the book, please avert your eyes. Click away on something else. Here is a funny video for you to watch.
The third section is really where all the magic happens, where Murakami miraculously pulls off his metafictional wonder.
It seems like a minor plot point, but I think Chekov’s rule of introducing a gun is actually a stand in for a larger issue—that rules are made to be broken. Aomame, the real hero of the novel, tells us, “A pistol is just a tool and where I’m living is not a storybook world. It’s the real world, full of gaps and inconsistencies and anticlimaxes.” As outlandish as IQ84 was (both the parallel world within the novel and the novel itself- are they one and the same?) it felt like the real world, our world, and it could have gone on forever in both directions. I could have read another 1000 pages.
Aomame has a long encounter with the man she must kill. He is the leader of a cult and a child rapist with a lot of excuses. He offers answers to all the questions that we as readers have as well, but we find out, as Aomame does, in drips and drabs, that he is almost always wrong. Her morality never flounders. Aomame’s reason for existence so far has been to murder this man, and she does, and he wants her to. He has beautiful, poetic lines, most of which turn out to be false, but one line is integral and true: “You are afraid to shed the armor with which you have long defended yourself.” Aomame sobs when she hears this and we have seen no emotion from Aomame up until this point. This was the armor that offered the illusion of hope. This was how Aomame survived. She would need, now, to find a new way.
Breaking the Rules:
What if an author doesn’t know all the rules? Why should he? What if we believe that the author is not the creator, not the god? What if we believe in the story? What if we believe that some stories exist, hovering in the air, waiting to be interpreted, translated into the written world and that is all a writer is? After all, Aomame takes over. She bursts through. She is tired of being controlled. She says, fuck off, Tengo and Murakami and whatever forces these are, I have a WILL. Aomame is reborn as the force of the novel. She insists upon her own free will. She demands it. The final climax of the story is this moment when Aomame realizes that she is not only of the world, but the world is also inside of her.
I have fallen so deeply in love with characters, my own and other’s, so much so that when I am reading or writing, when I am in that world, in that reality, they seem as real as anyone else. I believe every moment of Aomame’s resurrection. This is only my reading, because I am a metafiction fangirl, but I feel that I am the heat inside of Aomame’s stomach. I feel that the two moons are my two eyes reading the book. I think Fuka-Eri was the mastermind behind all of this, flitting around between worlds with no care for what rules she was breaking, sometimes the dohta and sometimes the maza. Twenty pages from the end of the book, we see the process of reincarnation, just thrown in there as an aside, but an aside that fits into the world, a piece of a puzzle too big to see.
In a final conversation with Aomame, Tamaru tells the story of Carl Jung and his cottage on a lake. Chiseled above the doorway are the words, “Cold or not, God is present.” In this book, God is little people, unseen forces, multiple worlds, energy itself, the rules and the breaking of the rules. Stories. Love. Free will.
In the end we realize we have been reading a love story. And love is not only circumstantial and tangible—Tengo and Aomame were both lonely, grew up in loveless homes, had to fend for themselves—but also magical, mystical, and unexplainable.
We were led to believe for nine hundred something pages that Tengo was the hero, but in the end it is Aomame who has held the story together–the one with the true information, the whole story, the one who truly saw the horrors and had to face them. Not Tengo. We needed her to take over, because this is her story.
Above her, in a new world at the end of the novel, is the moon, “the one and only satellite that has faithfully circled the earth, at the same speed, from before human memory.”
And in this new world, they are ready for what will happen next. There is adventure in every world. And heartbreak. And death. And danger, loss, suffering. And love.
Sara Finnerty is a writer from Queens, living in Los Angeles. Writings, musings, readings and publications can be found at madwet.com.