I remember a friend telling me years ago that romantic love was an illusion. Of course, it also has a lot to do with our biology. Musician Joni Mitchell has called romance a “trick of nature, fueled by anxiety and insecurity… to get us to procreate.” In order for romantic love to be successful, both parties must be under the influence of this biological trick; or as my friend would put it, both people have to buy into the illusion.
All of that sounds pretty darn cynical. After all, romantic love is powerful stuff—so powerful that the creative among us often devote their artistic lives to consider it, analyze it, and dissect it in paintings, sculpture, song, plays and film. And in books.
I finished Haruki Murakami‘s 1Q84 six weeks ago. I’ve been reading like a house on fire, but I just haven’t set aside time to blog about my recent reads. The space between finishing Murakami’s latest and this blog post has given me a chance to consider just what this book says to me, and I think I can put it into words now.
1Q84 is about the magical, mystical and illusory journey that romantic love inspires, and about the biological, sexual, and emotional journey that nature demands. It’s also about the danger of falling in love, whether because we put ourselves in an overwhelmingly vulnerable position, or because the path to our loved one is fraught with antagonistic obstacles and trap doors. So powerful is this love, we can put our very life on the line to achieve both the ecstasy and the contentment promised by the union with our loved one.
It’s a Barnum and Baily world, just as phony as it can be, but it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me.”—It’s Only a Paper Moon by Billy Rose and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg
Our protagonists, Aomame and Tengo, could not seem more different when the novel begins. She is the product of parents who practice an unforgiving fundamentalist religion, while Tengo is the son of an obsessively insistent television-fee collector. In the present (1984 Japan), Aomame is a physical fitness trainer and self-defense instructor who sidelines as a serial killer, offing men who have cruelly presided over the destruction of the women in their lives. Tengo is a math instructor and aspiring writer.
Through their memories of growing up, we discover that both have little if any love from their family. We also discover that they knew of each other as children, and that they shared a magical moment of connection when they were ten years old. The memory of this connection eventually propels them to try to find each other, as they both realize that they have entered an alternate reality—a world that has two moons in the sky, and a world that is being influenced by an other-worldly force that is intent on taking control. (Aomame refers to this world as 1Q84, with “Q” for “question mark.” In my mind, I pronounced it q-teen-eighty-four.)
They each take different paths to the alternate reality—Aomame through an unconventional exit from a highway, and Tengo through the editing and polishing of a fantastical tale that introduces the “little people,” the outside force that is attempting to emerge into our world—but they ultimately find themselves at the same intersection, a point where they have come to believe in themselves and each other and in the power of love.
I could go into more of the story, for there is much to this story: the religious cult that provides an opening for the little people, Aomame’s path to vengeance, Tengo’s mysterious memory of his mother, the confounding teenage girl Fuka-Eri, the short story “Town of Cats,” the surprising pregnancy, and the ugly-beyond-ugly private investigator. I suppose literary critics could have a lot of fun discussing how the various elements relate to Aomame’s and Tengo’s great love story. But I’ll leave that to experts more adept at literary analysis.
Instead, I’ll leave you with this: Murakami’s story is not over when the two lovers find each other. Now they must find out if they can escape 1Q84 and return to their 1984. Just like lovers in real life, who have entered the emotional and spiritual place where romance is born and cemented, they must now incorporate their union into everyday life. Can Aomame retrace her steps along the highway to return herself and Tengo to the world they remember, or does another reality await them?
When I finished the novel, I wondered if Murakami really needed 925 pages to tell his story. Now I’m wondering if that’s a metaphor as well: It may take a long time to get there, but the journey may be fun, and the destination may be worth it.