Great Fiction and 1Q84

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Many nights I closed “1Q84” feeling hungry to go out and create something beautiful myself.

When I was assigned to review the book 1Q84, it had been four months since I’d read a page of anything. That last novel I’d tried to read had also been by Haruki Murakami–The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle–and my bookmark was right where I’d left it, on page 52, the day my wife had gone into labor with our second son.

Raising young children poses two challenges for reading fiction. The first is time, and not having much of it. The second, which I find harder to overcome, is that raising kids and reading fiction require somewhat different mind-sets: Fiction opens you to new possibilities, but once you’ve embarked on an all-consuming activity like parenting you don’t want to think too much about other possibilities; you just need to put your head down and do it.

I started 1Q84 at 9 p.m. at the end of a long day that had featured a 103-degree fever (my younger son, Wally, age 4 months) and several bathroom accidents (his older brother, Jay, age 2 years). As I slumped on the couch with a cup of peppermint tea and my large yellow review copy of 1Q84, I found myself grasping to justify why, outside of the assignment I’d been given, it made sense to spend my only free time reading fiction.

But I did read the book, that night and every night after for a month, and I found that as I read 1Q84 and got deeper into Tengo’s and Aomame’s stories, I stopped questioning the purpose of fiction and instead began to see reading the novel as one of the few necessary things I did all day. The reasons for the change of heart had to do with wonder, with love, and with the way literature provides for the best parts of who we are.

1Q84 is long (nearly 1,000 pages) and wildly imaginative, but at heart it’s a simple love story. Tengo and Aomame, both 30 years old, shared a singular, intense moment as children, disappeared from each other’s lives, and have been trying to recapture that kind of intimacy ever since. As the book opens they fall into a sinister and illogical alternate world called 1Q84. It is most clearly distinguished by the two moons that hang in the sky–the familiar moon and, alongside it, a smaller moon, “slightly warped in shape, and green.” The moons are a tangible reminder of the warning delivered to Aomame by her cab driver, just before she steps out of a taxi on a gridlocked Tokyo expressway and inadvertently into the world of 1Q84: “Please remember: things are not what they seem.”

A few days after I started reading the book I was standing in my Michigan backyard, talking on the phone, when the unusual brightness of the night caused me to look up at the moon–nearly full, unobstructed by clouds–for the first time in as long as I could remember. For a moment I was so taken by the view that I lost track of the conversation.

Afterward I called Caroline out to the backyard. If it had been a while since I’d looked at the moon, it had been even longer since we’d looked at it together. The moon is outside our realm of concern. I have to care for my kids, earn a living, be a good husband. What difference does it make if the moon is waxing or waning, full or crescent? For a few quiet minutes we looked up at it together before retreating inside from the cold.

Several of the most important scenes in 1Q84 take place in a playground atop a slide, where one at a time Aomame and Tengo stare up at the sky. The first time Tengo notices the moons he thinks to himself, “No matter what happens to me in the future, this view with two moons hanging up there side by side will never–ever–seem ordinary and obvious to me.” The unordinary sight of the moons sets Tengo to wondering: “What is going to happen to me from now on?”

Reading about Tengo and seeing the moon in my backyard, it occurred to me that wonder gives us height, makes us consider new possibilities, motivates us not to linger where we are.

And it seems that reading 1Q84 pollinated my life with wonder in three ways. The first is that when Tengo wondered, I wondered alongside him. “What is going to happen to me from now on?” In a quiet house at night with two boys sleeping it feels like time stands still. Yet of course the drum keeps beating; we move on.

1Q84 also inspires wonder through its beauty. “Her little pink ear pressed against his chest,” Murakami writes. “She was hearing everything that went on in his heart, like a person who can trace a map with his fingertip and conjure up vivid, living scenery.” Many nights I closed 1Q84 feeling hungry to go out and create something beautiful myself.

The last way that 1Q84 inspires wonder is how all great art does it: by mirroring life from a fresh angle. Murakami uses the realm of 1Q84 to jog Aomame and Tengo into seeing their lives in a new light, and his novel had the same effect on me. One night, about halfway through the book, my wife and I said goodnight to each other and turned to go to sleep. But before closing my eyes I propped myself back up on my elbow and looked intently at her face. There she was, my familiar Caroline. But for a moment she appeared as strange and wondrous as two moons in the sky.

1Q84 is not a book about wonder, though. It’s a book about love. For the three weeks I was reading it and all the days since, I’ve found myself thinking more consciously than usual about the importance of love–not as a fact that exists between two people, but as a feeling that puts a floor beneath our feet.

As Aomame and Tengo try to make their way toward each other and out of 1Q84, what they’re really straining for is feeling. In their accustomed world of 1984 they might have gone on with their lonely lives but in the forbidding world of 1Q84, events and changes in their own hearts make stasis untenable.

1Q84 helped me recognize the difference between feeling and not feeling. The night after I finished the book I couldn’t figure out what to do with myself. Over the course of a month 1Q84 had become a part of my routine, and the activities that had previously occupied my evening hours seemed unappealing in comparison.

So instead of mucking around on the Internet or folding laundry, I went upstairs to my 2-year-old son’s room and sat in a chair beside his crib. He was lying flat on his stomach with his hands beneath his body and his head tucked into a corner of his crib. Even asleep, he seemed to glow with life. As I watched him breathe in and out, all the cells in my body flooded with a feeling so grand that it crowded out all possibility of thought.

Later, I realized that while being a parent is tiring and sometimes boring, it also means that all I have to do is walk upstairs to experience a feeling that, as Aomame says in the novel, is akin to salvation. I also thought about all the hours I’d spent reading 1Q84, and suddenly it seemed clear why it had been a worthwhile way to spend my time: When life wears us down, great fiction gives us back our human shape.

Kevin Hartnett is a staff writer for The Millions and a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor Book Review. He blogs about fatherhood and family life at Excerpted from The Millions (November 14, 2011), an online arts and culture magazine called an “indispensable literary site” by the New York Times.

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