The secret to his success. Hint: It’s not great writing.
She demanded only two things of him: good erections and well-timed ejaculations. “Don’t come yet,” she would command. “Hold on a little longer.” And he would pour all his energy into holding on. “Okay, now! Come now!” she would whisper by his ear, and he would let go at precisely that point with as intense an ejaculation as he could manage. Then she would praise him, caressing his cheek: “Oh, Tengo! You’re wonderful!” Tengo had an innate knack for precision in all realms, including correct punctuation and discovering the simplest possible formula necessary to solve a math problem.
It didn’t work this way when he had sex with younger women. He would have to think from beginning to end, making choices and judgments. This made Tengo uncomfortable. All the responsibilities fell on his shoulders. He felt like the captain of a small boat on a stormy sea, having to take the rudder, inspect the setting of the sails, keep in mind the barometric pressure and the wind direction, and modulate his own behavior so as to boost the crew’s trust in him. The slightest mistake or accident could lead to tragedy. This felt less like sex than the discharging of a duty. As a result he would tense up and miss the timing of an ejaculation or fail to become erect when necessary.
Probably there are men somewhere who have this kind of problem, just as there are, probably, women whose romantic hopes consist “only” of tumescence and “well-timed” emission. But it’s not immediately clear why such people should find their way into a novel. Murakami’s efforts here, as elsewhere in the book, read like attempts to bend the laws of human interaction to suit the moment’s creative demands. The scene above is meant to show that Tengo is a neurotic, punctilious, somewhat passive young man. Yet nothing that happens is specially suited to make that point: The approach to adulterous climax is not exactly a peak of neuroticism and precision in the human species; and where another novelist might choose to back out of the sex riff and replace it with a better-suited scene, Murakami simply jams this desired meaning into the frame at hand. The result is his bizarre cuckoo-clock model of extramarital orgasm—and a passage that seems as labored and unlikely as anything to cross the seminar table in a freshman fiction workshop.
It is tempting to explain these weaknesses in terms of what is lost in translation, just as it is tempting to dismiss Murakami as an artless writer. Neither judgment is fair. Unbelievable characters, forced exposition, and rambling dialogue are unlikely to read any less awkwardly in Murakami’s native tongue. And a novelist who can draw in, and retain, so large and avid an international audience must be doing something right. What Murkami is doing right, in fact, goes to the heart of his creative style—and the reason his new book is, despite its catalog of weaknesses, so captivating to read.
1Q84 succeeds by re-creating a childhood experience of storytelling. The plot moves relentlessly forward. Banalities like menu-closing etiquette are offered up as new and privileged knowledge; adult congress exists as a child might conceive of it. Several plot points suggest an almost preschoolish extemporaneousness: To get back at a nice lady, the bad guys make her dog explode! A man has superpowers, but he has to be careful, because sometimes he suddenly freezes! There are some little people, called the Little People, and they come out of animals' mouths while they sleep, but then they magically grow, and … Murakami’s work is often called “dreamlike,” but its twists and turns are more willful and less emotionally fraught than anything in adult imaginative life. A better proxy for his craft might be a 4-year-old faced with the prompt “And then what happened?”
For those of us whose last, joyful experience with this kind of storytelling took place in some quiet corner of the playground, Murakami’s fiction offers a welcome delight. And yet 1Q84 may feel curiously familiar in the eyes of certain Western readers. The novel’s comic caricature, conspiratorial through-lines, shaggy long-range plotting, and sentimental denouement will put some people in mind of the kinetic, outlandish, real-and-unreal books that helped shape English-language literature in the last decade—works like The Corrections, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and White Teeth. Given Murakami’s history of American homage, it is tempting to regard his latest project as his bid to imitate these Anglo forms.
Who’s ripping off whom, though? When writers like Chabon, Franzen, and Smith speak about their efforts in those novels, they tend to discuss a “return” to old values or long-lost literary pleasures. What joins the books is an effort to escape from the constraints of high-literary formalism through the early thrills of storytelling: In an essay called “The Pleasure Principle” not long ago, Michael Chabon described his creative ideal as reclaiming “entertainment as a job fit for artists and for audiences, a two-way exchange of attention.” To some extent, writers like Chabon are merely discovering what Murakami already knew. His work for years now has sought to send readers back to an earlier period of their own aesthetic joy, to bring fiction back to its childlike, ecstatic roots.
Nathan Heller is Slate's "Assessment" columnist. You can follow him on Twitter.