Now, after having read the work again, I’m prepared to revise my earlier judgment on it somewhat. The skinny is that I still didn’t enjoy the third part very much, but I do see how he was probably planning it to go in that direction from the start.
That is, reading the first two parts with knowledge of what’s in store in the third part, it was easy to see how he was laying the groundwork for the Aomame-Tengo love story right from the start. Indeed, it was possible (I’m assured by my wife) to see that coming a mile away – what other reason would there be for paralleling a single man and a single woman of the same age like that? Of course they’re going to get together. To which my response is, well, Kafka and Nakata didn’t “get together” in Kafka on the Shore, and I and the Rat didn’t in Pinball, 1973, so I think (protecting my ego) that there was good reason, grounded in a careful reading of Murakami’s oeuvre, not to assume that this was going to end up as a love story.
But in fact it did, and hey: rereading it, I can see him telegraphing it pretty clearly. From the beginning, this was always going to be that kind of novel. And this telegraphing comes on the subtextual level as well as in terms of the plot. It was that kind of novel all along not just because structurally it had to end with the two storylines being united, the two would-be lovers consummating it, but because one of the deep themes of the book is solipsism and its discontents. As the Homeric taxi driver warns Aomame at the outset, there’s only one reality, despite appearances – this isn’t a parallel worlds novel – but at the same time, we know that not everybody perceives the world the same. For some people, it’s a world with two moons; for others, it’s not. Each of us lives in our own world, intentionally or not, and we can never know completely how much that world is “real,” that is, how much it overlaps with the individualized worlds those around us are living in. There may only be one reality, but who can access it, and how can they know if they do? The 9/Q business is setting this up for us: but the movement of the novel is inexorably toward the merging of Tengo’s and Aomame’s separate worlds. I can see that now. The climax of the thing was always going to be two people (two separate worlds) agreeing to commit to each other (to merge their worlds into one). I get that. I can appreciate that he’s doing that.
And I can see how that fits in cleanly with the rest of his career. Withdrawal into one’s own private world vs. getting out and engaging with everybody else’s world. Solitude vs. commitment to a relationship. Self vs. non-self. This is his big theme, and he’s revisiting it here. Okay.
None of that new appreciation fundamentally changes how I feel about the book, though. The love story he chose to tell is still a retelling of the Hajime-Shimamoto story, only this time Hajime is right to be saving himself for his mostly-imaginary childhood crush. And so is Aomame. Granted that this works better on the fantasy level on which this story takes place, still it’s a retreat from the mature, realistic, even cynical take on adult relationships that has characterized his work so far. Gone is the messiness of actually trying to make a relationship work (and usually failing), gone is the tension between real-life relationships and fantasy perfect lovers. Here the triumphal commitment is to the ideal lover of memory and imagination. In 1992 Murakami knew that this could not actually bring resolution or happiness. Hajime was doomed the moment he embraced Shimamoto, because she wasn’t real. Here we’re supposed to rejoice over Aomame and Tengo getting together after twenty years, never yet having had a real conversation, but already committing to starting a family together… It just doesn’t work for me. It’s a fantasy, and maybe if you can find it beautiful on a fantasy level it works for you, but that particular fantasy doesn’t really appeal to me. So. There.
There have been hints and rumors about a fourth book. I’ll believe it when I see it. I can imagine a fourth book that would redeem the series somewhat. Volume 3 is still, aside from all of the above points, a dull read, and nothing can change that. But a fourth book could return to the blithely-abandoned Little People/Sakigake storyline and wrap things up in a more satisfying manner. After all, the end of Vol. 3 drops strong hints that Aomame and Tengo’s little one is more than just the signifier of their true love, it’s somehow the new Sakigake prophet, or more. And Sakigake is after it. Maybe in Vol. 4 Fukaeri and Komatsu and Buzzcut and the Little People all come back and it all builds to a rousing climax that follows through on the social critiques begun in the first two volumes. Maybe. But at the moment, that hasn’t happened in this reality. We’re left with Vol. 3 as the final word on this fictional world. And it feels pretty final, if not satisfying.