What were the events demarcating the spirit of the 21st century from that of the 20th? From a global perspective, they were, first of all, the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent rapid end of the Cold War order, and second, the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings on Sept. 11, 2001. The first act of destruction was one filled with bright hopes, while the one that followed it was an overwhelming tragedy. The widespread conviction in the first case that “the world will be better than ever” was totally shattered by the disaster of 9/11.
These two acts of destruction, which played out on either side of the millennial turning point with such vastly different momentum in each case, appear to have combined into a single pair that greatly transformed our mentality.
Over the past 30 years, I have written fiction in various forms ranging from short stories to full-length novels. The story has always been one of the most fundamental human concepts. While each story is unique, it functions for the most part as something that can be shared and exchanged with others. That is one of the things that gives a story its meaning. Stories change form freely as they inhale the air of each new age. In principle a medium of cultural transmission, stories are highly variable when it comes to the mode of presentation they employ. Like skilled fashion designers, we novelists clothe stories, as they change shape from day to day, in words suited to their figures.
Viewed from such a professional perspective, it would seem that the interface between us and the stories we encounter underwent a greater change than ever before at some point when the world crossed (or began to cross) the millennial threshold. Whether this was a change for the good or a less welcome change, I am in no position to judge. About all I can say is that we can probably never go back to where we started.
Speaking for myself, one of the reasons I feel this so strongly is the fact that the fiction I write is itself undergoing a perceptible transformation. The stories inside me are steadily changing form as they inhale the new atmosphere. I can clearly feel the movement happening inside my body. Also happening at the same time, I can see, is a substantial change in the way readers are receiving the fiction I write.
There has been an especially noteworthy change in the posture of European and American readers. Until now, my novels could be seen in 20th-century terms, that is, to be entering their minds through such doorways as “post-modernism” or “magic realism” or “Orientalism”; but from around the time that people welcomed the new century, they gradually began to remove the framework of such “isms” and accept the worlds of my stories more nearly as-is. I had a strong sense of this shift whenever I visited Europe and America. It seemed to me that people were accepting my stories in toto — stories that are chaotic in many cases, missing logicality at times, and in which the composition of reality has been rearranged. Rather than analyzing the chaos within my stories, they seem to have begun conceiving a new interest in the very task of how best to take them in.
By contrast, general readers in Asian countries never had any need for the doorway of literary theory when they read my fiction. Most Asian people who took it upon themselves to read my works apparently accepted the stories I wrote as relatively “natural” from the outset. First came the acceptance, and then (if necessary) came the analysis. In most cases in the West, however, with some variation, the logical parsing came before the acceptance. Such differences between East and West, however, appear to be fading with the passing years as each influences the other.
If I were to pin a label on the process through which the world has passed in recent years, it would be “realignment.” A major political and economic realignment started after the end of the Cold War. Little need be said about the realignment in the area of information technology, with its astounding, global-scale dismantling and establishment of systems. In the swirling midst of such processes, obviously, it would be impossible for literature alone to take a pass on such a realignment and avoid systemic change.
An acute difficulty brought about by such a comprehensive process of realignment is the loss — if only temporarily — of coordinate axes with which to form standards of evaluation. Such axes were there until now, functioning as reliable bases on which to measure the value of things. They sat at the head of the table as the paterfamilias of values, deciding what conformed and what did not. Now we wake up to find that not only the head of the household but the table itself has vanished. All around us, it appears, things have been — or are being — swallowed up by chaos.
When I hear the word “chaos,” I automatically picture the scenes of 9/11 — those shocking images that were shown a million times on television: The two jumbo jets plunging into the glass walls of the Twin Towers, the towers themselves crumbling without a trace, scenes that would continue to be unbelievable after a million and one viewings. The plot that succeeded with miraculous perfection — a perfection that reached a level of near surreality. If I may say so without fear of being misunderstood, the scenes even appeared to be something made with computer graphics for a Hollywood doomsday film.
We often wonder what it would have been like if 9/11had never happened — or at least if that plan had not succeeded so perfectly. Then the world would have been very different from what it is now. America might have had a different president (a major possibility), and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars might never have happened (an even greater possibility).
Let’s call the world we actually have now Reality A and the world that we might have had if 9/11 had never happened Reality B. Then we can’t help but notice that the world of Reality B appears to be realer and more rational than the world of Reality A. To put itin different terms, we are living a world that has an even lower level of reality than the unreal world. What can we possibly call this if not “chaos”?
What kind of meaning can fiction have in an age like this? What kind of purpose can it serve? In an age when reality is insufficiently real, how much reality can a fictional story possess?
Surely, this is the problem that we novelists now face, the question that we have been given. The moment our minds crossed the threshold of the new century, we also crossed the threshold of reality once and for all. We had no choice but to make the crossing, finally, and, as we do so, our stories are being forced to change their structures. The novels and stories we write will surely become increasingly different in character and feel from those that have come before, just as 20th-century fiction is sharply and clearly differentiated from 19th-century fiction.
The proper goal of a story is not to judge what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil. More important is for us to determine whether, inside us, the variable elements and the traditional elements are moving forward in harmony with each other, to determine whether individual stories and the communal stories inside us are joined at the root.
In other words, the role of a story is to maintain the soundness of the spiritual bridge that has been constructed between the past and the future. New guidelines and morals emerge quite naturally from such an undertaking. For that to happen, we must first breathe deeply of the air of reality, the air of things-as-they-are, and we must stare unsparingly and without prejudice at the way stories are changing inside us. We must coin new words in tune with the breath of that change.
In that sense, at the same time that fiction (story) is presently undergoing a severe test, it possesses an unprecedented opportunity. Of course fiction has always been assigned responsibility and questions to deal with in every age, but surely the responsibility and questions are especially great now. Story has a function that it alone can perform, and that is to “turn everything into a story.” To transform the things and events around us into the metaphor of the story form and to suggest the true nature of the situation in the dynamism of that substitution: that is story’s most important function.
In my latest novel, 1Q84, I depict not George Orwell’s near future but the opposite— the near past — of 1984. What if there were a diffe- rent 1984, not the original 1984 we know, but another, transformed 1984? And what if we were suddenly thrown into such a world? There would be, of course, a groping toward a new reality.
In the gap between Reality A and Reality B, in the inversion of realities, how far could we preserve our given values, and, at the same time, to what kind of new morals could we go on to give birth? This is one of the themes of the work. I spent three years writing this story, during which time I passed its hypothetical world through myself as a simulation. The chaos is still there — in full measure.
But after a good deal of trial and error, I have a strong sense that I am finally getting it in story terms. Perhaps the solution begins from softly accepting chaos not as something that “should not be there,” to be rejected fundamentally in principle, but as something that “is there in actual fact.”
I may be too optimistic. But as a teller of stories, as a hopefully humble pilot of the mind and spirit, I cannot help but feel this way — that the world, too, after a good deal of trial and error, will surely grasp a new confidence that it is getting it, that the world will undoubtedly discover some clues that suggest a solution because, finally, both the world and story have already crossed the threshold of many centuries and passed many milestones to survive to the present day.
Haruki Murakami. He is among Japan’s most prolific and highly acclaimed writers of fiction and nonfiction. His most recent novel is IQ84 which in Japanese is pronounced the same as 1984. This essay was translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin.