Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Richard and IQ84 and DeLillo and Chekhov's Gun

{very minor spoilers regarding Book 2]

Good old Chekhov. Try as I might, I can rarely convince my Intro to Drama students that The Cherry Orchard is a comedy (even after reading statements from Chekhov himself insisting that the play is a comedy).

The wily old Russian has popped up twice in IQ84. Once with the Gilyak travel narrative that Tengo reads to Fuka-Eri (which you book-clubbers have already discussed) and again in Book 2 with the idea of "Chekhov's gun," introduced by Tamaru as he procures a handgun for Aomame. This oft-cited maxim states, basically, that if a gun is introduced early in a narrative, we know it's going to get fired later on. It's a very meta idea, if you think about it, diverting our attention away from the "reality" of the work and toward its artificiality, toward the narrative devices that make the work cohere. This is appropriate for IQ84, of course, since "reality" seems to be bending more and more toward Tengo's fictional world.

Aomame has found herself suddenly transported from one world to another, from 1984 to 1Q84, and (as one might suspect in such an instance!) she feels a little unbalanced. The gun, however, brings a sense of power, restoring a bit of control over "reality": with one bullet SHE can control the transition from one world to another, in this case from life to death. But such a power transfigures reality as well: "The awareness that she now possessed a pistol was enough to make the world look a little different. Her surroundings had taken on a strange, unfamiliar coloration" (353). Those lines, in particular, transported me from one literary world to another: out of IQ84 and into DeLillo's White Noise, in which Jack Gladney, mild-mannered professor of Hitler Studies at the College on the Hill, experiences for the first time the power of holding a gun: "The gun created a second reality for me to inhabit. The air was bright, swirling around my head. Nameless feelings pressed thrillingly on my chest. It was a reality I could control, secretly dominate." Jack has spent his life terrified of death, living a purposefully mundane life because he doesn't want to "enmesh" himself in "plots." "To plot is to die" is one of his mantras. But late in the novel, in possession of his trusty "25-caliber Zumwalt automatic," his philosophy undergoes a complete reversal and he begins to believe that "to plot is to live." So what will Aomame's future hold? Like Jack, she too has found herself bound up in a dense plot, the likes of which she has heretofore managed to avoid, yet she feels like the "rules" can be defied: "not all guns have to be fired," she thinks, in reference to Chekhov's law.

Let's stay tuned and find out who's right.


  1. It strikes me that Chekhov's law about the gun hints at a second question about transfigured reality - not only might introducing it change reality, will it get used? Chekhov's law says it will be, once introduced.

    It's not just guns. Many things get introduced and then seem to become part of reality. What happens if Aomame defies Chekhov's law and never fires the gun? But is she even able or "allowed" to disobey Chekhov's law?

    Can the transformative effect of one author's literary device reach out and affect another author's literary world just as certain characters in Murakami's work seem to affect the reality of other characters? Not just Chekhov, but Orwell would obviously be in play here, too.

    That could almost qualify as two layers of meta ...

  2. So, Steve and I hashed out my feelings re: DeLillo over twitter, and I have to admit that my problem lies with a cold cold ex rather than DeLillo's writing itself. But c'mon, "mild-mannered professor of Hitler Studies"? :-) Everything's just one big comedy!

    My absolute favorite thing when Murakimi introduces Chekov & the gun is that meta-fabulous dialog between Aomame and Tamaru: "'According to Chekov,'" Tamaru said, rising from his chair, 'once a gun appears in a story, it has to be fired.' [...] 'But this is not a story. We're talking about the real world.' Tamaru narrowed his eyes and looked hard at Aomame. Then, slowly opening his mouth, he said, 'Who knows?'"

  3. Our heads are going to explode, Scanners-style, with all this meta/narratology talk!

    Also, I don't like to hear that there's some son of a bitch out there ruining DeLillo for librarians.

    DeLillo's funny (sometimes) but I think it's usually just a front for deadly serious issues. I make my students ponder this interview quote: "I don't offer comforts except those that lurk in comedy and in structure and in language, and the comedy is probably not all that soothing."