Inventive, engrossing, and imaginative, this memorable novel will earn acclaim. Haruki Murakami blends fantasy, dystopia, speculation, mystery, murders, sex, death, radicalism, and love into nearly a thousand thoughtful pages. Originally published in three volumes during 2009 and 2010 in Japanese, the translations of Jay Rubin of the first two-thirds and Philip Gabriel of the concluding section convey its contents into fluid, natural, and straightforward, if slightly elevated and subtly nuanced, English.
"Things aren't always what they seem," a cabdriver warns the first of this saga’s two protagonists. A personal trainer, thirty-year-old Aomame leaves a traffic jam on an elevated expressway to exit via a hidden staircase on a fateful walk down back into 1984 Tokyo; her city and her life and her world may look different, the cabbie tells her, from now on. But beneath appearances, he says, one reality persists.
She will have ample cause to doubt this. Nimble in body and clever in mind, Aomame moonlights as a vigilante against men who perpetrate sexual abuse against women. During one such mission, as if her sensibility gets split in two, she wonders about her predicament. "Call it the Zen of the killer."
She starts to want to hear, as a signal of her departure from reality, a song first heard in the cab, the Czech composer Janacek's Sinfonietta. She suffers dislocation. Frenzied sex neither with her erstwhile lesbian friend nor the men she picks up (slightly balding, middle-aged) in bars can ease her spiritual and emotional frustration. She receives eerie glimpses into a strange realm, where she then sees two moons glow over our earth—a sign of the shift that the cabbie warned was coming as Aomame left the traffic jam, determined as if on impulses sent from beyond to escape 1984 Tokyo. What she enters, she reasons, she christens 1Q84: a question mark replaces the number nine in this Orwellian year.
Meanwhile, a man the same age as Aomame, Tengo, teaches mathematics and writes literature on the side, albeit unpublished. He takes on an assignment to edit, and to polish, a strangely half-assured, half-faltering submission by Eriko Fukada. Her tale, Air Chrysalis, has been submitted to a story contest. Tengo and the contest’s director conspire to rewrite the work as if hers, touching up the awkward yet appealing manuscript bearing the name of the seventeen-year-old dyslexic and oddly blank-eyed young woman under the guise of “Fuka-Eri”. Her mysterious past, and her gnomic lack of affect, confuse and intrigue Tengo. He finds, as he gets to know her, a premonition about Fuka-Eri; she shines a "special light" into the void he always has had, the "blank space inside him”.
Tengo and his colleague learn of another Orwellian connection in this 1984. After the communist radical protests of the 1970s led to violence against the Japanese state by some rebels and the establishment of an organic farming commune by peaceful dissenters, the latter faction began, itself fragmenting, to create "mindless robots" in a rural retreat. Here, Eriko Fukada was raised after her radical parents went underground. The elder Fukada resisted this conformity, but he and his family became enmeshed in a quasi-Buddhist mind-control cult. A reaction against "footbinding for the brain” as Tengo phrases it, after talking with Fuka-Eri, sparks his quest to learn the truth behind the fictional Air Chrysalis.
Aomame’s adventures alternate with Tengo’s search over the first two books, each 24 chapters. Gradually, Mr. Murakami introduces an investigator, Ushikama, hired by the cult to try to find out what Tengo knows about Fuka-Eri and the secrets which may be exposed by her book. He joins Aomame and Tengo in his own chapters in the third section, as the year of 1Q84 under two moons hovers over a transformed hyper-reality for these three seekers of the cult’s hidden truth.
Their lives become much more complicated. This tense situation creates an "endless battle of contrasting memories" for Aomame; she envisions at one of many stressful points a Tibetan wheel of passions--at its center, she takes courage by glimpsing love as its steady axle. As the novel progresses, Aomame and Tengo find their own imaginations and dreams directing them towards a destiny that Air Chrysalis appears to conjure up, in its evocations of what the Sakigake robotic cult may be up to.
Tengo faces his own challenges. He is haunted by a vision of his mother. When he was a baby in bed, he recalls her next to him, suckling erotically a man not his father. Confused, as a grown son he now seeks out his elderly, demented father. This subplot enriches the tone with themes of mortality, longing, and thwarted desire. His father tells him: "Your mother joined her body with a vacuum and gave birth to you. I filled in that vacuum." Not all is solved in a conventional fashion in this version of a mystery; some readers may be puzzled and others pleased by the open-ended nature of its plot. While Mr. Murakami neatly fits many elements together by its conclusion, he is careful, ironically if faithfully, to leave certain revelations or explanations unresolved, to increase verisimilitude.
Halfway through this trilogy, Aomame meets the Leader of the Sakigake cult whose mysteries Fuka-Eri has dared to reveal in her book. The Leader explains to Aomame how in the account of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough “one who listened to the voices” took control over the destiny of those he ruled as king. The nature of the voices he hears during his sacrificial rite—enrich as one of many cultural and literary aspects this erudite but unfailingly entertaining book’s forays into grace, belief, truth as verifiable and provable, lust, feline fears, and lunar appeal. On the Beach, “Stalinist Zen”, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Proust, Jung, the nature of a shifting force of good and evil, the food we eat, and the Esso slogan “Put a tiger in your tank” all feature as conversational or meditational topics for these erudite, yet accessible, characters. The final section will reveal the fate of Aomame and Tengo, as well as the destiny of he who enters to try to make sense of it all under two moons, private investigator Ushikawa.
The Leader convinces Aomame: "Violence creates certain kinds of pure relationships.” In the lethal confrontations which ensue, Aomame and Tengo try to find out more about the cult and its link to the Little People, whose presence may not be as benign as a Disneyfied version of such beings connotes. These creatures remain, while keeping the suspense alive, the most underwritten of its many intricately drawn features. This intentional lack of detail, however, invites the reader to invent backstories. This gap leaves (as a speculative work should) some unease and lack of closure that may strengthen rather than weaken the power of the novel as a whole. Facing these disturbing revelations, Aomame considers at one crucial point a decision that appeared too melodramatic for me, but in retrospect, Mr. Murakami may have included this scene, as a mystery writer may, to demonstrate how a character exhausts all possibilities in his or her determination to uncover the nature of the perplexity that propels the plot.
For the remaining portion of this ambitious novel, this review will reveal only what one protagonist figures out. "Two story lines at work, starting at different starting points but running parallel to one another." Luckily, Aomame, Tengo, and Ushikawa pause now and then to remind themselves and us where the plot has been headed and what has been figured out so far, during this alternate 1984 year.
Besides the deftly rendered details that uncover a conspiracy, which may remind a few readers of another sexually adventurous girl who kicks over a hornet’s nest even if she lacks a dragon tattoo, Mr. Murakami offers us appealingly recognizable characters. These are his lasting strength, for he never lets the metaphysical level of his tale overwhelm its resonance with our own longings and anguish.
At moments of passion, pain, and puzzlement, all of his figures remain human, fully rounded in their light and shadow. I missed them when I finished this book. None are caricatured, and the minor walk-on parts, as in a well-directed epic film or sprawling mini-series, remain as engaging as those main characters with whom the reader will learn to live with as if friends, or enemies, over the course of the hours and days spent immersed in this satisfying, off-kilter, and slightly open-ended combination of romance, adventure, urban commentary, novel of ideas, mystery, thriller, and speculative saga.
New York Journal of Books featured 10-25-11.