The pleasures of reading Haruki Murakami could easily be mistaken for a list of his vices. His heroes are lonesome, underemployed everymen with casually refined tastes and plenty of time on their hands to be drawn into precarious intrigues or dispatched on romantic quests. But a friendless bachelor who likes nothing better than to crack open a can of beer while stirring a pot of spaghetti and listening to classical music in his Tokyo apartment you might also call a nonentity. That is, until the phone rings and on the other end is some mischievous operator or femme fatale. (Mr. Murakami’s female characters are hard to distinguish from common male fantasies.) These tend to get Mr. Murakami’s plots moving, to the extent that his one-thing-after-another books relay the impression of being plotted; indeed, they are often better when they don’t.
1Q84 (Knopf, 932 pages, $30) is a jumbo-size showcase of these double-edge qualities. It’s a thriller with cults, assassinations and a fair amount of sex at various levels of perversity; a fantasy novel with supernatural beings, an exploding dog, mystical paralyses and an immaculate conception. It’s a work of meta-fiction with texts within the texts, publishing intrigues and plenty of cultural morsels—Chekhov, Proust, Orwell, Janacek, lots of jazz—stewing (often inertly, especially in the case of Orwell, who lends the book its tinkered title and little else) amid the action. Structurally, it’s a love story, and a fairly corny one, about “a lonely boy and a lonely girl” separated at the age of 10, when they meaningfully held hands; each of them tries to find the other 20 years later, both utterly convinced that their reunion is their only chance at true love. Ten is an age to which Mr. Murakami’s novel attaches great significance. Besides the severed couple, who seem, like other characters in the book, to have forged their identities at that age, there is emphasis placed on 10-year age gaps between characters and a trio of 10-year-old girls who function as virgin sex priestesses for the Leader of the cult. Not everything here is as wholesome as holding hands.
The paradox of reading 1Q84 is that it’s a “page-turner” that is very easy to put down. We acquired our copy in July and put it down for weeks at a time. It is easy to pick back up again because of Mr. Murakami’s constant repetition of the various aspects of his premise and the slow progression of the novel’s events. This is somewhat due to the novel’s publication history. It is properly a trilogy and was released as three separate volumes in Japan, the first two on one day in 2009, the third a year later. The American edition feels bloated, and one way around that is to put weeks, months or years between your reading of the three parts.
Book 1 sets things up in alternating chapters told from the points of view of the now-30-ish grade-schoolers separated in 1964, Tengo and Aomame. Tengo is an aspiring writer who earns a living as a math teacher at a test-prep school. An editor draws him into a conspiracy to rewrite the amateurish manuscript of a fantasy novella written by a 17-year-old girl called Fuka-Eri, certain that if the story can be properly stylized the book will win a prize and become a best-seller, which it does. Yet as Tengo grows closer to Fuka-Eri and learns about her life from her guardian, Professor Ebisuno, it becomes clear that the book may actually be a literal account of her life within the radical anticapitalist cult Sakigake, started by her parents in the late 1960s. Fuka-Eri herself insists that the malevolent supernatural Little People in her story are real, but Mr. Murakami withholds the details of her story.
Meanwhile, Aomame is a full-time martial arts instructor and a freelance assassin of perpetrators of domestic violence, whom she ‘dispatches to another world’ with an ice pick-like needle applied to a point on the back of the neck, leaving her targets looking like they had suffered a heart attack. Her employer in the latter pursuit (perhaps the most politically correct form of vigilante justice a fiction writer could invent if not, after Stieg Larssen, the most original) is a dowager who runs a safe house for battered wives. A prepubescent girl arrives at the safe house, her uterus destroyed by intercourse with Sakigake’s Leader, the father of Fuka-Eri and Aomame’s next target. Before the end of the Book, the Little People crawl out of the girl’s mouth and cause a German shepherd to explode.
There is a lot of sex in Book 1. Tengo has it every Friday afternoon with a married woman 10 years his senior. Aomame has it with 40-something balding men she picks up in hotel bars, sometimes in the company of a female cop named Ayumi: “Aomame and Ayumi were the perfect pair to host intimate but fully erotic all-night sex feasts.” “It was,” Ayumi says of one night that Aomame was too drunk to remember, “like a porno movie.” Though she spends the night at his house, Fuka-Eri does not have sex with Tengo. “You,” she tells him, “just like the shape of my chest,” which is repeatedly said to be perfect, unlike Aomame’s, which is repeatedly said to be small and lopsided. In a less erotic but more romantic development, Aomame starts to see two moons in the sky and to believe she’s left the real 1984 and entered a zone she refers to as 1Q84.