Several weeks ago, Haruki Murakami was widely rumored to be among the front-runners for the Nobel Prize in literature. He didn't win — this year. But Murakami is clearly one of the most popular and admired novelists in the world today, a brilliant practitioner of serious, yet irresistibly engaging, literary fantasy. His best-known novels — A Wild Sheep Chase, Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — have even established Murakami as something of a cult author among college-aged readers. Perhaps the American writer he most resembles in multiple ways is Michael Chabon.
Murakami's latest novel, 1Q84, is an immensely long book, originally published in three volumes in Japan. Still, you'll be glad that Knopf decided to bring out the English version as a single massive hardcover: Once you start reading 1Q84, you won't want to do much else until you've finished it.
Murakami possesses many gifts, but chief among them is an almost preternatural gift for suspenseful storytelling. Here he once again explores his favorite theme, succinctly stated by a character in his previous novel, After Dark: "The ground we stand on looks solid enough, but if something happens it can drop right out from under you. And once that happens, you've had it: things'll never be the same."
When 1Q84 opens, a young woman named Aomame finds herself stuck in gridlock on Tokyo's elevated Metropolitan Expressway. Carrying a "sharp object in the bottom of her shoulder bag" and dressed to the nines, Aomame is worried about being late for a critical appointment. As if reading her mind, the taxi driver suddenly mentions that there's an emergency service stairway nearby, and that it leads down to a street close to a subway stop. As Aomame opens the door of the cab, the driver mysteriously says: "Don't let appearances fool you. There's always only one reality."
Yes and no. By the time Aomame reaches a deluxe hotel for her appointment — hers, by the way, is "a profession requiring specialized techniques and training" — she is no longer in 1984. The world has "switched tracks," and she has entered a kind of parallel reality, which she dubs 1Q84. Not much seems terribly different at first, but she learns that certain aspects of history (and cosmology) have changed, and that nearly all these changes are linked to a mysterious commune called Sakigake.
At its inception, Sakigake resembled any other organic cooperative run by '60s dropouts and onetime college radicals. But it has recently filed with the government as a religious institution and grown increasingly secretive and wealthy. There is talk of a mysterious but never seen Leader.
Meanwhile, Murakami establishes a second story line, alternating Aomame's increasingly dangerous adventures with those of a lonely would-be novelist named Tengo. Against his better judgment, Tengo has been talked into secretly revising a short novel called Air Chrysalis so it can win a major prize. The plot is fantastic — involving Little People who emerge from the mouth of a dead goat — but its 17-year-old author is even stranger. Beautiful but unnervingly expressionless, Fuka-Eri can scarcely read or write, and her speech is unnaturally clipped and laconic. She insists that the details of her novel are absolutely true and that you can even see the Little People "if you try." Until she ran away at the age of 10, Fuka-Eri lived at Sakigake.
Slowly, unknowingly, Aomame and Tengo work their way toward each other, even as contending forces try to prevent or promote their meeting. Along the way, each interacts with a series of striking characters. There's an immensely wealthy dowager who has founded an organization to help battered wives and (secretly) punish abusive husbands; a gay bodyguard of the utmost efficiency with a taste for philosophical speculation; a deformed lawyer of dogged determination and razorlike intelligence; a policewoman with a penchant for rough sex; and Tengo's dying father, who has spent his life going door to door as a collection agent.
Murakami's novels have been translated into a score of languages, but it would be hard to imagine that any of them could be better than the English versions by Jay Rubin, partnered here with Philip Gabriel. Fuka-Eri peers into Tengo's eyes "as if she were looking into an empty house with her face pressed up against the glass." In a photo, President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone resemble "a couple of men in the construction industry discussing how they were going to switch to cheap, shoddy building material."
While 1Q84 is distinctly Murakamian, some of its elements do pay homage to other masterpieces. An air chrysalis bears more than a little resemblance to the cocoons containing replicants in the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The strange story of the "town of cats" obviously derives from Algernon Blackwood's horror classic Ancient Sorceries. Throughout, too, Murakami fosters an ever-intensifying aura of the uncanny by repeated references to Janacek's Sinfonietta, by allusions to the bizarre rituals surrounding the Leader and his shrine maidens, by the haunting phrase "irretrievably lost" and, most ominously, by the sudden presence in the sky of two moons, the one we know and the other small and greenish "as though thinly covered with moss." It's not a good sign when a certain character notices that his tongue has become coated with what looks like greenish moss.
Despite its great length, Murakami's novel is tightly plotted, without fat, and he knows how to make dialogue, even philosophical dialogue, exciting. In the very middle of the book, Aomame's long discussion with the Leader about the nature of good and evil recalls Ivan's conversation with the Devil in The Brothers Karamazov. Murakami can then turn around and describe hotel pickups and "all-night sex feasts" or imagine a sinister equivalent to the MacArthur Foundation. He creates mysteries about Tengo's parentage and suggests that one character has been reincarnated with memories of her previous life. It is even intimated that Tengo's storytelling may have been the engine that transported Aomame into the world of 1Q84.
There's no question about the sheer enjoyability of this gigantic novel, both as an eerie thriller and as a moving love story. Nonetheless, Murakami doesn't neatly solve all its mysteries or tie up all his threads. 1Q84 also treads close to being a grandly conceived yet still slightly pulpy melodrama, something like a more fantastical Atlas Shrugged. There's even a cliffhanger at the end of nearly every chapter. For me, though, there's just no getting round two crucial facts: I read the book in three days and have been thinking about it ever since.