The year is 1984 and the place is Tokyo. Or it is at the start of the nearly 1,000 pages, and successive layers of strangeness and surprise, that unfold inside 1Q84. As the title suggests, within a couple of chapters of Haruki Murakami's behemoth, we have shifted from one reality to another. Replacing a 9 with a Q – a homonym pun in Japanese – is all it takes.
Expectations for the 13th fiction in translation by the prodigious fabulist have been high. The novel was published in three volumes in Japan in 2009-2010. While the stir it caused wasn't unprecedented – the sui generis Murakami, a cross of literary cult hero and Shinto priest, has been a sensation in his homeland since his breakout novel, 1987's Norwegian Wood – the scale of the latest book was new. Two translators were put to quick work to render the sprawling text into the colloquial English that is the apparent match of his deceptively flat Japanese.
At nearly double the length of any previous Murakami novel, 1Q84 promises an even deeper, more affecting immersion in the surreal universe that has made Murakami among the most widely read novelists on the planet. His taller-than-tall tales aren't to every taste, but those who fall for his variant worlds, so often nocturnal versions of our daytime realities, can't get enough of bottomless wells and talking animals, explosions of cruelty and sex, and mashes of East/West philosophy.
Whatever else about 1Q84, it is maximalist Murakami. With its animal allegories and echoes of folk legends, the references to everything from Alice in Wonderland to the Gnostic thinking of Carl Jung, the novel offers the most complete précis of its author's lifelong preoccupations and eccentricities. For fans, the more is the merrier; for newcomers, the book may be a few oddities, and a couple of hundred pages, beyond the patience threshold.
Notably, there is also a shaggy-dog element to the storytelling, and even some self-mockery of the reclusive Murakami's reputation for being both a long-distance runner and author, and a prolix one. Only when he is writing, admits a character, can he confirm that "this person known as 'me' exists in the world."
Two separate narratives unfold in that variant universe of 1Q84 Tokyo. One concerns a young woman named Aomame. She is a fitness instructor, massage therapist and assassin. Her victims are men who have committed extreme violence against women and her method is a thin ice pick that, driven into the base of the neck, kills them dead without any evident trace of homicide. Raised by Jehovah's Witnesses, she fled a severe, joyless childhood at 10. Now she is solitary and dangerous, her own kind of fanatic.
Tengo is a math whiz and aspiring novelist. A typical Murakami protagonist, Tengo is an amiable loner, quietly disaffected from friends and society. He, too, experienced a miserable upbringing, and his actual origins are a mystery. When the 30-year-old agrees to secretly rewrite the manuscript submitted to a contest by a beautiful teenage girl, with an eye to creating a publishing sensation, his carefully contained existence is upended.
The manuscript is titled Air Chrysalis, a quirky fable concerning a religious cult, a tribe of miniature spirits called "Little People," and a 10-year-old who must flee for her safety beneath a sky containing two moons. Only the story isn't a fable; it is the autobiography of its author, Fuka-Eri, still another victim obliged to cope with the legacy of her parents' fanaticism.
When both Aomame and Tengo likewise find themselves beneath two moons, and implicated in the murder of a sexual deviant cult leader who harmed Fuka-Eri, the characters begin to intersect and the plots to converge. Watching how Murakami draws in the elaborate strands to form a single weave by the end is a thrill; he remains a master of the steady, mesmerizing reveal, despite a penchant for excess recapping of story details.
The novel's natural climax, a lethal massage-therapy session involving Aomame and the grotesque "Leader," occurs at the end of the second of three parts. The final, and longest chunk of 1Q84 is a bit of a slog, especially as it ambles toward a fairy-tale ending where hero and heroine are finally reunited. Seven hundred or so pages might have suited the book's intentions better.
But the bulk does serve as hard evidence of Murakami's growing worry about contemporary Japan. Though westernized on the surface, right down to insisting on an English-language epigraph for the original edition of the novel, the now 62-year-old is foremost an astute, if deadpan, observer and critic of his native land. In both his fictional universe, and his Japan, there is forever a "serious shortage of both logic and kindness."
The illogic, and cruelty, that fuel fanaticism is a theme he has explored before, most notably in a non-fiction work about a cult that released poison gas into the Tokyo subway system in 1995. In 1Q84, the extremist heart isn't a Big Brother state – the references to George Orwell's dystopian classic are more distracting than helpful – but End of Days cults who exempt themselves from ethical and societal rules.
Such willful exemptions, the novel implies, are at the cost, often terrible, of everyone else, especially children. The strained happy ending to this expansive, enthralling, but also over-long and occasionally exasperating foray into the lure of fanatical beliefs may be a corrective to the illusions and delusions that has proceeded it: All Tengo and Aomame really need to live, it turns out, is each other.
"It's a Barnum and Bailey world," that English epigraph reads, quoting from the Depression-era song It's Only a Paper Moon, "just as phony as it can be,/ But it wouldn't be make-believe/ if you believed in me."
Contributing reviewer Charles Foran's biography, Mordecai: The Life and Times, this week won the inaugural Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for non-fiction.