1Q84 is the newest novel by Japanese superstar author, Harukai Murakami, and in my opinion, it is his best so far. While I have liked many of Murakami's books, like Kafka by the Shore and Norweigan Wood, this one is different. It is gripping, mesmerizing, inspiring, and horrible, all at once.
It is a love story, a mystery, a horror story, and a compelling read, which is a good thing because it is over 900 pages long.
The title comes from George Orwell's book, 1984, with its perennial images of Big Brother and a totalist sociaty. In 1Q84, it starts out in what seems like Japan in 1984, but then something changes. An assasin climbs down from a jammed expressway in Tokyo, and finds herself in a world with 2 moons. A small green moon parallels the old white moon, like a little sister. Clearly, not just the moons, but everything has changed.
Here is the set up: a boy and a girl go to the same elementary school for 2 years. The boy is a math prodigy and athlete. The girl is entirely forgettable. One day the girl goes up to the boy and grabs his hand. She holds it steadily for a long time, looking directly into his eyes. When he finally looks away, she stares for a long time at the moon. Then she disappears. Both are left altered forever. They are in love, or more than in love, joined somehow. Neither can forget that moment.
But time moves on, 20 years, and the novel begins with the woman, now age 30, Aomame, which means "green peas" in Japanese, who has become a serial killer of men who abuse women. Tengo, the man, teaches math in a cram school for high school kids needing to get into college, and he wants to be a novelist but has never published anything. Both have had other partners and lots of sex, but neither has fallen in love because each remembers that magic moment when they were 10.
Tengo is convinced to undertake a risky venture, by his greedy editor. An unknown 17 year old girl, Fuka-Eri, has submitted a novel for publication that is quite unique and captivates both men, although it is far from perfect. Tengo agrees to ghost rewrite the novel, to improve it, and then they all agree to submit it to a national writing competition, without mentioning Tengo. The novel is called Air Chrysalis, and it is a fantastic story about a 10 year old girl living in a cult who is punished for letting a goat die by being shut into a small shed alone with the dead goat. Out of its mouth pour 6 Little People, and they make an "air chrysalis" for the girl, and she learns to make them as well. Of course, the book wins the competition and becomes a best seller. But then the teenage author disappears.
It turns out the Air Chrysalis is not a fantasy. It is the autobiography of Fuka-Eri, and The Little People are real and none too happy when it is published. Tengo and Fuka-Eri are targeted, probably for assassination. But simultaneously, Aomame is assigned to murder the Leader of the cult from which Fuka-Eri escaped. She becomes the prime target of the cult, and subject to a manhunt. While Tengo and Fuka-Eri know each other and work closely, Tengo and Aomame only sense that they are close, and that for some reason, they seem to be on a parallel mission to inhibit the actions of the cult that Fuka-Eri left. We later learn that Leader was Fuka-Eri's father, and that he begged Aomame to kill him, to end unbearable pain.
Both Tengo and Aomame know they are in deep danger. Both can see the two moons. Each desires nothing more than to meet again, to reunite as adults even at dire peril. As if that were not enough, Aomame finds herself pregnant, and she thinks she got that way while she murdered Leader, and that the child is Tengo's, although they have not met for 20 years and never had sex. I won't give away the ending. And I am not sure that I've been able to convey the grip of this novel, which manages to make itself seem shorter than The Lord of The Rings, even though it is also a 3 volume, mega book.
Haruki Murakami might be Japan's most famous novelist, often mentioned for a Nobel Prize. What I find most notable about his work is that he writes in the most minute detail about ordinary life, in short, clear sentences with ample but not overwhelming vocabulary, and then his subject matter takes off into the supernatural, as though that too is completely ordinary and unremarkable. He admires Proust (in fact, one of the main characters spends months reading Remembrance of Times Past), and the details of his characters actions, like making dinner, come alive. However, penetrating the daily, ordinary life of his characters are magical creatures with great and ancient powers, and the supernatural lurks at a shallow depth, beneath ordinary life in Tokyo.
Maybe the message is trite - love is the most important thing in the world. But maybe love does not conquer all. Maybe love is not sufficient against evil. Our lives become woven with the destinies of others, and nobody can predict the outcome of strong relationships. I find myself searching the sky, wondering what I might be missing. Does it take 2 moons to know that things are no longer the same?