A scan through reviews of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s work repeatedly yields such words as “surreal” and “alienation”—and these are certainly apt markers for his much-anticipated new novel, 1Q84. Originally published as a trilogy in Japan, where the first volume sold more than a million copies in just two months, this dystopian epic weighs in at more than 900 pages and required the services of two translators to speed the process of getting it into the hands of his many English-speaking fans.
The title pays homage to Orwell, and the story unfolds over nine months in 1984, but within the first few pages it becomes an alternate or parallel 1984. This strange transformation occurs when a young woman named Aoname (“green pea” in Japanese) impatiently disembarks from a traffic-ensnared taxi and makes her way down from the elevated expressway via an emergency stairway. Suddenly the world seems changed—she notices policemen are wearing different uniforms, for instance, and there appear to be two moons in the night sky—but she hurries to a hotel, where she quietly assassinates a businessman. Aoname, we learn, is a paid vigilante, tasked with killing men who abuse women.
In alternating chapters, we meet Tengo, a math instructor and aspiring novelist with his own unusual assignment. A publisher has asked him to revise the manuscript of a brilliant, if poorly written, novella by a 17-year-old girl, Fuka-Eri. Air Chrysalis is a visionary tale about a world orchestrated by Little People and presided over by two moons. Though he fears the scandal that could erupt if the literary deception is revealed, Tengo is too taken by the story to refuse the assignment. The elusive, dyslexic Fuka-Eri grew up on a communal farm, home of a religious cult with utopian intentions. She claims the odd story she tells in Air Chrysalis is true.
Aoname dubs this strange new year 1Q84 (Q for question), and in due course her perilous destiny will converge with Tengo’s. Both are loners, carrying psychological scars that have rendered them emotionally sterile and unable to connect with others. Tengo is haunted by a disturbing memory of his mother, who died when he was 18 months old, and he resents his father. Aoname thinks little about her own childhood, but is hounded by thoughts of a close friend who committed suicide to escape an abusive marriage.
1Q84 unfolds as a science-fiction thriller, and despite the pointed Orwellian reference, it is closer in spirit to the work of Philip K. Dick. Fantastic elements seamlessly integrate with the mundane to create a world much like, if not quite like, our own. The pace is admittedly languid and at times requires some patience—Murakami is methodical in his descriptions of locales, actions and characters’ thoughts, and conversations often play out with a flat tone of reality rather than any sense of narrative expediency. The supporting cast—from the ugly private eye who tracks Aoname and Tengo, to the forthright dowager who bankrolls Aoname’s retribution, to the terminally ill cult leader—is lovingly lifted from classic pulp fiction archetypes, and roots the novel in the noir mystery genre as well. Pulp fiction, indeed, but on a grand scale—as ambitious, quirky and imaginative as only Murakami can be.