Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 is daunting at nearly a thousand pages—big enough to smite people. You probably couldn't take this book through airport security.
The main character is a woman named Aomame who kills domestic abusers with a tiny ice pick so it looks like a heart attack. She does this for a sage-like friend who runs a battered women's shelter and always seems to be drinking tea and hanging out with goldfish. Both characters share similarly tragic pasts that fuel their hatred of wife-beaters. When off duty from being an assassin, Aomame becomes involved in a sexual tryst with a police officer she meets in a bar. She has a thing for bald men.
A small child arrives at the shelter. She is the victim of a sexual deviant cult leader. (Seriously, is there any other kind of cult leader?) Aomame is dispatched to do away with the predator. It's probably a suicide mission, as his security is tight.
This is just the beginning of Aomame’s problems. She also doubts reality. She sees two moons in the sky and can't seem to remember the recent past—in particular, a nasty shootout between police and a splinter group of the aforementioned cult. That's a big deal in Japan, as gun violence is not considered the spectator sport it is in the U.S.
The book is named after the imaginary year that disoriented Aomame thinks she lives in, though it’s set in 1984. Her descent into madness makes for creepy, unsettling reading.
Murakami name-drops George Orwell's laugh-riot 1984 several times. Both books deal with the concept of manipulated realities. And while Murakami's book is more than three times as long, it's also more fun to read. Orwell's is a classic, no doubt, but it's so depressing that I prayed for Big Brother shoot me in the back about halfway through.
1Q84 also contains shades of Neuromancer-era William Gibson, in that it's dense and often hard to piece together, but the ride is enjoyable, so who cares? The theme of questioning one's reality also brings to mind Philip K. Dick, particularly his later, more schizo novels like A Scanner Darkly or VALIS.
The saga comes divided into three sections, each spanning a few months. In Japan, it was published as three books. Read one section. Then read something else (not 1984).
Another one of 1Q84’s alternating storylines concerns Tengo: math teacher by day, unpublished novelist in his off time. He's been tapped to secretly rewrite a fiction contest entry penned by a beautiful and strange teenage girl named Fuka-Eri. Her novel concerns mythical “little people” and a blind goat. It becomes a best-seller. Fuka-Eri spent most of her life in—and recently escaped from—the same cult as described in the first narrative.
Murakami manages to keep adding little nuggets of weirdness to keep things moving along. He achieves this mainly through awkward depictions of sex; both Aomame's exploits and Tengo's dalliance with a married woman.
The seemingly separate stories start playing footsie, intertwining. They do more than just mingle. They ravel into one another like a double helix. Aomame and Tengo appear to have a past connection. Some of the spaced-out things Fuka-Eri writes about in her fiction are actually happening.
Despite its grueling length, 1Q84 is blessed with excellent—some might say even a little mechanical—pacing, and the story progresses at a fairly constant clip. There are plenty of asides, bits of history and backstories on characters, but Murakami never lingers anywhere too long. While this helps keep things moving, it can leave a reader wanting for a more grounded story. Although 1Q84 is focused and tidy, the book is also a little hollow. That said, it's refreshing to read about tiny ice pick murder. So delicate, an art form really.