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One of the many longueurs in Haruki Murakami's stupefying new novel, 1Q84 sends the book's heroine, a slender assassin named Aomame, into hiding. To sustain her through this period of isolation she is given an apartment, groceries and the entirety of Marcel Proust's 'Remembrance of Things Past.'
For pity's sake, if you have that kind of spare time, follow her lead. Aomame has the chance to read a book that is long and demanding but well worth the effort. The very thought of Aomame's situation will pain anyone stuck in the quicksand of 1Q84. You, sucker, will wade through nearly 1,000 uneventful pages while discovering a Tokyo that has two moons and is controlled by creatures that emerge from the mouth of a dead goat. These creatures are called Little People. They are supposed to be very wise, even though the smartest thing they ever say is 'Ho ho.'
Mr. Murakami is supposed to be very wise too. But 1Q84 has even his most ardent fans doing back flips as they try to justify this book's glaring troubles. Is it consistently interesting? No, but Mr. Murakami is too skillful a trickster to rely on conventional notions of storytelling. Is it a play on Orwell's 1984? Vaguely, but don't make close comparisons. Is it science fiction? Well, there are those two moons, plus several references to Sonny and Cher. And is it actually about anything? Don't be silly. Mr. Murakami is far too playful and allusive an artist to be restricted by a banal criterion like that one.
A word about packaging: The three volumes that have been collected for American readers in the composite version of 1Q84 hang together about as well as the three parts of Roberto Bolano's similarly published (and far better) 2666 did. Each of these omnibus books has bright, incisive passages interspersed with abundant filler. But there is no overarching narrative idea to make either book more than the sum of its parts, although in the case of 1Q84 there is a startlingly clever Chip Kidd cover to create an air of the irresistible. The actual text? Not so much.
1Q84 vacillates between two characters, Aomame and Tengo, who have a mysterious connection. Naturally Mr. Murakami will forestall explaining what the bond is for as long as he can. So Tengo is first seen being roped into a literary scheme. He knows an editor, Komatsu, who knows a 17-year-old girl who has written a remarkable story called Air Chrysalis.
But the story could be made even better if Tengo would agree to ghostwrite it. Then Komatsu will enter it in a literary contest, and the girl will surely win a prize and create a media frenzy. As Komatsu keeps pointing out with unseemly eagerness, Air Chrysalis will be very big - Murakami-type big - on the best-seller lists.
So Tengo meets the girl, who is called Fuka-Eri, although that is not her real name. Holding real names in reserve throughout most of the book is one of Mr. Murakami's creative ploys. Fuka-Eri speaks in an odd, uninflected way and has nicely shaped breasts, which are frequently mentioned. So are Tengo's mother's breasts, which have left him with a strange fixation. Meanwhile Aomame embarks on one of her assassination assignments. (She specializes in killing men who abuse women.) And even though she is a killer, she makes friends with a policewoman, with whom she hosts "intimate but fully erotic all-night sex feasts." Her nicely shaped breasts are talked about too.
These elements are not necessarily indications of the book's eroticism, which can be more than a little peculiar. ("It was like her pubic hair was part of her thinking process.") They have more to do with Mr. Murakami's determination to describe, inventory and echo just about everything that he chooses to mention. Characters repeat one another frequently, in a manner that can be seen as either incantatory or numbing, depending on your patience level.
We learn about Tengo's pajamas, and we learn what Aomame eats to prevent constipation. We learn about goldfish and a rubber plant. We learn that the second moon, when it starts appearing in the novel, looks mossy and green.
The unconvincing longing between Tengo and Aomame is mostly left to simmer by Mr. Murakami. But there is a centerpiece when Aomame makes contact with the large, powerful and fearsome figure known as Leader. He is in charge of one of several religious cults that figure in the book. And Aomame is sent to kill him.
She has been told that he is a rapist, and that he abuses the preteenage girls who are cult members. But his real story is different, and it has to do with the powers of communication that keep the world afloat. In one of the many moments that suggest Mr. Murakami takes some of his cosmic rules from Kurt Vonnegut's playbook, there turn out to be people known as receivers and others known as perceivers. The balance between them must be exquisitely maintained, or else - who knows? We never exactly find out what is at stake.
It used to be customary, in a book of this magnitude, to explain unanswered questions and tie up loose ends. Mr. Murakami clearly rejects such petty obligations, and he leaves many of the parallels in 1Q84 cryptic and dead-ended. He perceives, and we receive, and the reception isn't all that clear. But 925 pages go by. And somehow, to quote Mr. Murakami as he quotes Sonny and Cher, for reasons that perhaps only he understands, the beat goes on.
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