Parts 1 & 2 came out in 2009, and Part 3 came out in 2010. Thus this follows the publication pattern of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (without the magazine serialization of the first part). In this case, I think the two installments (counting Parts 1 & 2 as one unit) bear separate consideration, for reasons I’ll go into below.
Parts 1 & 2 consist of two intertwined storylines told in alternating chapters: an “Aomame” storyline told from the point of view of a character of the same name, and a “Tengo” storyline told from the p.o.v. of that character. Both are in the third person – the whole book is, which for Murakami is a landmark in and of itself. One of many to be found in 1Q84.
Aomame’s full name, which we only discover in Part 3, is Aomame Masami. She’s a 30-year-old single gym instructor and personal trainer who focuses on women’s self-defense, and in her spare time she’s an assassin working for an older woman known only (until Part 3) as the Dowager. We first meet Aomame in a cab on the expressway, stuck in gridlock. The cab driver tells her that if she’s in a hurry, there’s a short-cut off the expressway: she can climb down the emergency stairs. She does, and when she gets to ground level she starts to notice odd things about the world. Cops are in different uniforms, carrying different guns. Eventually these differences multiply to the point that she realizes that somehow she’s stepped into a different world – it’s almost but not quite identical to her own. Since the year in her own world is 1984, she decides to call this one the phonetically identical (in Japanese) 1Q84. The biggest difference is that here there are two moons.
The appointment she’s on her way to is an assassination. She shows up in a swanky downtown hotel, talks her way into the guy’s room, and stabs him in the neck with a needle she made herself – it hits the instant-death spot in the brain while leaving no perceptible mark on the skin. Why does this guy need to die? He beats his wife. The Dowager, we come to learn, runs a battered-women’s shelter, and Aomame works for her taking out the most egregious husbands of these women.
The Dowager does this because her daughter married an abuser and killed herself; she sees Aomame as a kind of surrogate daughter. The Dowager lives in a mansion in Azabu surrounded by willows; we first meet her in a greenhouse filled with exotic butterflies, guarded by her burly, well-read, Korean-Japanese, gay bodyguard Tamura.
Aomame does this because her first and best friend in high school, Tamaki, also married an abuser and killed herself. Aomame’s relationship with Tamaki was deeper than ordinary friendship – it dabbled in the physical, and although Aomame doesn’t consider herself a lesbian, her emotional attachment to Tamaki was deep and passionate. Her first kill is Tamaki’s husband.
Aomame, again, does not consider herself a lesbian, and in fact has a habit of picking up men in bars for one-night stands to satisfy her sexual urges. Always older men, who she has a thing for. But in the course of one of these adventures she meets a cute policewoman named Ayumi; they begin to go out on foursomes, but Ayumi harbors a secret passion for Aomame that Aomame almost, but doesn’t quite, reciprocate. Then Ayumi turns up strangled by a date in a hotel. But Aomame doesn’t vow revenge – she’s in the midst of another, more dire, mission…
Meanwhile, Tengo’s storyline is much more peaceful. He’s a part-time math teacher in a cram school, and on the side he’s an aspiring novelist. His mentor and editor, Komatsu, also has him screening entries for a new-writers contest, and in the process they come across a peculiar work called “Air Chrysalis.” It’s a work of fantasy by a 17-year-old calling herself Fuka-Eri (short for Fukada Eriko), and while it’s borderline illiterate there’s something about it that’s unforgettable. The mischievous Komatsu hatches a scheme to have Tengo rewrite it, sure that the result will win the prize. Komatsu’s original intention seems to be nothing more than to have a goof at the expense of the literary establishment.
It works, though, and there the trouble begins. Because the story turns out to be a barely-fictionalized account of Fuka-Eri’s upbringing in a strange and secretive cult in the mountains of Yamanashi. Sakigake, as the cult is named, was originally a left-wing commune, a holdover from the 1970 student movement, founded by Fuka-Eri’s father. But then it evolved into a religious organization centered around a shadowy figure known only as the Leader, and Fukada pere has never been heard from again. Fuka-Eri ran away at age ten and now lives with Fukada’s old friend and academic colleague Professor Ebisuno. Ebisuno signs onto the rewriting scam, but he has his own agenda: he’s concerned about Fukada’s disappearance, and hopes that if “Air Chrysalis” wins the prize it will stir some shit up with Sakigake.
And what about Fuka-Eri? She’s a strange one: speaks in a monotone, and largely in monosyllables, has lifeless but hypnotic eyes, is dyslexic but turns out to have a fantastic memory, has great but odd physical allure, and all in all seems not to be quite of this world. She goes along with the plan because, basically, she likes Tengo – and because she doesn’t consider herself a fiction writer to begin with. She insists the story is true.
But it can’t be, Tengo thinks. Because it’s about a little girl in a commune who is assigned to guard the goats, and when one dies, she’s punished by being locked up with the corpse, and she sees six Little People from another dimension crawl out through the goat’s mouth and start building an Air Chrysalis. I.e., a kind of cocoon made of filaments that they pull out of thin air. When it’s done, it’s meant to help them communicate between their world and this; it contains a homunculus of the girl herself, called a dohta – and she, the original, is called the maza. Clearly it’s fantasy, right?
The first hint of convergence between the two storylines comes with Aomame’s new mission, the one that precludes her avenging Ayumi. The Dowager has taken in an abused child who has run away from Sakigake with tales that the Leader is having sex with underage shrine maidens. Including his daughter (they’re unaware of Fuka-Eri at this point). I.e., we realize that the Leader and the former leftist guru Fukada are one and the same, and also that part of Fuka-Eri’s shellshocked demeanor might come from being sexually abused by her father.
Meanwhile, the rising tension in Tengo’s storyline comes first from fears that the media furor around Fuka-Eri’s winning the prize (sexy 17-year-old wins literary prize – who can resist?) will reveal his part in the hoax, and then from the fact that she disappears. And while the police are searching for her, she shows up at Tengo’s apartment and asks him to shelter her. It turns out that her disappearance was engineered by Ebisuno as a way of getting the cops to raid Sakigake.
We get further convergence of the two storylines the more we learn about Aomame and Tengo’s childhoods. It turns out they knew each other as 4th- and 5th-graders. Aomame was raised in a strict Christian sect called the Society of Witnesses (obviously modeled after the Jehovah’s Witnesses – they refuse blood transfusions, for example), and was traumatized as a child by being dragged on door-to-door proselyting by her mother. Tengo was raised by a single father who worked as an NHK fee collector and was similarly traumatized by his father dragging him along on his rounds every Sunday, on which he would browbeat and harrass people into paying up. At school, Tengo compensated for his loneliness by excelling in math, in judo, and in just about everything else he tried; as a tall, strong kid he was always popular, although he never felt like he belonged. Aomame, meanwhile, was isolated and bullied until one day Tengo stood up for her. She couldn’t say thanks, but one day she held his hand – and that was the last contact they ever had. But they’ve remembered it, each separately, ever since.
As Part 2 draws to its climax, Aomame embarks on her mission. The Leader is seeking a new physical therapist for his terrible muscle aches resulting from his spiritual transports, and Aomame gets a try-out. She goes to his hotel suite in Tokyo and, in the midst of a terrible thunderstorm, has a one-on-one session with the Leader in a darkened room, with his bodyguards just outside the door. The Leader knows why she’s come and in fact begs her to take his life. He speaks of his pain as coming from spiritual possessions that come upon him and utterly paralyze him, then leave him with horrible aches for days afterward. He also confesses that during his paralyses his ten-year-old shrine maidens mount him – he swears it’s their idea, not his – that they want to bear his children. But none have. He also speaks of the Little People – says he’s a Receiver, getting revelations from them, and that his daughter was the Perceiver, part of the revelation-communicating process. And he also reveals to Aomame Tengo’s role in disseminating word of the Little People, which has angered them. Thus the thunderstorm. The Leader seems genuinely weary of the whole thing, and willingly submits to Aomame’s ministrations. She debates leaving him alive to suffer, but in the end kills him, because he says that if he’s allowed to live, Tengo will be in danger, while if he dies, Aomame will be in danger, but Tengo will be out of danger.
She gets away with it, too – that is, she makes it out of the suite, and then immediately goes into hiding under arrangements made by Tamura. Goes to the mattresses in an apartment in Koenji, where she broods over what the Leader has said. Begins to be obsessed with her memories of Tengo, and in the last scene in her storyline in Part 2, goes back onto the expressway and holds a gun to her head…
Meanwhile, Tengo twice goes to visit his father in a nursing home in Chiba. He’s always wondered if his father is in fact his father – he has a single memory of his mother, and in the memory she’s making love with another man. In any case, he’s never gotten along with his father, but now he takes a whim to visit him. His father, only half-lucid, seems to deny that Tengo is his son, and Tengo, somewhat relieved, goes back to Tokyo. He tells Fuka-Eri of the visit, and how it strangely resembled a story he was reading on a train about a Town of Cats: the protagonist of the story got off the train in the town, found it was inhabited by cats, was enchanted, and stayed until he could no longer catch a train to leave.
Fuka-Eri insists that he needs to undergo a purification – the Little People are after him. That’s the night of the thunderstorm, and Fuka-Eri comes into his bed. Without being at all sexually attracted to her, Tengo slips into a dream-state accompanied by paralysis, including a priapic state, and Fuka-Eri mounts him. In a moment of supreme spiritual transcendance, he comes inside her like he’s never come before. This was the purification.
His storyline, in this volume, concludes with another visit to his father. This time the man’s dying – he’s in a coma. Tengo visits him, and while some tests are being run, he sees an air chrysalis floating in his father’s empty bed. He peeks inside and sees the 10-year-old Aomame.
Thus ends Part 2.
Part 3 introduces a new p.o.v. character. This is a private eye named Ushikawa – we’ve already met him, but now he takes a major role. Chapters from his perspective now alternate with those from Aomame’s and Tengo’s. Ushikawa is working for Sakigake, although he’s not a believer. First we met him harrassing Tengo, but now that the cult’s attention is on catching the murderer of their Leader, he’s on the trail of Aomame. In his chapters we follow his investigation in painstaking detail as he uncovers Aomame’s connections with the Dowager and ultimately with Tengo (this is where we learn everybody’s full names). Finally he stakes out Tengo’s apartment, hoping this will lead him to Aomame. Tengo, by coincidence, also lives in Koenji, so this is a better guess than Ushikawa realizes.
Meanwhile both Aomame and Tengo spend most of Part 3 alone in their respective Koenji apartments waiting for something to happen. Aomame is in hiding, while Sakigake looks for her; the Dowager and Tamura want her to go to a safer place and have plastic surgery, but she vows to wait out the year where she is, hoping against hope to run into Tengo, though she has no idea where she is. In fact, one night, looking down from her balcony, she sees him sitting on a slide in a playground, gazing at the sky, but by the time she gets down there he’s gone. After that, she watches for him every night.
Tengo, meanwhile, is just kind of spinning his wheels. He discovers that he can see two moons now – just like in the story “Air Chrysalis.” He goes back to Chiba when his father takes a turn for the worse and spends nearly two weeks at his bedside, but he’s really just hoping for another glimpse of Aomame’s air chrysalis. He doesn’t see it. Has a brief dalliance with a nurse named Adachi – no sex, but she gets him high on hashish. Fuka-Eri disappears again, warning him that his place is being watched. In fact he never sees her again – she goes back to Ebisuno, who calls off the search. The police raid of Sakigake turned up nothing – not even the death of the Leader, which the sect is keeping under wraps.
Aomame discovers she’s pregnant, and deduces that it must have been the night she killed the Leader – although there was no sex involved – and on a hunch she decides the baby must be Tengo’s. We, the readers, know that he did in fact come that night, into a strangely transfigured Fuka-Eri, so we’re ready to suspect that somehow this was in fact a mystical union with Aomame.
Ushikawa closes in on Aomame, until finally she spots him, and Tamura visits him and whacks him. Sakigake comes and gets his body, and while they’re trying to decide what to do with him, Little People crawl out of his mouth and start building an air chrysalis.
Meanwhile Ushikawa under torture had revealed where Tengo was, and his old connection to Aomame, and Aomame gets Tamura to take a message to him. Meet her tonight on the slide. He does, they’re finally reunited after twenty years. She leads him up the emergency staircase onto the expressway, and when they get to the top they see – one moon. They’ve escaped.
End of summary. And yes, even at that, I’ve left out a lot of stuff.
Simply put, the reason why I want to consider Parts 1 & 2 separate from Part 3 is that Parts 1 & 2 are brilliant, or damn near, while Part 3 is a disaster. Now, to save wear and tear on the ampersand I’m just going to call them “the first part” and “the last part” from now on.
The first part reads like everything you’ve ever hoped Murakami would do. It’s his deepest dive into genre fiction since Hard-Boiled Wonderland, this time embracing some of the juicier elements of hit-man/crime fiction, and up to the end of the first part he pulls it off with, if anything, even more aplomb than he did with the cyberpunk elements back in 1985. Aomame the feminist assassin is quite simply one of the great characters in his ouevre. And not just because of her ingredients: she comes alive on the page. Whether she’s hitting the bars with Ayumi or communing with the Dowager among the butterflies, she’s well-written, with punchy dialogue and great details of personality (her frightening scowl) and physique (her lopsided bust). Her last mission against the Leader is depicted with great tension and atmosphere (even if the final confrontation owes a little too much to Apocalypse Now – right down to the presence of The Golden Bough).
Meanwhile, the Tengo storyline is a glorious parody of the literary world, something Murakami hasn’t essayed since Dance Dance Dance. Tengo himself is a little reminiscent of Junpei in “Honey Pie” and/or “The Kidney-Shaped Stone…,” but here he’s used for comic effect, a naif at the mercies of the scheming Komatsu. But then his storyline veers into classic Murakami surrealism, as Fuka-Eri shows up and begins insisting that all this business about the Little People is real.
The themes are really solid in the first part, too. First and foremost there’s Sakigake itself. Clearly this is Murakami’s long-anticipated fictional depiction of Aum, and it’s fascinating that he plugs it into his lifelong obsession with the failure of the student movement. Without necessarily saying that Aum itself was a hangover of the ‘60s, he makes an excellent case for how one strain of that kind of idealism could turn cultish. It’s kind of the mirror-image of the would-be Sheep/Rat nexus in A Wild Sheep Chase.
The keynote theme of the Aomame storyline is violence against women: she’s an avenging angel, and in this, too, she’s an unforgettable character. Kind of the culmination of the gradual feminist awakening Murakami’s been undergoing since that spate of female-p.o.v. stories in ’89-’91. Her own life, and her interaction with the Dowager, are effective devices for exposing the frightening prevalence of violence against women in Japan. Even Tengo, it turns out, is touched by it – we learn, although he never does, that his mother in fact ran away from his father (the guy in Chiba is in fact his real father) with another man, who then strangled her.
The childhood parallels between Aomame and Tengo are rich, too. Aomame is scarred by an upbringing that sets her too much at odds with mainstream society, and claims her childhood in the process; Tengo’s father, meanwhile, is kind of the uber-salaryman, and in that sense is the epitome of mainstream society, but that claims his childhood no less completely. The NHK fee collector is in some ways Murakami’s most damning portrait of work-obsessed straight society (and one of the few wonderful things in the second part is how Tengo’s father’s spirit wanders from his body to manifest as a phantom fee collector harrassing Aomame, Tengo, and even Ushikawa).
All of this thematic complexity and narrative tension glides to a halt in Part 3 as Aomame and Tengo both turn into Okada Toru, and as Ushikawa comes, inexplicably, to consume a full third of the narrative.
Well, almost inexplicably: he does have that brief denouement as the new dead goat. Otherwise, he’s just a loathsome character to have to inhabit. In the first part, Murakami had introduced him as such – physically misshapen, unclean, abrasively unctuous, morally deficient, and on the wrong side. By making him a point of view character in the second part I suspect Murakami’s trying to get us to see him as a successor to characters like Katagiri in “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo,” an outwardly-repulsive but inwardly-noble salt-of-the-earth type. But it just doesn’t work that way, because he forgets the inwardly-noble part. He nearly ruins Part 3 single-handedly.
But he has help. As I say, Aomame and Tengo both turn into utterly static characters. Aomame’s transformation is particularly disappointing, as she goes from being decisive, self-directed, and cool to being hopelessly devoted to her girlhood crush. Without particularly undergoing any form of repentance for her murderous past, she has a kind of ambiguous spiritual awakening, and sees her childhood love for Tengo as her only chance at redemption. Tengo, too, goes from being a relatively well-adjusted adult – a bit disaffected, a bit of a loner, but still basically happy – to moping about his boyhood crush. And all those wonderful plots that they’d been involved in in the first part are downplayed or dropped in favor of a love story.
And, I may say, the weakest kind of love story: the pre-sexual-awakening childhood-innocence kind of love story. In South of the Border, West of the Sun he used this motif (which, to be sure, has a long pedigree in Japan), but he couched it in terms of the main character’s midlife crisis. It made sense for a self-centered Man Who Has Everything to long for a ten-year-old rosebud; here it makes much less sense, and it’s presented with no ironic distance at all, in the second part at least.
I find it hard to believe this is where Murakami had originally intended the story to end up. But it’s hard to say. The first part feels utterly planned out – most plot developments feel carefully calculated, in a good way. Instead of the improvisational feel of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, we get the architectural solidity of Kafka on the Shore, but with much stronger narrative elements. But the second part goes off the rails in the same way that the last third of Wind-Up Bird did, only it doesn’t recover like the earlier book did, and it doesn’t have the improvisational feel to contextualize it. That is, it was okay that Murakami felt like he was vamping in search of a theme for a while in Wind-Up Bird, because it was that kind of novel; this isn’t that kind of novel, so when he drops everything that’s been working in search of something else it’s just a really jarring move.
And the amount of stuff that gets dropped is unbelievable. The whole sociopolitical critique aspect of Sakigake is dropped, and so is their peculiar spiritual outlook; instead they become mere antagonists in Aomame’s search for Tengo. And as Sakigake is moved to the back burner, so is the Komatsu-Ebisuno conspiracy. Murakami had laid the groundwork, in the third part, for some tasty revelations about them – Komatsu had once been Ebisuno’s editor, and we know that Ebisuno had long been in touch with Fukada, so I figured that we were going to learn that Ebisuno was still Sakigake’s man on the outside, and that Komatsu had been in cahoots with him, manipulating Tengo, from the beginning. As a cultural anthropologist, it would make perfect sense for Ebisuno to see Sakigake as an interesting experiment in atavism, or even to be a secret participant in their mystery cult. But instead, Ebisuno is completely dropped as a character. And Komatsu gets one brief appearance when he tells Tengo that he was kidnapped and threatened by Sakigake and told to cease publication of “Air Chrysalis” or else….
As I say, the spiritual outlook of Sakigake is also largely dropped. Fuka-Eri hardly appears in the second part, and so all that juicy mystery surrounding her is muted. We get some speculation about her nature (is she mother/maza or daughter/dohta?), but basically she seems to have served her purpose in funneling Tengo’s sperm into Aomame…
The Dowager is basically dropped as a character. There’s no follow-up on Ayumi. No follow-up on Tengo’s older married girlfriend from the first part, who also disappeared mysteriously. In short, almost everything good and intriguing from the first part is jettisoned to make room for the love story.
It’s hard to overstate how disappointing I found Part 3 of this book. For long stretches of Parts 1 & 2, I thought it was his masterpiece, hands down; but Part 3 is probably the worst thing I’ve ever read by Murakami. Absolutely a train wreck.
And a train wreck in ways that reach back to weaken Parts 1 & 2, unfortunately. About those Little People. What are they doing in this book? It’s hinted that they’re part of the Murakami’s playful take on Orwell’s 1984: instead of Big Brother we get the Little People. But (that's not funny and) they don’t seem to be set in thematic dialogue with Big Brother in any particular manner. They don’t control people’s thoughts, or even their actions in much more than a very oblique way. They’re not an overwhelming presence. (In fact, I can’t see much of an engagement with Orwell’s book here at all. The world of 1Q84 certainly isn’t an imagined totalitarian Japan – the whole point is that it’s largely indistinguishable from real 1984 Japan. And while somebody could doubtless make the case – some intellectuals did, at the time – that real 1984 Japan was subtly totalitarian, this book doesn't say that.)
Elsewhere they’re associated with primeval human religion, with the prophet-king motif in The Golden Bough, the kind of king who had to be killed ceremonially by his people. But this theme, introduced late in Part 2, isn’t followed up on in Part 3, and so it doesn’t go anywhere. We’re meant to see them as somehow active in this alternate world, connecting it to their world, and somehow manipulating Sakigake – but into doing what? Are they good or bad? Are they a threat or a goof? We don’t know. They’re just a faintly ridiculous oddity in the mist of all this other sturm and drang. Unrealized possibilities, just like so much else in this book.
As of summer 2012 this is the most recent fiction we have from Murakami. The sheer scope – almost 1200 pages in translation – augured for this to be his magnum opus. But if so, it’s a deeply flawed one, a work that builds up tremendous momentum and potential, only to squander it all. One can only hope he’s deep into his next work by now, and that it’s as much of a redemption as After Dark was.