Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

by haruki murakami, translated by jay rubin and philip gabriel
knopf, 944 pages, $30.50

Much to my surprise, given the author’s reputation, I began to care about the main characters of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami’s new epic, 1Q84. They are a young man and a young woman who, after knowing each other briefly but meaningfully as schoolchildren, spend a year trying to reunite while avoiding the lethal consequences of their professional connections to dark and secretive powers. Will they find each other? Will they escape their pursuers? Will the repeated prayers of the female protagonist finally bring her closer to God?

Murakami has enjoyed critical acclaim and global attention across his Nobel-pending career—which includes a dozen novels, translated into forty languages, which have sold in the millions—for writing cool-toned, surreal fictions about contemporary life. The esoteric meanings and Russian-doll revelations that figure in his work often involve the emphatically mundane and the quietly fantastic, combinations experienced by bland people leading stunted lives, starved for purpose and meaning yet too passive or ground down by the suffocations and rigidities of Japanese society to do anything about it.

That is, until something irreducibly strange happens, animating their lives with a new and discordant sense of self, world, and possibility that pushes them into friendships and romances with others who are stunted and bland but also capable of strange, terrible, and even wonderful things. And through these unexpected, usually radical adjustments and new relationships, Murakami—widely regarded as a supreme postmodernist—creates in his characters both a desire and an effort for integration, for the kinds of wholeness and unity that postmodernism itself rejects. On the far side of the absurd, in other words, he reveals the very traditional.

Aomame, the main female character in 1Q84, for the most part seems more capable of the strange and terrible and absurd than of the wonderful or traditional. Living in 1984 and ostensibly a personal trainer, she’s actually a paid assassin, employed by a wealthy dowager with a personal mission to punish men who serially abuse women. Though she tends to fall back on traditional prayers in difficult moments—the lone holdover from a suffocating childhood spent in a fundamentalist Christian sect—she goes about her deadly work efficiently and without remorse. She finds relief from the general boredom of her solitary pursuits by habitually picking up fortysomething sad sacks in Tokyo bars. She is a classic Murakami creation: an outwardly extreme person whose inner life is about as lively as a bowl of boiled rice.

But something strange happens. After leaving a successful murder job, she escapes a traffic jam on foot by climbing down the emergency stairs of a highway overpass. In so doing, she unwittingly shifts into a parallel time and world, identified as 1Q84, rather than 1984.

Much seems exactly the same, but she now sees two moons hanging in the night sky. Soon she is sent to assassinate the leader of a shadowy religious cult. He ritually rapes girls as part of the cult’s rites and is treated by his followers as a divine prophet for an eccentrically composed cosmic force responsible for maintaining balance in the universe through the occasional forays and workings of the “Little People,” pint-sized daemons who use the mouths of dead things as their portals into the actual world.

Murakami frames and contains this ridiculously ersatz and black cosmology by situating a novel within the novel. This embedded story, Air Chrysalis, describes the harrowing experiences of a girl caught at the center of the very same cult and its dark cosmology. Aomame comes to realize that in the altered world where she now lives, and which is depicted in Air Chrysalis, this cosmology is real and efficacious.

The narrative reaches a related climax when Aomame has a lengthy conversation with the cult leader while quietly readying to kill him. The conversation turns on questions of good and evil, fate and free will, the multiplicity of possible worlds and our epistemological grounds for committing to any one as “the real,” and finally the necessity and value of an innocent person’s suffering for the salvation of others. Eventually, the cult leader invokes the Grand Inquisitor episode from The Brothers Karamazov, observing that, in the world Dostoevsky depicted, “the most important thing is to maintain balance between the constantly moving good and evil. If you lean too much in either direction, it becomes difficult to maintain actual morals.”

This serene misreading of Dostoevsky in service of a Manichean worldview reduces to a slogan right out of a wellness counselor’s PowerPoint presentation: “Balance itself is the good.” Murakami is not advancing this position, but depicting the reduced spiritual and intellectual condition of people living in atomized, mundane circumstances, a culture entirely closed off from the possibility of higher things.

But as her subsequent actions suggest, Aomame strives to overcome this condition through love and prayer. This shift in the novel’s spiritual atmosphere begins when she learns that the novel Air Chrysalis was originally created by the cult leader’s runaway daughter and was ghostwritten by Tengo, her childhood friend. Just before she kills him, the cult leader tells her that Tengo’s life is in danger because of his work on the novel and that he will be saved only if Aomame is willing to sacrifice her own life.

Resisting the cult leader’s fatalistic prophecy, she goes into hiding, under surveillance by the cult, which seeks retribution. Isolated and cloistered, she discovers she is pregnant. This biological impossibility evokes explanations closer to science fiction than to the Annunciation, but Aomame eventually accepts her fate, mostly because she believes that Tengo is somehow the father. At the same time, she feels a sense of higher protection and concern for herself and the baby: “Aomame realized she believed in God. It was a sudden discovery, like finding, with the soles of your feet, solid ground beneath the mud. It was a mysterious sensation, an unexpected awareness.”

Unfortunately, Aomame’s accompanying concept of God, while not nearly as absurd as the Little People business, is not as profound as the traditional Christianity that characterizes the prayers she keeps uttering. At least, however, she accepts that she’s no longer uttering these prayers only to herself, or by herself, or for herself. I don’t think Murakami is moralizing against amoral postmodernism here so much as he’s suggesting, through his characters’ most intense experiences, that in a world so chaotic and empty, a person discovers that the inherent fullness of life happens through discovering the greater fullness of the divine.

Eventually, Aomame finds Tengo, and they escape their pursuers and return to the real world of 1984 to begin a life together. There’s only one moon in the sky again, but Aomame’s openness to God carries across her worlds: “O Lord in Heaven,” she intones near the end of the book, “may Thy name be praised in utmost purity for ever and ever, and may Thy kingdom come to us. Please forgive our many sins, and bestow Thy blessings upon our humble ways. Amen.” “A strange feeling came over her,” Murakami writes, “something you might even call reverence.”

Randy Boyagoda is a novelist and professor of American studies at Ryerson University in Toronto.