It may seem deceptive to say that Haruki Murakami plays it fast and loose in 1Q84 with the themes that have inhabited his writing since his breakout novel A Wild Sheep Chase thirty years ago, considering his new novel (released in Japan as three separate volumes) clocks in at just 1,000 pages. But by wrapping his clinical assessments of love, identity, the nature of reality and the power of stories in a sprawling narrative involving a masseuse that doubles as an assassin, a religious compound cut off from the world, immaculate conceptions, and the existence of an alternate reality where two moons light the sky and the potential for rekindled love can be had, provided you live through the experience.
It's 1984 when Aomame, a slender, quiet woman late for an important appointment, decides to leave a cab stuck in traffic on the freeway. By the time she's made her way down a decrepit set of service stairs to the streets below, it's 1Q84. As she slowly goes about her day, she begins to notice small things - police officers are carrying automatic pistols instead of the revolvers she recalls only a few days before, news items appear she has no recollection of. It's only later, when she looks up at the sky and see a second moon, smaller and green in the night sky, that she begins to realize she's somewhere, well...else.
In another section of the city Tengo, a young math teacher with writing aspirations, is asked to revise and polish an extraordinary novelette called Air Chrysalis, written by a mysterious young girl named Fuka-Eri. Seemingly autobiographical, the novelette concerns a young girl in a religious compound who witnesses the arrival of the Little People: small, nondescript people that crawl out of the mouth of a dead goat and begin to weave a cocoonout of threads of air. In the story, two moon light the sky, and soon Tengo realizes the world he's revising in the book is his own.
From there 1Q84 takes off, each chapter alternating Aomame and Tengo's story until they ultimately collide. Everything you come to expect from a Murakami novel is present: music is a defining trait for characters, food is as detailed and described as the sex, and the dialog (the novel is translated by Murakami mainstays Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel) has that introspective, calm cadence that's a defining trait in Murakami's writing. Writing, the physical act of writing and its effect on people is a major theme in 1Q84. For Tengo it is very direct - the act of polishing Air Chrysalis visibly changes his world, and involves him in a conspiracy that could endanger his life. Later, a short story about a city of cats he read to his dying father begins to mirror his own predicaments. For Aomame, the prayers she was forced to recite as a child becomes mantra as her world slowly grows more crazy. Reading Air Chrysalis ignites her connection to Tengo, and allows her a glimpse into why the reality of 1Q84 exists for them. There's a beautiful passage illustrating this connection, when Aomame realizes the act of reading something Tengo has written connects them:
Still sitting on the floor, Aomame closed her eyes. She pressed her nose against the pages of the book, inhaling its smells - the smell of the paper, the smell of the ink. She quietly gave herself up to its flow, listening hard for the sound of Tengo's heart.
This is the kingdom, she thought.
I am ready to die, anytime at all.
If you're going in looking for a slick SF alternate history book, a la Harry Turtledove, this isn't it: Murakami uses the existence of this alternate version of 1984 not to postulate a alternate future, but to illustrate the human need to create own reality in order to find something intangible in our current world. 1Q84 is a purposely sprawling, messy conglomeration of everything Haruki Murakami is fascinated by, equal parts moving, funny, and gripping. It's along trip, but still the ending came too soon.