"It's very difficult to logically explain the illogical," one character says to another near the end of 1Q84, Haruki Murakami's long-awaited latest novel. Well, long-awaited here, anyway: Weighing in at 925 pages, 1Q84 was published in Japan in three volumes in 2009 and 2010. The one-volume US version is the result of 43 billion hours of translation from Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, and comes with some gorgeous, clever design by Chip Kidd.
Whether 1Q84 will live up to the years of lit-nerd expectations that preceded its release probably comes down to how willing you are to grapple with logically explaining the illogical. Though it draws on things Murakami's explored in other books—the lonely, empty repetition of life; beautiful young girls who're more than they seem; cults; general surreal weirdness—1Q84 might be the most complex and intricate of his works to date. You should probably go into it realizing some of it won't make sense, and you should also probably know that the pleasures of trying to explain the unexplainable are part of why 1Q84 is so rewarding.
It wouldn't be unfair to call 1Q84 a wildly ambitious and increasingly strange romance, considering the narrative largely jumps back and forth between two 30-year-olds in 1984 Tokyo: Aomame, a fitness instructor who also happens to occasionally, skillfully, and discreetly kill abusive men, and Tengo, a former childhood prodigy who teaches math a few days a week and spends the rest of his time writing fiction. There are others, too, most of whom hold great, unpredictable sway over the interlocked lives of Aomame and Tengo: Fuka-Eri, a 17-year-old who's written a mesmerizing fantasy novella called Air Chrysalis; an old dowager who assists Aomame with her murders; a professor with questionable motives; a menacing leader of a secretive religion; a determined and misshapen cretin who, toad-like, lurks around peripheries.
Then there's 1Q84: A place and a time that is, in many ways, identical to 1984, but that slowly reveals itself to be something entirely different. With little warning, Aomame finds herself outside 1984 and inside 1Q84—where historical events are subtly but meaningfully off, where the nighttime sky holds not one but two moons, and where creepy sex, brutal violence, and shadowy creatures raise the stakes of survival. "This is starting to sound like science fiction," Aomame says early on. A few hundred pages later, she's told how simplistic such a description would be: "You've been reading too much science fiction," another character matter-of-factly informs her, hinting at something far grander.
As Tengo rewrites Fuka-Eri's Air Chrysalis, and as Aomame agrees to help the dowager with a risky assassination, 1Q84 spins and spins, with Murakami's steady, clean narration increasingly brushing up against things that can't be explained. There are sharp insights here, and wry humor, and affecting emotion, but hardly any of those things lie on the surface. Like Tengo and Aomame, 1Q84's readers are half participants and half detectives; like Air Chrysalis, 1Q84 reveals itself to be "like a book with a secret code."
1Q84 is also long, and it feels it, especially during an awkward chunk in its final third when a few characters do little more than wait around while another seeks out puzzle pieces the reader has already found. It's a rough stretch for a novel with very few of them, and it shows, however briefly, the challenges Murakami faces in cramming in a mystery this big—or cramming in enough of it, at least, to show us how obscure, how frightening, and how beautiful it is.