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A lot to unravel but worth the effort in '1Q84'

"How should I put this?"

That phrase appears frequently in this doorstop of a novel and could apply to the book itself: How to explain a 1980s Tokyo featuring two moons; a dead goat through which tiny humanoid creatures enter the world; "air chrysalises" out of which shadow versions of people are hatched; a comatose old man's disembodied spirit that stalks apartment halls collecting for the Japanese equivalent of PBS; and the numerous other curious, deadpan, magic-realism-but-not plot elements and characters in a world that's real but fictive, all within a fictional version of the real world?

Haruki Murakami is an international literary lion who's won every award except Super Bowl MVP. As with many of his other works "1Q84" is marvelously odd, oddly earnest and subtly profound in surprising ways. This one, however, demands something particular from the reader -- belief. As the book's epigram (from "It's Only A Paper Moon") says, "it's a Barnum and Bailey world, just as phony as it can be, but it wouldn't be make-believe, if you believe in me."

"1Q84" is not for those uncomfortable at plays in which actors roam the aisles and sit in laps. It requires involvement and patience, its 925 pages mixing science fiction, romance (both the archetypal cross-cultural kind written about by anthropologists and the girl-meets-boy Hollywood kind), detective story, Flaubertian exploration of the quotidian, and post-modern literary fiction.

There are, nevertheless, rewards for the reader willing to engage with it. "1Q84" is vintage Murakami, and also an old-fashioned page-turner.

One reason for Murakami's international popularity is that Japan in his works is more map coordinates than culture and history. His Tokyo natives in "1Q84" eat Italian food, listen to Leos Janacek, quote Carl Jung and Chekhov and "Gone with the Wind" as touchstone references. It's this pan-culturalism that is their common heritage and language, but underneath this veneer runs a deep inchoate vein of Japanese character that anchors and influences everything.

"1Q84" takes place in Tokyo, April to October, 1984. The novel begins with Aomame (which means "green bean"), a stylish, fit 30-year-old woman in a cab in a traffic jam but in a hurry to get to an appointment and exasperatedly discussing alternatives. The driver says, "Well, in fact, there might be a way, but you'd have to do something a little extreme."

He shows her a staircase leading down from an emergency turnout ahead, which would lead her to the street below. She decides to go for it. He tells her to be careful, and then adds, "please remember, things are not what they seem."

Aomame climbs down, and finds herself in a different world, one defined most strikingly by the fact that it has two moons; a regular looking one and a smaller adjacent one in appearance like a wrinkled pea (symbolism, anyone?).

However, Aomame does not discover that she's in a different world until later, because she's got something else on her mind: her appointment -- which involves murder.

She's an assassin.

What follows is the unveiling of a bizarre world that, like the original "1984," looks pretty much like the real world, but isn't at all. In parallel main story lines, Aomame and a male childhood schoolmate named Tengo search for each other. They have not seen each other for 20 years but shared an experience so extraordinary that they each reach the age of 30 and decide that they must find each other again to give meaning to their lives. That shared experience is, however, a tactical gamble: Either you buy it as something that annealed their souls together, or you don't, and this is the biggest thing here requiring the reader's complicity for the book to work.

Tengo at 30 is a talented but unpublished writer who is asked by a powerful editor to secretly and fraudulently rewrite a contest manuscript from a 17-year old girl, a manuscript telling a mesmerizing fable about a world of cults and "Little People" and "air chrysalises." The rewritten book becomes a best seller. However, Tengo, and Aomame separately realize that the world in which they and everyone else are living is not the world of "1984." They have both somehow been shunted into the novel, or the original manuscript was nonfiction.

The story unfolds over the 900-plus pages with great deliberateness but also with purpose and momentum. There are real life and death events, and the stakes could not be higher for everyone involved in this complex tale. However, the very deliberate pace of the story is dictated by Murakami's fascination with the mundane acts that are the stuff of life even in a world as weird as 1Q84. Characters condition their hair, fry scallions in soy oil, take clean underwear out of packaging, drink half a beer and put it back in the refrigerator, trim their nails.

And they think -- overthink, circle around, talk about, ask and re-ask, question and speculate about everything along the way.

The result is on one level simply a story about love that defies time and circumstance and logic. On another level, it's a thriller. It's also about the act of storytelling -- and about modern culture, and fanaticism in its contemporary guises. It's about accretive, associative ways of knowing rather than rationality. It's also an assault on duality in the myriad ways we construct it or it's constructed for us: fiction and reality, mind and body, faith and apostasy, us and them, memory and history, cause and effect, male and female, subject and object, artist and audience.

Murakami's style combines a plain utilitarian diction with startling figurative language, mostly analogies, on every page. The analogic process is basically the tissue that holds things together: comparing one thing to another is the fundamental building block of this provocative novel.

While there are puzzling things here and occasional awkwardness from a craft standpoint, this is a real, sly, epic for those willing to believe.

Ed Taylor is a freelance Buffalo writer and critic.

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1Q84

By Haruki Murakami

translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel

Knopf

925 pages, $30.50