It helps to know a little about Murakami to properly appreciate this novel. I’m not versed in lit-crit, but I believe this is called “context”, or as the French say, “texte con” (if you are a grad student reading this thousands of years from now, please note that that was a joke and do not spawn silly theories on historically alternative meanings of the word “con”).
Murakami is a seasoned and dedicated runner, and draws many parallels from his joint universes of running and writing. In distance running, it is important to move forward, find the pace that suits the distance, avoid friction and unnecessary energy expenditure, find a rhythm and occupy the mind with music and daydreams to allay the monotony.
From what I can discern in Murakami’s writing, the same applies. The plot moves forward, the characters patiently pursue whatever is awaiting them in the barely-discernable distance, and bounce along avoiding getting hurt and keeping their heads level with the horizon. Then, toward the end, an all-out sprint that releases a cascade of adrenaline, and it’s done. This appears to be his model. His plot is on a path from which he does not veer, his characters are always in character and self-coherent, there are no superfluous digressions, the whole is like a well-greased machine that glides forward, seemingly effortlessly.
(Note to assistant: engage the spoiler machine, full power)
The novel has two main characters: Tengo and Aomame. Tengo is a math teacher and writer, whose writing talent is stymied by some form of writer’s block until he does a rewrite of a strange girl Fuka-Eri’s story about mysterious Little People who enter this world to build air chrysalises, which may or may not be made up, who knows. Fuka-Eri asks questions that don’t end in audible question marks, which adds to her strangeness. Tengo met Aomame in his school days and retains an intense memory of her, and of the one time she held his hand and peered deeply into his eyes. Aomame is a martial arts instructor with a fetish for intense sex with middle-aged men with thinning hair that may be proxies for Murakami, who knows. She also dabbles in contract killing of abusive husbands, contracts given to her by a rich dowager who is referred to as the dowager, whose security by a burly gay man named Tamaru, who may be a contract killer himself, who knows.
This is how the plot moves forward: Tengo rewrites Fuka-Eri’s story and in the process is drawn closer to her, thus learning of her past in a a cultish organic farming institution called Sakigake. Aomame kills abusive husbands and is introduced to the women who have retreated from them, among which Tsubasa, who escaped from the Sakigake compound. Ramification point identified. Oh, and Aomame’s world is strangely different from our own, because the police carry berettas not revolvers like she seems to remember, and by-the-way don’t look now but there are two moons in the sky just like, it is revealed, is the basis of Tengo’s novel. Whoooooooooooa, dude!
(Note to assistant: turn off the spoiler machine, NOW!)
I will admit to being bored during much of my reading of this novel, though the strangely familiar strange elements make up for it. I expect more grit in a novel, more dissonance and friction and pain. Maybe, too, I expect all these things as a runner which is why I suck so much at running, who knows.
Still, that final sprint in the novel, what a rush! Enough to bump this review’s rating from three to four stars.