Marathoner, jazz enthusiast, lover of cats, translator of J. D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald (among other twentieth-century über-Americans), perennial Nobel Prize contender: Haruki Murakami takes the occasion of his opus — magnum certainly in length and ambition, if not exactly achievement — to announce his true writerly, and manly, prerogatives. Forget magic; he is a mammary realist.  

In Japan, 1Q84 was published in 2009 and 2010 as three books, sold separately, totaling over 1,600 pages. In translation, Knopf has managed to fit all three in a single 1,000-page volume, but the not-unpleasant feel of breezy, padded-out serialization remains. Like the authors of the florid triple-decker novels of a Victorian subscription library — which his famously spare prose would seem to resemble not at all — Murakami fills much of the generous space available with minute bodily description, in ever higher resolution.

Not since Dickens has physiognomy — or anthroponomy — so overdetermined character. Ushikawa, a menacing, obstinate, all-around bull-like “fixer” in league with malign forces, is introduced as “a short man [whose] trunk had already filled out so that it had lost all sign of a waist, and excess flesh was gathering at his throat.” The man’s “teeth were crooked,” “his spine was strangely curved,” and “around the borders of the flat, lopsided area of his head clung thick, black, curly hair that had been allowed to grow too long, hanging down shaggily over the man’s ears.” “Ushikawa,” we learn, is a highly unusual surname; the Japanese characters mean, literally, “Bull River.” But, “My friends call me ‘Ushi,’ never ‘Ushikawa.’ Just plain, old ‘Ushi,’ as if I were a bull.”

In 1Q84‘s nested dream worlds, the little absurdities of bodies and names are like firearms to Chekhov (as with Dickens, a favorite subject of the novel’s namecheck soliloquies): Every cauliflower ear, bit of excess throat fat, and “somewhat larger than average” penis — and, happily, they seem to all be slightly larger than average in Murakami — is expected to go off as simile or synecdoche for the person or plot point at hand. Still, the real windows to the soul — or, indeed, the souls themselves? — are further afield.

 “Tamaki was small and a bit plump with large breasts,” begins the perhaps definitive couplet. “Aomame was taller, lean and muscular, with smaller breasts.”

A personal trainer turned avenging assassin of louts, Aomame’s awakening to an unheimlich Tokyo (cops carrying semi-automatic pistols instead of the familiar revolvers; two moons in the sky) sets 1Q84‘s metaphysical gears in motion. In the eyes of just about any beholder, she is appropriately flawless: “not an ounce of excess body fat;” “every muscle in her body was well trained;” “while tastes differ, few would object to calling her a beautiful woman.” But, disguised from view, Aomame’s breasts are not only small, but asymmetrical. The imperfection is, more or less, ontological — when things really begin flying off the rails, “she grab[s] her breasts through her shirt to check the shape. No change. Same size and shape. I’m still the same me. The world is still the same world.”

Murakami’s other protagonist, a writer and math tutor named Tengo, begins 1Q84 in something of an epileptic fit. These attacks strike regularly, we learn (and come to witness), triggered by the bubbling up to consciousness of Tengo’s first memory, witnessed from the crib: “His mother had taken off her blouse and dropped the shoulder strap of her white slip to let a man who was not his father suck on her breasts.” Duly unrepressed, the memory paralyzes his limbs, cuts off his breathing, and occasions the novel’s single most eyebrow-raising sentence: “The tsunami’s liquid wall swallowed him whole.”

Fuki-Eri, a seventeen-year-old savant whose novel Tengo is asked, clandestinely, to rewrite, makes an ethereal entrance on similar terms. “She had a slender build,” Murakami writes, “in proportion to which her full breasts could not help but attract attention. They were beautifully shaped as well.… [Tengo’s] eyes moved to her chest as if toward the center of a great whirlpool.”

Murakami’s fictions have always revolved around the angsts and ambivalences of Tengos — mild-mannered, self-sufficient, and literary, anti-salarymen primed for and embarrassed by the carnal attractions of “the great whirlpool.” Unlike most of those small(er)-scale works, however, 1Q84‘s narration remains third-person throughout, and so its odd central fixation takes the cast less of oedipal quirk than omniscient imperative — popping out, as it were, every eighth or ninth page.

“By no mean fat,” a passage explains, with the metrical inexplicability of haiku, “the woman was round everywhere, including her face, which radiated a truly friendly warmth, and she had big breasts.”

After some 400 pages of meeting through intermediaries (notably a “thin summer sweater” tailor-made for the task), Fuki-Eri’s décolletage is finally declothed for the reader. The revelation is equal parts cosmic and comic, and in any case climactic: “Completely and totally naked. Her breasts were perfect hemispheres. Her nipples were not overly large, and they were soft, still quietly groping for the maturity that was to come. Her breasts themselves were large, however, and fully ripe. They seemed to be virtually uninfluenced by the force of gravity, the nipples turned beautifully upward, like a vine’s new tendrils seeking sunlight.”  

Another 400 pages later, Aomame, close to the happy ending of a very heterosexual love story, lingers over her two extant memories of “a kind of lesbian experience”: “Aomame thought again of Tamaki. She remembered her smooth, beautifully shaped breasts. So different from my own underdeveloped chest, she thought. But those beautiful breasts are now gone forever [emphasis Murakami’s].… She thought of Ayumi Nokano, the lonely policewoman…walking toward the abyss of destruction. She had had beautiful breasts as well.”

And the ending that follows would be — no spoiler alert necessary — a satisfying enough culmination to a fable of star-crossed and -fated lovers, or a parable of late modernity, or an excavation of the Japanese psyche. 1Q84 is all of those things. Yet only the most priggish (or perverted) of readers can finish the book without doubling back for the missing punch line. Having bounced us from squirms to giggles to eye-rolls to head-scratches, what did all those breasts mean?

That the answer is as much nothing as everything — at once blatant sexism and blithe non sequitur, in a vividly mundane world — explains the limits of 1Q84, but also the global ascendency of the Murakami mode. Call it airport literature for the intercontinental, extended-stay-visa set, legitimate page-turners fueled by cosmopolitan anomie in place of byzantine conspiracy.  

Indeed, with early novels like Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (a Carver-Kafka fantasy pastiche) and Norwegian Wood (after the Beatles song), Murakami gained a reputation in the 1980s as an unusually un-Japanese Japanese writer. This was, of course, when the Japanese were still expected to be very Japanese, to act more themselves than perhaps any other people on earth; Yasunari Kawabata, for one, had taken home the country’s first Nobel in literature for stories about geishas, tea ceremonies, and Go grandmasters. But Murakami’s consciousness of the political and historical has grown significantly in the intervening years, and so too has the general understanding that his Japan of pasta and Kafka has always been as authentic as any other. The result is a return to the ’80s that can come perilously close to reading like a national literature.

1Q84 begins (and ends) in 1984, on Tokyo’s Inbound Expressway Number 3. Gridlocked and late for an appointment (assassination), Aomame alights from her cab — a top-of-the-line Toyota Crown Royal Saloon — on foot, or rather in “chestnut-colored Charles Jourdan heels.” (She also owns Ferragamo heels, later paired with “a small Bagagerie purse” on a night out with Ayumi, who sports Comme des Garçons and Gucci: Among the tinier pleasures of this big novel are the haphazard early lapses into a sort of Japanese Psycho of bold-faced brand names.) The alternate history, and future, of 1Q84 is supposed to set in as she climbs down from the elevated highway.

The Aomame story of vigilantism, group sex, and twin moons alternates mechanically — chapter by chapter, a rather too-neat Murakami trademark — with Tengo’s baptism into the Tokyo literati as ghostwriter-cum-conspirator. Fuki-Eri, the photogenic girl-author of the flying-saucer bosom, is revealed to be dyslexic (though the symptoms suggest something on the autism spectrum); recruited by a scheming editor, Tengo’s task is to turn her fantasy manuscript “Air Chrysalis” into something conventionally readable, for a silent third of the profits. Needless to say, the sprites and spirits of the girl’s novella turn out to be more than fiction, and the Tengo and Aomame strands will not stay unrelated or disentangled forever.

Did Japan — the real Japan, then at the peak of its Rising Sun boom times — somehow get waylaid onto the path of 1Q84 twenty-seven years ago? Aomame and Tengo find themselves detoured in a world stalked by a shadowy all-powerful death cult, where nature itself seems to be in revolt. One can’t help but see two lost decades, and the 1995 Sarin gas attacks, and this year’s tsunami and Fukushima meltdown in these contours. But Murakami finally whiffs on such relevancies, pursuing instead a series of mostly tortured correspondences with Orwell’s dystopia.

But 1984 was slim and tightly paced; 1Q84 would seem closer to the spirit of more recent entries in the four-digit canon: The Wong Kar-Wai film 2046, say, with its own parallel timelines and vision of the Asian metropolis fed through European high culture and American pulp. Or, the Roberto Bolaño masterwork 2666, the last book to so exercise the reading public over a translation that couldn’t come fast enough.

As it happens, two translators were hired — Jay Rubin for Books 1 and 2, Philip Gabriel for Book 3 — to deliver the latest Murakami on time. This hints, finally, at what might be called the Murakami Problem: he’s a writer one can’t imagine reading — or at any rate, enjoying — not in translation, not in an Airbus 380 of the mind loitering around the International Date Line. Indeed, the authorial avatar in 1Q84 is not the solid, stolid stylist Tengo but the totally unschooled Fuki-Eri, whose genius for storytelling is supposed to transcend words, with which the borderline-illiterate girl professes zero interest. This is, after all, the core conceit of “Air Chrysalis”: a work “juvenile and artless” in form that Tengo and his editor immediately recognize as remarkable in substance.   

I can’t say whether Murakami in the original approaches the anti-style Zen said to be reached by Fuki-Eri: “No part of it was overwritten, but at the same time it had everything it needed”; or “Figurative expressions were kept at a minimum, but the descriptions were still vivid and richly colored.” But, as another layer of uncanniness atop the thematic ones, translation insulates Murakami with the benefit of the doubt. The fantasy of pure story — the possibility of authorial essence free from the translators and activist editors and the prose itself — encourages a sort of altitude sickness, not entirely unpleasant. Surely, like that old yarn about Eskimos and snow, the Japanese must have eighteen different words for “breasts,” each more evocative than the last. Surely, the elfin drama around the “Little People” cannot be as phoned-in and inert as that ridiculous phrase would seem to demand.

Yet the sheer length of 1Q84 leaves the reader, sooner or later, between disrobings and executions, with nothing but the words on the page. Here, Murakami’s internationalist appeal turns into its own sort of dystopia: self-serious sci-fi told in the listlessly fluent, idiomatically placeless global English of an IMF meeting. His novel has no trouble taking flight; if only it would land somewhere.