The first, and bigger, part of the book consists of interviews with the victims of the gas attacks, and the family of those who died. These interviews are ordered according to the subway lines on which the Aum attack on March 20, 1995, a Monday, took place. Dissatisfied with the presentation by the Japanese media of a collective image of "the innocent Japanese sufferer," Murakami wanted to discover and document the actual people behind the label of victims, to recognize that each person had, as he puts it, "a face, a life, a family, hopes and fears, contradictions and dilemmas." Most interesting, and moving, are the interviews of the subway staff who had to respond to the emergency. Their interviews are suffused with pain, guilt, horror, self-justification, and, above all, bewilderment over unanswerable what-if questions.
Part Two of the book consists of interviews with former and present members of the Aum sect, though not with the attackers who were imprisoned or still on trial at the writing of the book. Most members interviewed have struggled with the meaning and purpose of life since young, while feeling alienated from the conformism and competition that they saw around them. They report their strong sense of relief when they became a renunciate and pledged themselves to follow Asahara, the leader of the sect, unconditionally. Even after the gas attack, they hold on to the idea that there is some good in the sect's teaching, and some try to locate a point in time when the organization went wrong.
Intriguing detail, from Akio Namimura's interview: when the police took him in for questioning, for being an Aum member, they asked him to trample on a photo of Shoko Asahara to prove that he had renounced his faith, "like it was in the Edo period when they made the Japanese Christians renounce their faith by stepping on a drawing of Jesus," Namimura comments.
In an essay that concludes Part One, Murakami reflects on what actually happened in the Tokyo Subway on that fateful day. Thinking about how Aum members actively sought to be controlled by Asahara, he wrote some perspicacious remarks about narrative:
If you lose your ego, you lose the thread of that narrative you call your Self. Humans, however, can't live very long without some sense of a continuing story. Such stories go beyond the limited rational system (or the systematic rationality) with which you surround yourself; they are crucial keys to sharing time-experience with others.
Now a narrative is a story, not logic, not ethics, nor philosophy. It is a dream you keep having, whether you realize it or not. Just as surely as you breathe, you go on ceaselessly dreaming your story. And in these stories you wear two faces. You are simultaneously subject and object. You are the whole and you are a part. You are real and you are shadow. "Storyteller" and at the same time "character." It is through such multilayering of roles in our stories that we heal the loneliness of being an isolated individual in the world.
Aum members, however, gave up the complications and confusions of their own narrative and accepted the simplified, junky, and cobbled-together narrative put out by Asahara. Murakami, however, turns the knife further and deeper, by asking the reader:
Haven't you offered up some part of your Self to someone (or something), and had taken on a "narrative" in return? Haven't we entrusted some part of our personality to some greater System or Order? And if so, has not that System at some stage demanded of us some kind of "insanity"? Is the narrative you now possess really and truly your own? Are your dreams really your own dreams? Might not they be someone else's vision that could sooner or later turn into nightmare?