An Introduction to The Wind Up Bird Chronicle
by Dennis Abrams
Now that we’ve warmed up as it were with Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, it’s time to move on to one of the “big” works, the altogether extraordinary The Wind Up Bird Chronicle.
I don’t want to do to much to spoil the surprises this book has to offer. (And if you think Hard-boiled World was surprising…) But I do want to say this: It occurs to me (among other ways of looking at them) that there are two kind of novels: small, perfectly formed classics like, let’s say, The Great Gatsby or Persuasion or…I’m sure you can name your own. And then there are the big sprawling messy classics like Moby Dick, or Karamazov, or…(again, I’m sure you can name your own). Not everything is completely resolved, not every plotline is neatly tied up, but they provide a satisfaction (at least to me) that the “perfect” novels never quite do.
The Wind Up Bird Chronicle falls squarely into the second camp.
Murakami at times throws so much into the novel, tries to do so much, that at times it seems like he’s losing control. And then there’s the end of the book.
But none of it matters. It’s a great, enjoyable, thought-provoking beast of a novel. You’re going to love it.
A few different introductory perspectives:
From Book Slut
“Murakami aims to provoke not just a frisson of unsettlement, but a deeper, more consequential unease,” said Newsday, waxing unusually poetic, about Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
Stumbling down Alice’s rabbit hole into a strange, hyperreal universe, complete with ghosts, mind games, ciphers, symbols, puzzles, and a cast of characters you’re not sure is real, you find yourself in a deep well with no white rabbits running late. You’re in Japan, somewhere on a slippery slope between science and fiction, between awake and dreaming, between history and the future. In this peculiar darkness, this psychonautical suspension of disbelief, you go deep into your own preconceived notions of what is real.
Every great work of literature must at least allude to that great unknown, the meaning of life. This one leaves you in the cool dark abyss at the bottom of a spooky well, to contemplate this very theme, as you mine 600 pages of daily routines, unanswered phone calls, indecipherable dreams, depressions, mounting debts, unborn babies, and the unknowable heart of the people you love, looking for that meaning.
You’ll never take for granted the ordinariness of spaghetti or your wife’s cat ever again.
And though it’s quite likely that if this were your project, your editor would hurl it back at you for its clunky overcrowding of symbols and signs, for half finished stories, abrupt departures, missing pieces, and missed connections. Under the exquisite craftsmanship of Haruki Murakami, however, the density manages to resonate as streamlined, supremely minimalist, and utterly believable. New York Magazine said it best: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is as “sculpted and implacable as a bird by Brancusi.”
If you’re in the market, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle will teach you how to 1) kill with a bayonet (thrust deep under ribs, drag in slow, deep circle to scramble organs); 2) skin a man alive (slit skin at shoulder, peel slowly down right arm); and 3) eliminate a zoo full of carnivores (four snipers per tiger best). It will steep you in the bizarre lives and roles of 30ish Toru Okada, an out-of-work law clerk, bent-tip-tailed-cat owner, house husband, toupee researcher, well dweller, and prostitute. It will titillate you with red-hatted mind readers and sexy phone calls, oozing pols and hot dreams, ill-omened houses and unwaveringly plastic characters named Nutmeg and Cinnamon. Hanging over the overwrought whole are an overcast sky and an elusive “wind-up” bird–so named for its creeeak, creeeak song, which nauseates and dooms the select few who hear it. Stripped of their powers of volition, they become “no more than dolls set on tabletops, the springs in their backs wound up tight, dolls set to move in ways they could not choose, moving in directions they could not choose, … most of them died, plunging over the edge of the table.”
How dystopian is Murakami’s Japan, how sterile and subwayesque. Not for him the cherry-blossom viewings and golden pavilions of Yukio Mishima, the monarchist who disemboweled himself in 1970. No nostalgic ramblings, only details that overrun the canvas and add up to nothing. A best-selling author in his country, Murakami’s most recent work before Wind-Up was Underground, a mammoth exploration of the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. Away at Princeton when they occurred, he returned to examine Japan’s fascination with the cult and its tubby, half-blind leader. Underground describes a nation bored and isolated by its successes and its failures alike. Wind-Up fictionalizes that world–but barely, and to less effect.
As far as Wind-Up’s storyline, perhaps it’d be best to start with the haiku-like minimalism of what can be found at its Wikipedia entry:
“The novel is about a low-key unemployed man, Toru Okada, whose cat runs away. A chain of events follow that prove that his seemingly mundane life is much more complicated than it appears.”
King of the understatements, Wikipedia! Because what happens here to make Toru’s life more “complicated” is no less than Lynchian in its surrealism and grandiosity: he learns that his brother-in-law may perhaps be the Antichrist, that deep meditation while sitting at the bottom of a dry well from Medieval times that can still be found in a back alley of his neighborhood will actually transport him to a dreamlike alternative universe, and that his wife has been secretly seeing a kind of psychic therapist who doubles as a famous matron of the Japanese fashion industry, who is convinced that the couple’s missing cat holds the key to the eventual fate of the entire universe. And yes, I’m deliberately throwing a bunch of random details at you, because I don’t want to spoil any of the fascinating plot, so will just toss out some tidbits that won’t ruin things by you knowing; because as this long story continues, like a Christopher Nolan movie it starts magically coming together more and more, until reaching a climax that will make you smack your forehead and go, “Oh, so that’s what all this chaos was leading up to!”
And in fact it’s no coincidence that I compared Murakami to David Lynch in the previous paragraph; because what both are masters at are creating these complicated but real-feeling total mythologies just completely out of whole cloth, a sort of dark fairyland that the artists only hint at in their stories and reveal only the tiniest details of, but while adding a heft and weight to these glimpses that make you feel like there’s a thousand years of history and ten thousand alt-universe rules behind them.”
To my mind, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle is an almost ideal summer read – I hope you enjoy it.
My next posts: Friday I’ll post a bit on how the book was translated. Next Tuesday will be my first post on the book proper, let’s say…chapters 1-8? (I’m taking a stab here – let me know if we’re going too fast or too slow – I’ll adjust accordingly.)