I thought I was ready for Murakami's unique brand of a strangeness and surrealism that are so prevalent in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I read 1Q84 last year, and while I didn't think it was an amazing book, I was captivated by some of the more fantastical elements of the plot. So when I was told by multiple people to go back and read some of Murakami's earlier works, because those were really out there, I added a bunch of his more acclaimed books to my backlog. It was after reading his beautiful, tear-jerking short story "Samsa In Love" in the New Yorker a couple months back that I decided to pick The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
(Even if you are not particularly interested in my review of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I highly recommend reading "Samsa In Love." It will make your day.)
"Hey Mr. Wind Up Bird"
At its core The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a story about a man trying to find his missing wife. This is kind of like saying The Godfather is a movie about a family. The shear amount of themes and set pieces in this book is mind blowing. This book takes us from 1980's Tokyo, to the concentration camps of Siberia, to the arid expanses of Mongolia. Not to mention the limitless expanses of the dream world in which this book slips in and out of so fluidly that it leaves the reader unsure of what is real and what is just a dream.
To give a plot summary for this book would be something better suited for a college term paper than for a review, but let's just say it features: a missing cat, a missing wife, two psychics, a possibly demonic brother-in-law, a couple of very deep wells, wet dreams, a darling teenage girl, people getting skinned alive, a zoo, a mute computer genius, the atrocities of postwar Siberian prison camps, a mute computer genius, and the importance of fate.
Get all that? There is a lot going on in this book. The plot is a giant, sprawling thing that can not be summed up in a tidy way. It's a lot like reading a dream diary, one minute you are in your kitchen making spaghetti and the next you are witnessing horrible acts taking place on a battlefield. If you have a hard time dealing with nebulousness in your books, this is not for you. I'd imagine that at the time of the book's release, it was probably panned by some for being too sloppy structurally. I promise you though, if you come to this book with an open mind, like that of our hero Toru Okada, you will never be disappointed by where the book takes you.
What I love about this book is how all of the characters, no matter how strange and almost cartoon like some of them are, are all searching for life's meaning. Most of the book is told in either flashback or letters from side characters to Toru. You end up learning a lot about the lives of the people Mr. Okada bumps into on his journey. It's through these stories that a lot of the books central themes are established. One of my favorite characters, May Kasahara, a 16 year old girl that forms a unique bond with Toru has probably my favorite line in the book:
“Here's what I think, Mr. Wind-Up Bird," said May Kasahara. "Everybody's born with some different thing at the core of their existence. And that thing, whatever it is, becomes like a heat source that runs each person from the inside. I have one too, of course. Like everybody else. But sometimes it gets out of hand. It swells or shrinks inside me, and it shakes me up. What I'd really like to do is find a way to communicate that feeling to another person. But I can't seem to do it. They just don't get it. Of course, the problem could be that I'm not explaining it very well, but I think it's because they're not listening very well. They pretend to be listening, but they're not, really. So I get worked up sometimes, and I do some crazy things.”
It's easy to see why serious book fiends love Murakami so much. There are hints of Hemingway, Chandler, Carver, and most notably, Kafka in this writing. The characters in his stories go through some truly Kafkaesque experiences, and all go through some kind of metaphysical transformation throughout the novel. The writing is never trying to show off, it's just natural. The matter-of-fact nature in which Murakami writes makes even the most absurd scenes believable. There's a scene that involves a soldier being skinned alive by a group of Mongolians, and it's the casual way the scene is written that makes it all the more horrifying and real. Nothing in this book feels forced, it flows almost perfectly. There were moments when I would put the book, shake my head, and marvel at how natural the prose felt.
This book celebrates people who do not fit into the normal crowd. Its praises those who take the time to question what is real, and what is important in life. I feel like I read this book at the exact right moment in my life. It was an important reminder that it is OK to to chase down your dreams, no matter how silly or unacceptable they may seem to the world at large. There's a well that serves as a catalyst to all of the wonderful craziness that happens in the book, and while reading I couldn't help but think of the well that I used play around at my mothers house when I was young. I remember playing games around the well, imagining that somewhere in the bottom of the well there was a doorway to another dimension. If nothing else The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle took me back to a time when I could construct entire worlds in my imagination, what Murakami is saying here is that it's OK for us to continue doing so as adults.
Thank you for the reminder Mr. Murakami.