Sunday, January 31, 2010


I love-love-loved Haruki Murakami's Wind-up Bird Chronicle, but I'm hard put to tell you why, beyond that it was so completely the right book at the right time.

Reading this on vacation yielded an additional dimension of pleasure: I had my own foreign, unspottable, strange-calling "wind-up" bird to provide a live soundtrack, winding up the spring of my reality on the beach. There's something extra unpleasant (in a good way) in reading about someone being skinned alive while mass tracts of my own skin are already falling away from my body and the sun continues to sear into my flesh. Time moves differently when you're in the sun by the sea, and you can lose yourself for hours at a time in your book — existence takes on a dreamlike quality, completely liberated from schedules, commitments, the ordinary; you move in a sun-drenched, alcohol-quenched haze. All this conspired to enhance The Wind-up Bird Chronicle in immeasurable ways.

What's it about? Well, it starts off with this guy, Toru Okada, looking for his cat, but before long, his wife is missing too. He doesn't spend his days actively looking for her (them) so much as he tries to grok what's happening, to come to terms with that slice of reality in which she (they) might've gone.

Then there are the women: the mysterious caller whose motives are unclear, though phone sex is one of her tactics; the Kano sisters, psychic consultants; a professional "healer"; and the teenage girl who lives a couple houses down (arguably the best developed character of the lot of them and the most instrumental to the narrator's awakening, quite possibly because she's the only one who's a real person, but maybe not).

In my books and stories, women are mediums, in a sense; the function of the medium is to make something happen through herself. It's a kind of system to be experienced. The protagonist is always led somewhere by the medium and the visions that he sees are shown to him by her. [...] I think sex is an act of . . . a kind of soul-commitment. If the sex is good, your injury will be healed, your imagination will be invigorated. It's a kind of passage to the upper area, to the better place. In that sense, in my stories, women are mediums — harbingers of the coming world.

— Haruki Murakami, The Paris Review Interviews, IV.

But women are not the only mediums in this book. There is a another psychic, an acquaintance, whose dying wishes include that a package be delivered to Toru Okada. And the war veteran who delivers the empty parcel, with his tales of Manchuria and Russians and Mongols, turns out to be more of a message in himself than he is a mere messenger.

There is not a lot of character development in this novel. They come as they are, and leave before you know it. They seem to exist only to provide Toru Okada with some reflective capacity by which to negotiate the reality of his own mind (whether it lies in a dream or somewhere else entirely), which seems to be a bit out of sync with that of his body.

Now I was enveloped by a darkness that was total. No amount of straining helped my eyes to see a thing. I couldn't tell where my own hand was. I felt along the wall to where the ladder hung and gave it a tug. It was still firmly anchored at the surface. The movement of my hand seemed to cause the darkness itself to shift, but that could have been an illusion.

It felt extremely strange not to be able to see my own body with my own eyes, though I knew it must be there. Staying very still in the darkness, I became less and less convinced of the fact that I actually existed. To cope with that, I would clear my throat now and then, or run my hand over my face. That way, my ears could check on the existence of my voice, my hand could check on the existence of my face, and my face could check on the existence of my hand.

Despite these efforts, my body began to lose its density and weight, like sand gradually being washed way by flowing water. I felt as if a fierce and wordless tug-of-war were going on inside me, a contest in which my mind was slowly dragging my body into its own territory. The darkness was disrupting the proper balance between the two. The thought struck me that my own body was a mere provisional husk that had been prepared for my mind by a rearrangement of the signs known as chromosomes. If the signs were rearranged yet again, I would find myself inside a wholly different body than before. "Prostitute of the mind," Creta Kano had called herself. I no longer had any trouble accepting the phrase. Yes, it was possible for us to couple in our minds and for me to come in reality. In truly deep darkness, all kinds of strange things were possible.

I shook my head and struggled to bring my mind back inside my body.

In the darkness, I pressed the fingertips of one hand against the fingertips of the other — thumb against thumb, index finger against index finger. My right-hand fingers ascertained the existence of my left-hand fingers, and the fingers of my left hand ascertained the existence of the fingers of my right hand. Then I took several slow, deep breaths. OK, then, enough of this thinking about the mind. Think about reality. Think about the real world. The body's world. That's why I'm here. To think about reality. The best way to think about reality, I had decided, was to get as far away from it as possible — a place like the bottom of a well, for example. "When you're supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom," Mr Honda had said. Leaning against the wall, I slowly sucked the moldy air into my lungs.

Murakami's prose is nothing special, not lyrical and poetic, nothing to swoon over. At times, particularly when physical descriptions and character backstory were being supplied, the language seemed decidedly unsophisticated. Murakami is no stylist, but the text is straightforward, and this may be a blessing in the conveyance of such surreal goings-on.

There is no clear delineation between dream and real life; they bleed into each other. The whole novel is imbued with that pleasant sort of confusion you feel when actual morning noises infiltrate the dream you're waking from. It hints at altered states of consciouness, alternate states of reality, but without overtly making a case for any such thing. It just is what it is, without always making sense.

Murakami excels at mood. And I can't put my finger on what that mood is. It makes me feel young. It reminds me of university days. Of staying up late and confessing secrets and dreams. When I was invulnerable, and more vulnerable than ever. When the meaning of life and of death and the essence of cool were palpable and coded into my circle of friends, that bottle of booze, and those song lyrics. When we actually talked, sometimes obsessively and usually genuinely, about the meaning of life. Not that the characters actually do this; they touch on this kind of behaviour in only the mildest way. My wise adult self wants to call Murakami out for relying on cheap supernatural thrills and being juvenile in his treatment of serious themes, even while I'm unable to identify any consistent themes (denying death, maybe; the power of mind over body?), yet The Chronicle speaks to some inner me, joyfully and forcefully.

(Some parts in their eeriness remind me of Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, but nowhere near as creepy.)

I'd recommend this book to almost anyone who doesn't mind if things aren't all tied up and neatly explained. (Because, frankly, I don't know what the hell really happened.) It's more than 600 pages, but it is a compelling and easy read. I've read only one other novel (After Dark) by Murakami, and a couple short stories, but I'd encourage you to jump right into The Chronicle, for it is very cool and weird.

I will be searching out more Murakami later this year.

New York Times review.

The Zoo Attack
Another Way to Die


claire said...

I'm excited that it comes so highly recommended by you! I have this on the list this year. Have read Kafka on the Shore and definitely agree with you that he's no stylist but that the absurdities just pull you in.. sort of like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

Bybee said...

I'm working on Kafka On The Shore in honor of my recent trip to Japan.

Stefanie said...

I've been wanting to read this one for ages as well as Sputnik Sweetheart. I've only read Hard-Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World and loved it. It had the quality of making me feel young too like you describe. How very interesting.

Anonymous said...

The voice I heard in my head as I read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle--a melancholy, wistful, serene voice--was strangely/surprisingly the kind of voice I first heard in the Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli movies as an 8 year old living in Chiba, Japan. And nowhere is this voice more apparent than in one of Murakami's recent short stories published in The New Yorker. It's called 'Yesterday' ( Yes, it's an allusion to the Paul McCartney song. I loved it. Have you read it?