Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami

One-line summary: Unemployed loser Toru Okada goes on a trip to rival Alice's when his wife disappears, but his rabbit-hole is a well, the vanishing cat shares his evil brother-in-law's name, and his quest is weirder and bloodier.

Vintage, 1997 (in English; first published in 1994 in Japan), 613 pages. Translated by Jay Rubin.

Japan's most highly regarded novelist now vaults into the first ranks of international fiction writers with this heroically imaginative novel, which is at once a detective story, an account of a disintegrating marriage, and an excavation of the buried secrets of World War II.

In a Tokyo suburb a young man named Toru Okada searches for his wife's missing cat. Soon he finds himself looking for his wife as well in a netherworld that lies beneath the placid surface of Tokyo. As these searches intersect, Okada encounters a bizarre group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan's forgotten campaign in Manchuria.

Gripping, prophetic, suffused with comedy and menace, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a tour de force equal in scope to the masterpieces of Mishima and Pynchon.

3 books in one volume: The Thieving Magpie, Bird as Prophet, The Birdcatcher. This translation by Jay Rubin is in collaboration with the author.

I know, I've been comparing a lot of books lately to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. What can I say, I tend to see parallels in the books I read, even if they're not entirely appropriate. And I feel unqualified to delve deeply into Haruki Murakami's big, multi-threaded detective/literary/magical-realism/historical/epistolary epic as if I can actually dig up the real themes, because I am still trying to "figure out" Murakami. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the second novel of his that I've read (my first was Norwegian Wood), and I still don't know how much was deep symbolism that I'm not literary enough to get, how much was cultural nuance that doesn't translate well into English, and how much was Murakami just fucking around. I liked this book, didn't love it, but was left with the same feeling as when I finished Norwegian Wood, that there's a strange fascination in Murakami's writing that makes me want to sample some more.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle spins out one subplot after another and is all over the map... first it's about Toru's wife Kumiko leaving him, then it's about Japanese war crimes in Manchuria, then it's about a pair of psychic sisters trying to help Toru find his missing cat, then it's about a cheerfully morbid teenager who has a job counting bald heads at train stations, then it's about finding yourself (literally and metaphorically) at the bottom of a well.

I don't think the Alice analogy was really inappropriate, though. Toru does go on a quest, literally enters another world by going down a hole, encounters a host of bizarre characters, some of whom may not be real, much of which happens in dream sequences (but which may still be real) and when he reaches the eighth square, in true Campbellian fashion he returns with the power to save others.

I didn't like Toru. He starts out as an unemployed, passive dork, hardly able to muster the motivation to do a thing or even notice when it's obvious that his wife is cheating on him. His entire character is passive, indecisive, so contemplative that he'll just keep lying at the bottom of a well when someone threatens to leave him there to die of dehydration. So it really was a hero's journey for him to pick up a baseball bat and walk through a wall to face adversaries on the psychic plane. The real villain of the story is Toru's brother-in-law, Kumiko's brother, Noburo Wataya, an academic-turned-politician with a bland exterior that is a mask for the true evil underneath. The theme of a psychic putting an end to an evil politician's career reminded me of another book, vastly different in content but perhaps not in tone: Stephen King's The Dead Zone.

Murakami's characters in this book are bizarre and unlikely, and adopt bizarre and unlikely pseudonyms like Creta and Malta Kano and Nutmeg and Cinnamon Akasaka. Most of the subplots weave back into the main plot in some fashion, but in the end, some of them never seemed to go anywhere and their relationship to the main story was tenuous. I was half-expecting a "WTF?" ending that wouldn't answer anything, but in fact, there is a pretty decent resolution; not a happy ending precisely, but a hopeful one.

So, I enjoyed it, and will read more Haruki Murakami novels, still looking for the one I might consider my favorite. But I'd really like to read about a less flaccid protagonist.

Also, from what I've seen so far, Murakami has this skeevy tendency to write male characters who despite being unimpressive schmucks find random women oddly eager to jump on their dicks. Really, I am wondering if he is just falling into that middle-age dude author trap so many do. The sci-fi types start writing novels in which super-competent geek girls are inexplicably eager to screw middle-age dudes who look a lot like sci-fi authors. The literary college professor types start writing novels in which super-brainy coeds are inexplicably eager to screw middle-age college professors who are having midlife crises.

There are an awful lot of scenes in which Murakami feels it necessary to mention semen -- I'm just sayin'. Also, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is probably the first book in which I've ever read about a psychic blow job.

There is a really interesting interview here with Jay Rubin, who has translated much of Murakami's work into English. Editing of Japanese novels is quite different than the way editing is done by U.S. publishers, and apparently, 10%-25% of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was cut from the original Japanese novel for the English translation.

Also, there is a theatrical production of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle scheduled for later this year. It looks really interesting, and I'll certainly try to see it if it passes near me.


Goodreads: Average: 4.21. Mode: 5 stars.
Amazon: Average: 4.3. Mode: 5 stars.

What Negative Reviewers Say

Being a long, strange book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle has a lot of reviews of the "I gave up halfway through" variety. Many did not find the puzzles, the strange characters and seemingly unconnected plot threads, or Murakami's prosaic writing which is sometimes banal in its detail worth the journey.

But lest you think I'm too mean and foul-mouthed when commenting on a book I mostly liked, let a real detractor comment:

Oh fuck, what an awful novel! I was so right to have put this down halfway through a year ago, and I'm sorry I got so completist when I put the audiobook on my ipod. This is so bloated and dithering with its endless inane permutations of what was potentially an interesting plot about a guy's world (and wife) flipping on him, and with great themes of loss and subplots involving lucid dreaming and little mysteries popping up here and there. But heaven forfend any of this be executed with any excitement or action: this is a novel where a steady stream of asshole characters tell the main character stuff, and tell and tell and tell. Even a guy getting skinned alive is reduced to an over-examined excruciating bore of a story told (which comprises two or three chapters ...and then in the next chapter the dipshit main character gets a fucking letter where the same story is summarized for another couple of pages at least) GODDAMN IT!!! What the fuck is this shit?! And why is it so fucking overrated? Is this the only Murakami anyone has read or something? I mean, yeah it's got what is an interesting anti-protagonist in that South of the Border kinda way, and eventually some of the surrealist-ish sci-fi noir stuff like Hardboiled/End and Kafka come up, but there's hundreds and hundreds of pages in between of the dude juggling a bunch of irritating-as-fuck female characters (his whiny wife, a ditzy teenybopper, two blank-slate psychic sisters, a mystery phone sex woman, and then later this pimpette who turns him into this gigolo douche-bag for the last half of the book)

Yeah the last half, when all hope for coherence or the minutely nuanced myriad of plot-points to circle back for closure or twists or fucking anything becomes this black-hole of bullshit about Manchuria and the brother-in-law character's cloak-and-dagger political shit... ...I mean, slit my fucking wrists, seriously.


Verdict: This is a strange, surreal story of domestic disruption, horrific war crimes, dark deeds vaguely described, and metaphysical experiences, written in a prose style that may not appeal to everyone. You might call it a hero's quest to uncover a mystery in a world of magical realism, or maybe that's trying to force a Western paradigm onto it. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle frustrated me at times, but it was worth reading, and keeps me fascinated by Murakami's writing.

I did not read this book for the books1001 challenge (I happened to be reading it already), but it is one of the books on the list of 1001 literary novels we are trying to read and review before the end of the year, and it could be yours! Join us for a reading challenge that will introduce you to books you likely would never have read, and enjoy YA-vampire-romance-free reviews.
Tags: books, books1001, fantasy, haruki murakami, literary, reviews

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