Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Haruki Murakami - The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

A well without water. A bird that can't fly. An alley with no exit. (p. 66)

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the seventh novel of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, and it is, from what I've read, often considered his best work. The book is filled with the exciting, the visceral, and the bizarre – but all of those elements are so loosely joined together that the overall work lacks the power of its components. If it was a song, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle would be a dynamic one, filled with different instruments, melodies and passages, but it would be played so quietly that you’d only be able to hear its power if you leaned close and listened hard.

Trying to sum up The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in a few words is an impossibility. It's easy to latch onto causes, but the effects soon spiral out of control and comprehension. In the beginning, main character Toru Okada takes brief breaks from his life to listen to the call of the Wind-Up Bird, a never glimpsed creature that makes a sound like a creaking spring. In his innocuous home, with the Wind-Up Bird’s call reverberating in his mind and with an unclaimed bird statue lording over the entryless and exitless alley, Toru Okada’s life falls apart. In Murakami’s world, the smallest of things can be momentous, and Kumiko – Toru’s wife – worries that their cat’s escape might herald the end of their marriage. Trying to placate her, Toru agrees to search for the cat, but, even once psychics are called in to aid in the hunt, the step is too little too late. The cat is not found, and Kumiko soon vanishes from Toru’s life, asking him to never try and contact her.

Throughout the book, Toru is the epitome of passivity. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a book filled with interesting characters, and that’s a good thing, because Toru has damn little will of his own. For most of the book, our narrator is simply a pinball knocked from one dominating presence to another. When Toru says that he will search for the cat, his conviction lasts just long enough for him to walk outside and get roped into a conversation with his sixteen year old neighbor, May Kasahara. When Toru says that he will search for Kumiko, what he means by that is that he will set at home and hope that she contacts him. When Toru first meets Kumiko’s brother, Noboru Wataya, Toru is disgusted by the man’s glitzy but empty persona and insists that he, too, is a worthwhile individual, even if his life is in every respect the opposite of Wataya’s. But, for the vast majority of the novel, he never does anything to even express his dislike of the man, let alone to actually harm him. Toru thinks by sitting in his house and listening to music, and he spends his free time staring at passersby and zoning out. The one active decision he makes in the first chunk of the novel (or, more accurately, just before the novel’s beginning) is his decision to quit his job, but that hardly leads to a series of self motivated actions.

The idea of responsibility runs through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the uncontrollable past a subtle and inexorable influence on the present, the grind of history coming forth with the spring-like call of the Wind-Up Bird. Kumiko is driven away from Toru because of what she did behind his back and because of what she did not tell him. Creta Kano spent much of her life simply drifting through, immune to all concepts of pleasure and pain, and she’s only now trying to build something from her past. Lieutenant Mamiya and Mr. Honda are both still coming to terms with Japan’s Manchurian war, and May Kasahara and her deceased boyfriend both lived on the edge to try and exert control over their fate, and it’s that need for power that drives her to do increasingly reckless things.

And yet, of all the characters, Toru Okada, our first person narrator, exhibits this theme the least. He simply drifts from one side character’s causal chain to another’s, barely affected by his own past for the simple reason that he’s done precious little to set anything in motion. May Kasahara might nickname him Mr. Wind-Up Bird, but our viewpoint character is, truth be told, more voyeur than participant in the vast majority of the novel’s events.

At the very end, Toru takes control of his own destiny for the first time. One could argue, then, that the novel’s central struggle was his attempt to overcome his own passivity – but such a claim simply does not hold up. For the first five hundred off pages of the book, Toru makes no attempt to overcome his personality, and, if the ending’s transition to motion is supposed to be our climax, the overall book would be built around a narrative conflict so underdeveloped as to be effectively nonexistent.

In lieu of our protagonist making decisions, the story is moved forward by the secondary characters. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a large, scattershot narrative with enough plot threads to easily strangle oneself in. On the surface, it would be easy to see the book as not merely messy but as a mess, as it seems to struggle against itself at every opportunity. Characters come in, dominate the story, and then depart forever without a backwards glance, the questions that they posed looking confused and lost in their wake.

And yet, as you read on, the threads begin to weave back upon one another. I don’t mean that there are nicely wrapped up climaxes and a careful laying out of cause and effect. Instead, Murakami builds a collage-like narratives out of similarities in theme and place, of faces that appear in two otherwise unconnected stories, and out of ideas that can be taken out of one life and applied to another.

Toru goes searching for his cat. He doesn’t find it, but he does meet May Kasahara. As a condition of their marrying, Toru and Kumiko are forced to see the clairvoyant Mr. Honda by Kumiko’s parents. He never ends up helping them with their marriage, but he does, after his death, send Lieutenant Mamiya to deliver a keepsake to Toru. Upon delivery, Toru asks Mamiya to tell him how Mamiya and Honda met. The story begins with that, but, by the time Mamiya and Toru’s acquaintance is through, it’s moved far beyond a simple meeting story and has left Honda behind in all senses but as a catalyst. The keepsake itself turns out to be empty. And so on. As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the lack of resolution is at its core, and so it’s fitting that the climax gives us a measure of understanding, but does not give us what we were seeking, leaving Toru’s ultimate goals unfulfilled even while salving a small portion of his need for knowledge.

Of course, there’s a vast difference between admiring and enjoying something, and Murakami’s narrative is in many ways the ultimate tease. Question after question is posed, but the board is never cleared, the answers never provided. Simulating all of life’s digressive messiness on the page is an impressive undertaking, but it’s not necessarily a satisfying one. All of which isn’t to imply that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a hollow read. In lesser hands, a game of unresolved tension would simply result in the reader putting down their chips and walking home. Murakami, however, is too gifted to allow one to disassociate oneself that easily.

Murakami’s writing provides an easy intimacy with his character’s and his world. His prose is descriptive and evocative, his characters as sympathetic as they are incomprehensible. Murakami has the rare gift of making the mundane feel bizarre, of making the little inconsistencies in life seem like the keys to comprehending our entire existence. For him, it's not even the question that matters but the possibility of questions. As our narrator learns towards the end of the novel : Fact may not be truth, and truth may not be factual. […] The important question for Cinnamon was not what his grandfather did but what his grandfather might have done. He learned the answer to this question as soon as he succeeded in telling the story. (p. 525)

All of which isn’t to demean the big events of the novel. When Murakami does decide to bring one of his various threads to a climax, the results are simply breathtaking. There are moments in this novel that are almost unbearably rich. In his tale to Toru, Lieutenant Mamiya recounts how he was trapped at the bottom of a well. For almost the entire day, everything was utterly dark. And then, for a few precious moments, the sun shone down. In the end, those rays of sun may represent everything or nothing, but while the light is illuminating Mamiya’s leg it is easy to feel that we are as close as the character to suddenly knowing and understanding everything that we’ve ever wanted to know.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a novel as powerful as it is messy. This is one of the best articulations of our search for meaning that I’ve ever read, but it’s also one of the most difficult, in large part due to Murakami’s refusal to ever step beyond his parameters and bring things to a conclusion that is deeply craved, if not necessarily fitting. There is no denying that this is an interesting work, but I’m not sure that it’s necessarily an enjoyable one.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this blog post. I finished the book last night and I still have many questions, but this puts some of them into perspective.