Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami is like a strange, dreamy-nightmary detective novel. It’s a book that grips you tightly and propels you forward, but ultimately, I think, lacks the meaning and cohesion to be a satisfying read.

The main character is Toru Okada, a 30-year-old gofer at a Tokyo law firm who has recently quit his job and hasn't decided what to do next. Toru goes out one day to look for his missing cat and finds himself caught up in a series of bizarre adventures. Not long after the cat disappears, his wife Kumiko vanishes too, and passive, irresolute Toru is forced to assess the state of their marriage and take responsibility to bring Kumiko home.

Thus begins a bizarre journey in which Toru Okada meets a series of strangers: May Kasahara, a thoughtfully morbid teenager who’s responsible for her boyfriend's death; Malta Kano, a psychic who makes prophecies about Toru's missing cat; Malta's sister, Creta, who claims that she was violated and defiled by Kumiko's evil politician brother, Noboru Wataya; Lieutenant Mamiya, a soldier who witnessed unimaginable atrocities on the Asian continent during WWII; Nutmeg Akasaka, a mysterious healer whose husband was violently murdered; and Nutmeg's son, Cinnamon, a sharp young man who stopped talking when he was a boy.

Each of these characters has his or her own story/aside in the novel, and many of them are linked in some way, but not all of them seem to serve a purpose or have relevance in the end. Every storyline in this book is really interesting and the prose is always compelling, but there are many pieces of the puzzle that don’t fit into the whole picture—too many unanswered questions and unexplained events, too many details that turn out to be little more than a red herring. As Michiko Kakutani put it, “in trying to depict a fragmented, chaotic and ultimately unknowable world, Mr. Murakami has written a fragmentary and chaotic book.”

Wind-up Bird has been described as a detective story, a Bildungsroman, a fairy tale, a “Kafkaesque nightmare” and “science-fiction-meets-Lewis Carroll.” Those are all accurate descriptions of both the book and the book’s main problem: I think it’s trying to be too much, too many things.

I did enjoy reading this book. It’s really well written and pretty fascinating—really interesting the way Murakami blurs the line between real and not real, the way a character can experience something but at the same time not experience it—but the book is so long and so bizarre that having reached the end I’m not totally satisfied that it was worth the time it took to read it. I will say this: no matter how crazy the events in the book seem, Murakami's propulsive storytelling kept me engaged, thinking and guessing.