Thread: Haruki Murakami
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Old 1st Mar 2014, 8:35   #76
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Default Re: Haruki Murakami

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami

This is Murakami’s 8th novel, published 15 years after his first in 1979. It came out after he had achieved great celebrity in his native Japan for the success of the slighter but arguably more enjoyable and also more conventional Norwegian Wood (1987) --and, apparently, long after his editor had died or absconded, either of overwork or possibly neglect. It is a novel from 1994-95, the years immediately prior to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, another book that put a definite strain on the patience and nerves of readers all over the English-speaking world. It is called a "post-modern" masterpiece (It has this also in common with Wallace’s 1996 novel.) Unfortunately, twice, intelligent men who just couldn’t reign in their own impulses to keep going - even when the road ahead had ceased to provide a place for them to go - wrote both these books. Regardless of the fact that the two vary in other, very important ways, as narratives, the results are, unfortunately, all too similar.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle seems aptly named at least: ‘chronicle’ being a term which brigs with it so little in the way of prior expectations. It is a novel of Toru Okada, aka “Mr. Wind-up Bird,” a 30 year-old, unemployed man-child to whom strange and unexpected things just keep happening. His wife disappears abruptly one day, shortly after the cat does the same, and strange people begin to invade his world and command his attention from every quarter, as he sits and wonders what to do about these losses. But it is not a story of the things Okada does. (If it were, it would barely make a decent short story.) I can list what he does very simply: he goes to the city center and sits on a bench, day after day, waiting for something to happen. (This in response to the disappearance of his wife.) Then, he goes down into an absent neighbor’s dry well to sit and wait for something to occur to him. (This he does in response to a dead soothsayer’s occult warning to ‘go deep down when things flow downward.’) If the protagonist were any more passive, the book might have been accurately titled “Mr. Wind-up Bird’s” Autopsy.

In the book there is mystery, albeit of the most basic kind. Things happen out of the blue, with no prior hints, reasons or warnings, but with plenty of portentous input from psychics and mysterious figures of dark visage and presumptive danger. There is also some real tenderness, mostly in the story – and especially in the letters – of May Kasahara, Okada’s precocious sixteen years-old neighbor who sees deeply into the adult world but can’t master the trick of properly addressing and mailing any of her alleged hundreds of letters. (And yet we are treated to examples of these letters just the same!) There is even a hint of pathos in the figures and history of Creta Kano, Toru’s emotional ally, and Kumiko Okada, the fugitive wife of the protagonist. And, perhaps best of all, there is poignancy in the historical, savage tale told by Lt. Mamiya, whose service in the Japanese Army in Manchuria before and during WWII is recounted at length and in depth –though for no obvious reason at all – in the book. These really are good reasons to read on; but there is just no answer to the question –why are these stories even in this novel?

As I think I said earlier, when he wants to write well, Murakami can write very well indeed. (The Lieutenant’s tale is worth the price of admission by itself, and would have made a great short story!) But, finally, Murakami wants rather to brood and so brood he does. When he does, he doesn’t write near so well. The characters are mostly cartoonish, or one-dimensional; the events are thoroughly fantastic and worse yet, they are too often both improbable and too coincidental at the same time. Murakami wrote this novel without a plan, but it seems he also wrote it without an adult audience in mind.*

It tells a lot about this novel, I think, that the subdivisions, Books I and II were published in Japan a whole year before Book III, its final segment and the one which is very nearly as long as the first two put together. (As Gil noted, the book was serialized, but a year intervened between the last installment of Book II and the first of Book III.) The publication/time difference shows as a style difference between the parts. Except that its contents still concern the same protagonist and, however tangentially, the same dilemma, Book III has the feel of an unfinished sequel, perhaps the notes or nachlass of a literary effort left behind after the author either quit or died without finishing the intended work.

It is not that there is no ending to the tale, but that the entirety of Book III seems appended, as if from a separate work originally not intended to belong, as an integral part, to the original book. Rather, it seems to be an afterthought, of sorts; an embellishment, like a coda, or a series of appendices, if you will. It takes this alien form in a variety of voices and from a variety of sources: now a letter from out of the blue (but at least not unprecedented), then a newspaper article from the gossip pages, then a mysterious computer file accessed by a most implausible coincidence, then again a whole bunch of letters which the “hero” apparently never got to see; all set out in different fonts, as if by this typographical oddity the parts are rendered integral, or at least more decisively 'post-modern.'

I can’t help but think that Book III should have been an actual sequel, a separate novel devoted, perhaps, to the perspective of the missing/lost Kumiko Okada. What we learn in Book III mainly belongs to her story anyway, insofar as what we learn in Book III belongs in this disjointed story at all. I suspect that Murakami couldn’t find a satisfying way to bring it all together, and so he stopped trying and appended his thoughts and digressions as though they were missives from another world and called it magical-realism.

The more I think about the novel as a whole, the less satisfactory do I find it as a work of art. I admit that the reading experience, and therefore the writing, was not thoroughly disappointing, in itself, after all. Murakami has skill; but he also has a compulsive steak that doesn’t allow him to leave out any thought or tangent that strikes him as even remotely possible. He follows every thread whether that thread is tangential or integral to the story or the theme. It seems he can’t help himself. (The English language edition was cut by some 30.000 words – two chapters - and it is still too long!) This is just what brings DFW’s Infinite Jest to mind. Wallace was another such compulsive – as was Don DeLillo in Underworld - and another such as desperately needed (and missed the benefit of) a good editor.

If you like Kafka’s unfinished novels, you may like The Wind-up Bird Chronicle as well, and for similar reasons. It will leave you with a quasi-philosophical mystery to ponder till the cows come home. But I think Kafka knew better what he was trying to say and how to go about saying it in form. Murakami seems to me to rely too heavily on the Po-Mo pretence that, since life is unpredictable and ultimately inscrutable, so also can or should be a novel about life. But life is only a series of randomly occurring events for people, like Toru Okada, who are themselves accidents just waiting to happen. At least Joseph K wanted and tried to solve his own mysteries.

* I am giving serious thought to the possibility that Haruki Murakami, all the blurbed acclamations of 'genius' notwithstanding, is really a Young Adults author whose works have been grabbed up and over-praised by some fairly gullible critics in the world of Adult literature. (Jack London comes to mind as a precedent.)
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Last edited by kjml; 1st Mar 2014 at 8:50.
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