Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Do You Know What I'm Saying?

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami’s 1997 novel, is a novel of stories. It’s not only the tale of Toru Okada’s quest to find his missing cat and wife, but it’s also about the stories that the rest of the characters tell each other about their lives, and how they create meaning in their lives by spinning their stories. Whole chapters of the book pass in this way: May Kasahara (Toru’s teenage neighbor), Malta and Creta Kano (mediums helping Toru find his cat), Lieutenant Mamiya (long story), and Cinnamon (at one point, Toru’s assistant) all share their tales with Toru, an everyman who’s a great listener. In one sense, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is simply a compilation of these stories intertwined with Toru’s ongoing narrative. One could even argue that the main plot – concluding with the bizarre magical realistic events in a mysterious hotel room – is only a story that Toru tells himself in order to heal himself after his wife’s departure. It’s Murakami’s genius that he leaves this question (and many others) unanswered.

Murakami’s writing is what makes this collage of stories work together. His prose uses precise language to describe mundane and ambiguous things, while underpinning it all with a subtle sense of menace like a David Lynch film. He’s precise where he needs to be, as when he explains how his wife’s brother was successful in politics: "consistency and an established worldview were excess baggage in the intellectual mobile warfare that flared up in the mass media's tiny time segments." But along with this clear prose comes many fantastical and bizarre elements, such as a scar that appears on Toru’s cheek one day – the same mark that appears on the faces of the protagonists of several other stories. What does it mean? Murakami never directly explains, and while some might be annoyed by that, others like myself can simply go along for the ride, for The Wind-up Bird Chronicle never fails to entertain.

In fact, the first two-thirds of the book are so good I literally couldn't put it down – and this was my second time reading it! However, the book as a whole loses steam in the final third of the book, mainly because the stories that were so cohesive earlier on start to become less connected. I’d argue that by that point you’ve built up such a head of steam that the coast to the end is still great reading. And parts of the ending are absolutely riveting, like when Toru finally gets into the mysterious hotel room, but other stories read like Murakami was just trying to tie up loose threads. At one point, Toru even says: "I think you are [my wife]. Because then all kinds of story lines work out," as if he's admitting that he doesn't know how to complete the complex pattern he’s been weaving. But while the ending might be a bit anticlimactic, at the end of the day The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is easily one of the best books I’ve ever read.

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