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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
By Haruki Murakami
Alfred A. Knopf
Earlier this year, I had a chance to read Haruki Murakami's latest thousand-page barnbuster of a novel, 1Q84, which turned out to be a huge disappointment; so huge, in fact, that it made me question whether I was overly romanticizing all my memories of how good I used to think Murakami was, after reading a ton of his work in the 1990s but then getting out of the habit again until just recently. After all, this newest title seemed to vaguely contain the same kinds of stuff I vaguely remember that I liked so much about Murakami's work when I was younger -- there are Tokyo slackers acting odd, references to a strange alternative reality that in urban-fantasy style exists all around us, tough girls, bizarrely comedic villains, tons of rape, an obsession with unusually shaped body parts as nerdy fetishes, and more shout-outs to obscure European classical composers than even in most English novels. Yet none of these things really came together in a coherent way in 1Q84 -- or perhaps it's better to say that things came together in unsatisfying and unrelated ways -- and it left me wondering whether it's just that I'm now in my forties, have been a full-time analyzer of novels for half a decade now, and simply don't have the tolerance anymore for the type of work that often used to impress me in my twenties when I didn't know nearly as much about literature.
And that's why I decided to re-read perhaps Murakami's most famous book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle from 1994 in Japan, 1997 in America; after all, it's another big, giant, deeply unsettling magical-realism tale, the one that tends to make people passionate fans after futzing around with a few minor, shorter titles first, certainly the one that made the biggest impression on me when I was a regular reader back in the 20th century. And after finally finishing it recently, I can now definitively state that it's not my mind playing tricks on me; that book really is as magical and brilliant as I remember it being, and 1Q84 really is a mere pale shade of it, so bad as to almost be a deliberate parody by some smart-ass indie press, even though the two books share a wealth of common tropes, quirks, themes and obsessions. And indeed, that's probably the most interesting lesson to be learned out of reading these two books so close together, is that literature is not and never will be simply a matter of putting all your ingredients into a shake-and-bake bag, tossing thoroughly, and seeing what plops out on the platter afterwards; because although you can technically write dust-jacket synopses of these two novels that would sound almost identical, in one case these elements coil around themselves like a fatally clever puzzlebox, while in the other they just sit there inert, like the flashy little gimmicks they are.
As far as Wind-Up's storyline, perhaps it'd be best to start with the haiku-like minimalism of what can be found at its Wikipedia entry:
"The novel is about a low-key unemployed man, Toru Okada, whose cat runs away. A chain of events follow that prove that his seemingly mundane life is much more complicated than it appears."
King of the understatements, Wikipedia! Because what happens here to make Toru's life more "complicated" is no less than Lynchian in its surrealism and grandiosity: he learns that his brother-in-law may perhaps be the Antichrist, that deep meditation while sitting at the bottom of a dry well from Medieval times that can still be found in a back alley of his neighborhood will actually transport him to a dreamlike alternative universe, and that his wife has been secretly seeing a kind of psychic therapist who doubles as a famous matron of the Japanese fashion industry, who is convinced that the couple's missing cat holds the key to the eventual fate of the entire universe. And yes, I'm deliberately throwing a bunch of random details at you, because I don't want to spoil any of the fascinating plot, so will just toss out some tidbits that won't ruin things by you knowing; because as this long story continues, like a Christopher Nolan movie it starts magically coming together more and more, until reaching a climax that will make you smack your forehead and go, "Oh, so that's what all this chaos was leading up to!"
And in fact it's no coincidence that I compared Murakami to David Lynch in the previous paragraph; because what both are masters at are creating these complicated but real-feeling total mythologies just completely out of whole cloth, a sort of dark fairyland that the artists only hint at in their stories and reveal only the tiniest details of, but while adding a heft and weight to these glimpses that make you feel like there's a thousand years of history and ten thousand alt-universe rules behind them. And it's here where Murakami made perhaps his greatest failing with 1Q84 two decades later, because there's no mystical delight to the alt-universe of his newest book; it's very easy to understand, very small in scope, a Mother Goose tale about little evil spirits and the way they interfere gremlin-like in human affairs. And to be frank, it seems that a lot of this can be blamed directly on an unfortunate new obsession that Murakami has picked up since writing Wind-Up; namely, like many of his fellow countrymen, he's developed a preoccupation with the now constant undercurrent of intensely pious religious cults in Japan, and their increasing habit of committing terrorist acts as a way to bring about the Apocalypse. It seems that anytime Murakami has something to say about violent religious cults, the results always come out more disappointingly straightforward than they needed to be; perhaps it's that the surreal nightmares of Murakami's imagination can no longer compete with the real-life surreal horrors that Tokyo now deals with every day, so that an attempt at recounting these real-life horrors is always going to feel flat by the end.
Of course, there are other factors at play here: Murakami's simply twenty years older, for example, with a lot more titles now under his belt and his recurring themes explored in great depth already. And there's the fact that people like Murakami and Lynch were so successful when younger, the world has literally become a little more like them in general; there was no Lost when Wind-Up was first published, no Adult Swim, no Wonder Showzen, no Lady Gaga, all of whom at least a little get their clues from the explosive popularity that Murakami has experienced over the last several decades. And it's hard sometimes to be able to see if the pieces really are coming together, when you're someone like the author who by necessity is right in the middle of things, and might not have the opportunity to take a step back from the project and get a good general picture of things; because like I said, 1Q84 certainly contains the usual list of Murakamiesque elements, and I imagine that while in the middle of it, it'd be easy to mistakenly think that one was on the right track. But nonetheless, like we learn all over again every so often, sometimes when a venerated author shoots for one last grand novel near the end of their career, they simply fail, and instead turn in a reminder of what once made them so great that they no longer have, and how difficult it really is to put that lightning in a jar even the first time. I have mixed feelings about my memory being right, although certainly it was a treat to read Wind-Up again for the first time in fifteen years; and so instead of picking up the newest book by Murakami, might I humbly suggest reading this modern classic instead.