by Jake Taber
All credit goes to Julian Bauld for introducing me to Haruki Murikami last year. Around then I was still rooted in the Sci-Fi/Horror vein, and hadn’t considered Japanese literature or the style of magic realism. Murikami was like a jump into a glacier-fed lake, weird and jarring and unlike anything I’d ever exposed myself. In Kafka on the Shore, he mingled trippy unreality and the mundane, obfuscating the certainty us readers normally take for granted. Over the summer I decided to explore the author further, and stumbled upon this week’s book, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. The story is set in a nondescript Tokyo suburb and revolves around Toru Okada, a paragon of complacency and normality, newly jobless and relying on his wife of six years, Kumiko, as the couple’s breadwinner. The sense of familiarity is soon lost, and as the narrative progresses the wavering boundaries of reality blur and eventually fade altogether.
Wind Up Bird is, at its core, a mystery. When Toru and Kumiko’s cat runs away, Toru enlists the help of a strange psychic named Malta Kano, a businesslike and enigmatic woman who represents his first contact with Tokyo’s twisted underbelly. Soon after their first meeting Kumiko disappears, and Toru is left to figure out the reasons for her departure and follow the increasingly strange paths that open up. More cryptic characters begin to reveal themselves: an edgy teenage girl with an existentialist streak, a hardened WW2 veteran with horrific stories to tell, and a self-proclaimed ‘mind prostitute’ who solicits sex through dreams. Things begin to toe the edge of the rabbit hole when Toru, in an attempt to achieve solitude, confines himself to a well, taking himself through a dream-nether world and leaving with a blue mark that lends strange healing powers.
The ‘primary’ story is but the sinew on the bone, while the real flesh lies with the wonderful side roads and details Murikami often ventures off into. The veteran’s description of his experiences in wartime Manchuria take up a good chunk of the book’s last half, and contain some of its best writing; a couple of chapters appear to depart from the story entirely to tell a fairytale-like nighttime story.
Most interestingly, though, in almost all of Wind-Up Bird’s characters Murikami seems to find an unexplainable quirk, a feature or aura that a rational finger can’t quite place. This could be a special power, as is the case with Toru and Creta, but it could also be a curious tic or habit, or a part of their past shrouded in secrecy. These facets develop throughout, but are left without explanation; loose ends are left scattered helter-skelter, leaving behind an impression of a parallel world beyond comprehension.
This book is requires an adventurous spirit, but will appeal to genre loyalists by virtue of unconventional nature. It engrosses in the same a Philip K. Dick novel does, sucking the reader into a world both impossible to believe and in a sense more real than our own. If you’re looking for something outside of your comfort zone, this is definitely something to consider.