The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is at times more like a novel comprised of short stories, in which the first person narrator, the unemployed and seemingly aimless Toru Okada, is put into the background by the stories of the people around him, and these stories in so many ways become of more interest than the narrator’s present.
If there’s anything resembling a plot in this novel it’s Okada’s on-the-rocks marriage to his wife Kumiko and the unravelling of the mysteries surrounding her family past; yet the people Okada encounters take centre stage in a way that readers of suspsense fiction or short stories would more than likely criticise for ‘taking them out of the story.’ Anyone who ever made this kind criticism in a book club or writing workshop would do well to challenge themselves with this book, as it is a fine example of how diversion and several stories floating around can combine into the kind of curious mix that can hold a reader’s attention even if the pacing is somewhat slow and sometimes the significance of a particular tale is not completely clear.
This was my second outing with Murakami’s fiction, and in many ways a second chance, having not enjoyed the riddles or Kafka on the Shore, nor the blending of reality and fantasy. There’s plenty of otherness about Wind-up Bird as well, and while these sections were less engaging for me, the strangeness of many situations in this book seemed more connected to the parts that were clearly and vividly real. Murakami deals brilliantly with the horrors of World War Two and the ways they shaped the future of those who experienced them. He uses profound one-liners sparingly and with great precision. Toru Okada’s appeal as the narrator lies not in his actual character or personality, but in how the ordinary world of getting a job and fitting in and dealing with inlaws who disliked him held so little appeal for him, and he seems to seek out the strange and damaged people whose stories are told to him even if he appears to be wandering aimlessly through life. His attraction to strange experiences and people who share in his helplessness (albeit for different reasons) make him believable even if at times anyone could be forgiven for asking why he couldn’t just get a grip on his life. He has more ability to deal with difficulty than he ever gives himself credit for and yet never seems driven apart from when the goal is something that the reader is unlikely to understand or sympathise with.
This is the kind of novel where the risk the author takes is that ever character will talk and act as though they’ve had too much therapy and the author himself is the therapist, yet Murakami himself and indeed his narrator seem very much detached from the human analysis here, leaving it to the reader. I read my way through this book knowing that most of these people would not interest me much in real life (except for perhaps the war veterans) yet I found myself coming back to it.
The parallels that can be drawn between the more engaging secondary characters and the examination of the ‘human condition,’ as it is often called, are enough to keep most literary fiction discussion groups busy for months, yet anyone who likes a certain helping of horror and violence would most likely find themselves reading this book to the end as well. Ignore the dream sequences and the riddles if you like (I mostly did) but the feeling of having experienced what most people never will (nor perhaps should) through a work of fiction is all to be had in these pages.
If you read this book you will probably never look at a water well the same way again, and even if you only read it once you could have hours of thought on how to interpret the story for years afterwards. It’s not a book for one sitting unless you have a seriously high tolerance for slow pacing and want things to make sense immediately, but I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys literary fiction or to anyone bored of reading historical narratives that focus heavily on plot and page-turning styles.