Saturday, June 27, 2009

Weird, Wild, Wacky Wind-Up Birds

It was a narrow world, a world that was standing still. But the narrower it became, and the more it betook of stillness, the more this world that enveloped me seemed to overflow with things and people that could only be called strange. They had been there all the while, it seemed, waiting in the shadows for me to stop moving. And every time the wind-up bird came to my yard to wind its spring, the world descended more deeply into chaos.

I had promised to take about Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Instead, I posted an odd little story I wrote when I was twelve.

I had a blast writing it. Every day at the beginning of seventh grade English class, during the 1998-1999 school year, my teacher would give us five to ten minutes to write in our journals. What we wrote was always kept confidential, and you didn't actually have to write anything if you didn't feel like it. In fact, there were multiple entries in a row in which I simply stated "(I can't think of anything today)." But that October, there was nothing more I loved to do during school than continue my tale of "The Day the Bus Didn't Come." I enjoyed setting the atmosphere and making it stranger and stranger and seeing just what my imagination, fueled as it was by the twin muses of Star Trek and The X-Files, would come up with next. It didn't matter that the only reader - that is, until I posted it on the Internet yesterday - was my teacher. I wanted to keep my phantom audience guessing. Of course, today it's a rather groan-worthy piece that's more an X-Files parody than it is a genuine thriller. But I would imagine that delight in weirdness is similar to what H.P. Lovecraft and Dean Koontz must have felt.

Haruki Murakami, too, must have enjoyed writing The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Published in 1997 and translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin and Murakami himself, this epic novel is akin to peeling a Day-Glo fuchsia onion: multilayered and surreal. The mundane and the fantastic rub against each other uncomfortably, casting an aura of creepiness over daily life in a Tokyo suburb in the mid-1980s. Characters frequently speak of there being two levels of reality and two versions of truth. One is the surface world even the most shallow of us believe in; the other is a dark, threatening place that occasionally intrudes into our shared existence.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
actually reminded me strongly of Roberto Bolaño's 2666, which I am currently in the middle of, right down to the sense of menace, disjointedness, and even that shocking moment of brutal, unexpected violence. Whereas 2666 tends to stay more on the realistic side, however, Murakami is wholly unpredictable, introducing one bizarre element after another and constantly throwing the reader off track. What I especially liked about The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is Murakami's vivid depiction of the dual realms of reality and dream-reality. For example, this blatantly real moment of postmodern girlhood:
. . . I walked into May Kasahara's yard. The oak tree cast a cool-looking shadow over the lawn, but May Kasahara had obviously avoided that, to stretch out in the harsh sunlight. She lay on her back in a deck chair, wearing an incredibly tiny chocolate-colored bikini, its little cloth patches held in place by bits of string. I couldn't help wondering if a person could actually swim in a thing like that. She wore the same sunglasses she had on when we first met, and large beads of sweat dotted her face. Under her deck chair she had a white beach towel, a container of suntan cream, and a few magazines. Two empty Sprite cans lay nearby, one apparently serving as an ashtray. A plastic hose with a sprinkler lay out on the lawn, where no one had bothered to reel it in after its last use.
Before and after this little island of the Globalized Teenager in the Universal Suburb, we've had the psychic sisters with outlandish fashion sense, mysterious sexy phone calls, a powerful brother-in-law who just isn't right, ongoing dream sequences involving a darkened room in an anonymous urban hotel, a bruise-like mark that grants the protagonist special healing powers, and the intermittent call of an unseen bird that sounds like a wound-up spring. Sixteen-year-old May Kasahara lives right across the street from an abandoned house, widely believed to be cursed since the violent deaths of its last owners, that also has a dried well in the backyard that may contain supernatural properties. It's a neighborhood tableaux that stands for the story as a whole: the parallel flow of two worlds, one of which can be reached only by a few individuals of a heightened, finely-tuned sensitivity.

"Oh, I wasn't touched. I was fascinated," Joseph Conrad says in Heart of Darkness. "It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw . . . the expression of sombre pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror - of an intense and hopeless despair." For all its disparate components - from wartime memories to marital woes - a common thread running through them all (in addition to protagonist and narrator Toru Okada) is the persistence of evil in all its many manifestations. The torture-death of an intelligence officer. The massacre of prisoners and helpless zoo animals. Smooth-talking sociopathic politicians. Rape. Abuse. Self-destruction. The thing trying to break down the door in the dreamworld hotel room. All of this falling on the shoulders of Toru Okada, a painfully ordinary young man who has quite his job and whose wife has mysteriously left him. Whose life was also painfully ordinary until the wind-up bird began its freakish cry and Okada finds himself glimpsing what lies beyond - renting the veil, so to speak, and uncovering both the depths of what humanity is capable of and the possibilities that exist beneath the surface.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is in many respects a great book that I enjoyed reading. But it also ended up bugging the hell out of me. On the one hand, I do kind of understand what Murakami was getting at: the reality of evil, which the affluent classes of the First World are often oblivious to, and the acceptance of that aspect of reality, which corresponds to the acceptance of yet another reality. (Am I making sense?) Still, what irked me was the unexplained weirdness of it all. Bizarre stuff occurs, and you think there's going to be at least a hint of explanation, but it never comes. Murakami repeatedly calls the reader's attention to what seem like important details - such as Creta Kano's absurd red felt hat or the classified letter Lieutenant Mamiya recalls in his World War II story. And yet such details never turn out to mean anything. Then there's the moments in the narrative that seem significant, like the flashbacks to when Hazel's son Cinnamon loses his voice, yet the only thing that ties it to the rest of the novel is the call of the wind-up bird. So why is it even there? What's the point of Cinnamon even having no voice in the first place?

Writing strange fiction is fun. I totally understand that. I'm not saying that you have to tie everything together in a neat little package with a neat little ribbon, but sooner or later you're going to have to come up with some explanation for what's been happening. You can't just keep throwing craziness at us and then . . . walk away. At the risk of sounding supremely self-important, I will point out that, in my seventh-grade schoolbus tale, that I did end up explaining the the compulsion to walk, the enigmatic stuff about "judgment," and the surreal landscape. It was a rather lame explanation, true, but I don't think I left my reader hanging. Murakami . . . does. And that places a dent in what could have been a truly grand opus of a novel.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a worthy read. But expect some disappointment.


Richard said...

Just finished reading this Murakami, E.L. Fay, and I can't tell you how much I enjoyed it. Agree that some of the aspects of the book having to do with the portrayal of evil and violence resemble Bolaño's 2666 or vice-versa. Don't agree that the many "unexplainable moments" you mention caused a letdown in appreciation for the work--at least, they didn't for me since I think Murakami was operating with "dream logic" most of the time...and it's not like all the symbols or unexplainable things that happen to us in our dream life always totally make sense either. In any event, what a wild ride! Btw, hope you don't mind me leaving lengthy comments on age-old posts of yours, my friend. Cheers!

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