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The Wind-up Bird Chronicle
Author Lakshmi Gopalkrishnan  
Date July 15, 1998  
  Broken Mainspring

If you're in the market, Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle will teach you how to 1) kill with a bayonet (thrust deep under ribs, drag in slow, deep circle to scramble organs); 2) skin a man alive (slit skin at shoulder, peel slowly down right arm); and 3) eliminate a zoo full of carnivores (four snipers per tiger best). It will steep you in the bizarre lives and roles of 30ish Toru Okada, an out-of-work law clerk, bent-tip-tailed-cat owner, house husband, toupee researcher, well dweller, and prostitute. It will titillate you with red-hatted mind readers and sexy phone calls, oozing pols and hot dreams, ill-omened houses and unwaveringly plastic characters named Nutmeg and Cinnamon. Hanging over the overwrought whole are an overcast sky and an elusive "wind-up" bird--so named for its creeeak, creeeak song, which nauseates and dooms the select few who hear it. Stripped of their powers of volition, they become "no more than dolls set on tabletops, the springs in their backs wound up tight, dolls set to move in ways they could not choose, moving in directions they could not choose, ... most of them died, plunging over the edge of the table."
How dystopian is Murakami's Japan, how sterile and subwayesque. Not for him the cherry-blossom viewings and golden pavilions of Yukio Mishima, the monarchist who disemboweled himself in 1970. No nostalgic ramblings, only details that overrun the canvas and add up to nothing. A best-selling author in his country, Murakami's most recent work before Wind-Up was Underground, a mammoth exploration of the Aum Shinrikyo cult's sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. Away at Princeton when they occurred, he returned to examine Japan's fascination with the cult and its tubby, half-blind leader. Underground describes a nation bored and isolated by its successes and its failures alike. Wind-Up fictionalizes that world--but barely, and to less effect.

Rootless and lonely, Toru Okada plods across his strenuously postmodern space. Until, that is, his spaghetti-cooking, Rossini-humming contentment is dissolved by the sudden departure of first his cat and then his wife of six years. Noburu Wataya (the cat) returns about halfway through the novel; of Kumiko, the wife, one is less sure. She works at a health magazine, whose strange hours screen her infidelities from an improbably credulous spouse. Leaving as if for work one morning, she does not return. She picks up her dry cleaning the following day, however, and eventually writes him a letter, in which she recounts earth-shattering orgasms with other men: "I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but the fact is that I was never able to have true sexual pleasure with you."
Toru's life disintegrates following Kumiko's departure. Obsessed with finding her, he takes off on a cinematic odyssey that collapses time and space. Murakami lays several plot lines and, both consummate miniaturist and committed pessimist, appears to develop each carefully while keeping the mix unstable. And so the pressure builds. Toru reaches out to a pair of allegedly clairvoyant sisters (as it turns out, to little result beyond a few crepuscular couplings that may or may not be real). He meets a veteran whose wartime experiences allow Murakami to play anti-imperialist. Toru's conversations with the lieutenant yield an enduring image: a dry well, whose dark silences facilitate thought and force people to confront their demons. Toru's suburban alley offers convenient access to such a well, and into its clichéd dankness he descends ("my body began to lose its density and weight, ... my mind was dragging my body into its own territory"). It is the perfect birth canal, a magical anti-environment that both suspends and exaggerates all sensation. For Murakami's reader, it conjures up the excitement and terror, the white hots and the blue colds, of childhood treks through a storm sewer system. For Toru, who is drawn back to it repeatedly, it is simultaneously prison and release. It makes him face his deepest fears (which puddle up in a stigmatic stain on his right cheek), then allows him osmotic and healing passage to other worlds and narratives. Mysteriously transported from the well to a mysterious Room 208 in a Tokyo hotel, he taps into a labyrinth of stories that eventually reconnects him with humanity.

Murakami's fiction before Wind-Up was less ambitious in scale and makes a compelling case for his return to a smaller canvas. He is a good reporter, well read, well traveled, and keen-eyed. All this makes for good documentary and great short stories: His book about the cult sticks with the conventions of storytelling and delivers emotion, analysis, and narrative; the many-splendored tales that interpolate Toru's story find Murakami at his most engaging. Each plot is painstakingly tooled, generates momentum, and invites you to share.

But look at the whole, and Wind-Up confirms the Norman Mailer principle: The birth of a great journalist is often paralleled by the death of a novelist. Murakami lets the narrative lines, so carefully laid, snap; you're suspended midair, your tender attentions scattered to the winds. You gulp, tell yourself you can transcend the Aristotelian unities, and would move on if Murakami allowed you to. But he does not. In what is either a belated acknowledgment of your investment--and his own--or, less likely, a more directly subversive move, he starts reeling in the lines about 100 pages from the end. The obvious is manfully recapped, the bows tied in tweet, tidy trills. "Cinnamon's grandfather, the nameless veterinarian, and I had a number of unusual things in common--a mark on the face, a baseball bat, the cry of the wind-up bird. And then there was the lieutenant who appeared in Cinnamon's story: he reminded me of Lieutenant Mamiya [the war veteran]." And shortly thereafter, "Everything was intertwined, with the complexity of a three-dimensional puzzle--a puzzle in which truth was not necessarily fact and fact not necessarily truth."

Back in Room 208 a few pages before the novel's conclusion, Toru encounters a woman on the bed. Ping, goes the call button in his head: "I think you are Kumiko. Because then all kinds of story lines work out." I'm tempted to give Murakami the benefit of the doubt--to say, even, that his pat machinations force his readers into his crowd of wound-up dolls (of whom most died, remember, "plunging over the edge of the table"). But I'll settle for this: Murakami's story ran away with him. Too little too late, his impulse to tidy resolution testifies more to his discomfort with an expanded canvas than to his plug-and-socket skills.

Author Laura Miller  
Date November 24, 1997  

For a guy who rarely leaves his own block, Toru Okada, the decent, if hapless, hero of Haruki Murakami's new novel, "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," has a lot of adventures. At the book's beginning, he's left his job as a paralegal and spends his days reading and cooking dinner for his magazine editor wife. First, an obscene phone call from a woman who seems to know him awfully well disrupts his sleepy routine.
Then he meets Malta Kano, an enigmatic psychic who's supposedly searching for his lost cat; her sister, Creta, who dresses like Jackie Kennedy and relates a life history of overwhelming physical pain, attempted suicide, prostitution and a traumatic encounter with Toru's sinister brother-in-law, Noboru Wataya; Lt. Mamiya, a WWII vet who tells him of the atrocities he witnessed on the Mongolian front and Soviet prison camps; and, eventually, an extremely well-dressed mother-son duo who introduce him to an unusual way of making lots of cash. When he needs a break, he pals around with the 16-year-old girl who lives down the street -- or mulls things over while sitting at the bottom of a dry well behind a vacant house.

Murakami is that unusual creature, a metaphysical novelist with a warm, down-to-earth voice and a knack for creating credible characters and spinning a lively yarn. Best known in this country for his 1989 novel "A Wild Sheep Chase," Murakami leavens the arresting philosophical symbolism of modern Japanese fiction with a goofy sensibility shaped by American pop culture -- he's like Paul Auster with a heart and a sense of humor. From the beginning, "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" has the easy authority of the work of a natural-born storyteller, and each eccentric character and odd development only adds to the anticipation that Murakami will tie it all up in a satisfying resolution.
He expertly twines themes of suffering and inner emptiness with Toru's covert battle against the evil Noboru Wataya, an economic pundit of slippery charisma. Profoundly vacant, Wataya realizes that "consistency and an established worldview were excess baggage in the intellectual mobile warfare that flared up in the mass media's tiny time segments." He parlays this cunning into a political career, of course. Wataya is the precise opposite of the humble Toru, and at first this appears to be the sole source of their antipathy.

The first 600 pages of "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" offer much unadulterated reading pleasure, and it's only as the remaining pages grow ominously sparse that the proverbial sinking feeling sets in. Even if he does provide for Toru, Murakami can't, in the end, gather all his novel's intriguing subplots and mysterious minor characters together convincingly, and he summarily drops whole handfuls of loose ends. Like the mark in a brilliant con game, I closed "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle" feeling somewhat bereft, but still so dazzled by Murakami's skill that I couldn't quite regret having come along for the ride.
Author Pico Iyer  
Date November 3, 1997  
Media Time Magazine  

In their very different ways, each of the Big Three of modern Japanese literature--Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki--devoted himself to commemorating aspects of an older, purer Japan they all felt would wither after their country's defeat in World War II. That left their postwar successors, most notably Haruki Murakami, to record the ghosts and vacant lots of a land whose spirit seemed to have vanished, leaving a soulless, synthetic wasteland of Dunkin' Donuts parlors, automated fashion victims and cinder-block abortion clinics.

Murakami--a cool 48-year-old who once ran a jazz bar, has translated John Irving, Truman Capote and Raymond Carver into Japanese and recently taught at Princeton--has been perfectly positioned to serve as the voice of hip, Westernized Japan. His Norwegian Wood (note the Beatles reference) sold more than 2 million copies around the globe. Yet none of his earlier books prepare one for his massive new The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Knopf; 611 pages; $25.95), which digs relentlessly into the buried secrets of Japan's recent past to explain the weightless, desultory disconnections of a virtual society where nothing feels real and nobody really feels.
Flowing easily through a series of hauntingly imagined passages, the story is told by Toru Okada, a guy in his 30s, out of a job, cheerfully bewildered and wandering around in a "yellow Van Halen promotional T-shirt." One day, as he's cooking spaghetti, his life suddenly falls through a rabbit hole of sorts. Spooky strangers call up with cryptic messages, women named Nutmeg and Malta enfold him in weird schemes, his wife disappears, and another woman appears in her clothes and in his bed. Reality plays like a TV program--but one showing on a channel Toru doesn't get.

As surreal life fades into waking dream (brilliantly translated into the latest vernacular by Jay Rubin), Murakami delivers a synoptic reading of all the ills of modern Japan, from crooked real estate deals to two-dimensional media men to a wonderfully true, Sprite-drinking 16-year-old girl who works in a rural wig factory. And as Okada floats through his planless days, he experiences every postmodern malady, from unwanted phone-sex calls to--the ultimate heartbreak--an E-mail "conversation" with his lost wife. These contemporary scenes of listlessness and drift are thrown into the strongest relief by gripping, graphic accounts of atrocities during the war. In Murakami's terms, a world of intense jazz has given over to one of easy listening.
It does not require much reflection to reveal that almost every image in the book's 600 pages--a dry well, a haunted house, a faceless man, a dead-end street--stands in some way for a hollowed-out Japan whose motto might be, "I don't think, therefore I am." Again and again, characters say, "I was like a walking corpse" or "I was now a vacant house" or "I felt as if I had turned into a bowl of cold porridge." Murakami's storytelling ease and the pellucid, uncluttered backdrop he lays down allow moments to flare up memorably. Yet the overall effect of his grand but somewhat abstract novel is to give us X ray after X ray into the benumbed soul of a wannabe Prozac Nation.
Author Phoebe-Lou Adams  
Date November 1997  
Media The Atlantic Online  

Mr. Murakami's long and devious novel opens in a resolutely mundane way, with the narrator cooking spaghetti. The significant items in the ensuing phantasmagoria soon appear, however -- a dry well, a house abandoned because of a series of tragedies, a so-called alley blocked at both ends, the statue of a bird looking sadly unable to fly, and the unidentified wind-up bird that creaks invisibly in a nearby tree. "Wind-up" can mean either an end or a preparation for action. Whether his target is Japan or the world, Mr. Murakami's work sums up a bad century and envisions an uncertain future. His protagonist is a harmless fellow who merely wants to recover his cat and his wife. The troubles, real and delusional, that he encounters can be seen as extravagant metaphors for every ill from personal isolation to mass murder. The novel is a deliberately confusing, illogical image of a confusing, illogical world. It is not easy reading, but it is never less than absorbing.
Author Kevin Hunsanger  
Date October 29, 1997  
Media The San Francisco Bay Guardian  
  Where's the Cat?

FICTION READERS in the United States may not be familiar with Japan's best-selling modern novelist, Haruki Murakami, the author of six previous novels and one collection of short stories. Murakami has translated the works of some of our greatest writers -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, and Raymond Carver -- into his native language, and in Japan he enjoys near similar status and fame. He has been awarded the coveted Tanizaki Prize for literary excellence, and his novels regularly sell millions of copies. He has an original and literary vision so strong that he is widely regarded as the voice of his generation. With the release of his latest work, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, readers in the West may begin to take more notice of this amazing talent.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle kicks off with a pot of spaghetti in danger of boiling over while our out-of-work protagonist, Okada, gets rid of an uncanny obscene phone call just before his wife, Kumiko, calls to assign him the task of locating their missing cat, Norboru Wataya, who is named after her politically important brother. The runaway kitty launches the story, and nearly every other aspect of the scene serves as a motif throughout the novel. Murakami loves his motifs -- his earlier work teems with such distinctive elements as earlobes and paper clips. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, keep your eye on toupees and empty wells. Seemingly random objects take on critical status in a Murakami novel, and vital clues to metaphysical quandaries are often hidden behind apparently innocent facades.

Themes abound in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but the work is mainly fueled by chance and destiny. Throughout the novel, scenarios present themselves to Okada, situations that shift the path of his tale. As characters enter his life, they pull him into their world -- literally. He becomes a tourist within shifting interior landscapes, and through multiple eyes, Okada's dreamlike search for identity in the midst of chaos is revealed. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle uses various narrative digressions to grow into a historical panorama, and Okada's presence becomes an integral link, connecting all characters and chronicles.

Okada's search for the lost cat quickly introduces him to the novel's cast of characters, each one of whom leads him deeper into the intersecting labyrinth. May Kasahara, his 16-year-old neighbor, interjects a Lolita factor, while two psychics, Creta and Malta Kano, co-opt Okada's dreams. Lieutenant Mamiya delivers an unexpected inheritance to Okada, and recounts a fascinating wartime tale of espionage. Lt. Mamiya opens Okada to the forces of fate, saying, "A person's destiny is something you look back at after it's past, not something you see in advance." An occurrence in Lt. Mamiya's past involves torturous time spent at the bottom of an empty well, an experience that, as so often happens in the novel, Okada's own destiny comes to parallel.
At the bottom of an empty well, Okada becomes marked by a blue patch that appears on his face. The mark is recognized by Nutmeg Akasako as similar to the one her father bore. Nutmeg adopts Okada's crumbling spirit, channeling his metaphysical openness into acts of spiritual prostitution. Nutmeg operates a discreet "healing center," and Okada quickly becomes her number-one asset. At the center, Okada enters the mindful soul of the clients, alleviating all their desires. Doing so expands Okada's ever widening circle of spiritual synchronicity.

From the bottom of his well Okada meditates on the nature of his predicament:

Nutmeg's father and I were joined by the mark on our cheeks.... He and Lt. Mamiya were joined by the city of Hsin-ching.... Mamiya and I by our respective wells -- his in Mongolia, mine on the property where I was sitting now. All of these were linked as in a circle, at the center of which stood prewar Manchuria, continental East Asia, and the short war of 1939 in Nomonhan. But why Kumiko and I should have been drawn into this historical chain of cause and effect I could not comprehend. All of these events had occurred long before Kumiko and I were born.

This conundrum is the nucleus around which The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle spins, and with every rotation, Murakami pulls the reader deeper into a world where everything is connected but nothing ever fits flush. By the end of the novel this world emerges as a remarkable one indeed, and one in which many questions don't require answers; the process of questioning is reward enough. Drat that cat.