Book review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book for adults, and Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle had me rubbing my eyes. Some things you can’t unsee.

I recently encountered the term slipstream, fiction that crosses boundaries of sci-fi, fantasy, and literary fiction, or “the fiction of strangeness.” The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle fits that bill. It reminded me of magical realist books that explore a moment in history, such as Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or Roy’s The God of Small Things. Unlike those novels, however, I felt lost and a little annoyed with Wind-Up Bird. More of a mashup of Camus’ The Stranger and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, this novel lingers between existentialism and surrealism, finding meaning–and escape–in the bottom of a dry well.

Strange things happen to Toru Okada. He wants only a quiet life with his wife Kumiko, but when their cat disappears, Toru–having recently quit his job–is tasked with spending his days finding it. Soon he begins receiving mysterious phone calls, meeting strange people, and exploring an abandoned house at the end of the street, known as the “Hanging House” because of the awful ways the family died.

A sense of ennui and foreboding surround each odd interaction, from retrieving the laundry to chatting with teenage May down the block. This subtle sense of disparate elements building toward something kept me reading, but Toru Okada is a difficult character to care about. Languid and aimless, he drifts along, listening to the bizarre stories of the people he meets and quietly struggling to make sense of the nonsensical. I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there about modern society ignoring a spiritual and historical past it doesn’t want to remember. But I found myself distanced and frustrated.

Mysteries deepen when Kumiko disappears and Toru is pulled into a world of surreal psychic phenomena, including a “prostitute of the mind” and a politician with a false face (surprise!). The story is bizarre enough that I wanted to know how everything came together, and I wasn’t disappointed by the ending, though I did feel as though I wasn’t quite “getting it” when reality and dream-reality finally collide.

I was turned off by some of the explicit violence, most of which occurs as part of elderly Lieutenant Mamiya’s stories about his service during the Japanese occupation of Manchukuo before WWII. This seems to be the history modern Japan hopes to sweep under the carpet, but its horrors won’t go away easily. And now they’re in my head, too.

By all accounts, Wind-Up Bird is a revered work of literary fiction by a modern genius. I had high hopes when I picked it up. Unfortunately, its combination of existential detachment and detailed gruesomeness didn’t speak to me as a reader.