Monday, May 23, 2005

Book #16: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami



My secondhand knowledge of the world is inescapably linked to pop culture.

For instance, I know modern Japanese life only through pop culture and could only imagine the people and locales of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as Miyazaki anime. Maybe that's not too far out of the question. As in Miyazaki's Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, Murakami's novel blends a fantasy spirit world seamlessly into a modern life informed by signs and portents. The seemingly hard edges of reality are constantly proving to be more fluid than they seem, as if supernatural mysteries lurk constantly behind the mask of mundanity.

Besides Miyazaki's anime, Murakami's novel reminds me of many Western writers. His obsession with pop culture and fusion of styles recalls Jonathan Lethem. His short, blunt, declaratory sentences and affable-if-a-bit-empty leading man is pure Raymond Chandler. His byzantine labyrinth of interconnecting stories and unpredictable plot development is Pynchonesque. His leap into fantastic situation makes me think of Neil Gaiman (although I should probably reveal that I find Gaiman a disappointing novelist, albeit a great writer of comics). Not being familiar with other modern Japanese novelists, I have no idea if they are all as interested in the West, or if my small sample is skewed by a Western touch (other Japanese artists I like include, for instance, Kurosawa, who loved John Ford's movies, and Miyazaki, who reaches Western audiences more than almost any other anime director). I understand that Murakami wrote this novel while visiting America, but I also understand that it was a bestseller in Japan, where people must certainly have gotten his constant references to Western pop culture.

Anyway, I read the book at the recommendation of Leonard Pierce and found it fascinating, if a bit disappointing at the end (sure, I understand that some storylines were dropped to maintain the point that not all mysteries require explanation, but I also read that the American publisher insisted on a particular word count from the translator, who wrote a more accurate translation that was much longer and presumably had a less abrupt conclusion). The narrator through most of the book is Toru Okada. The plot unfolds in waves and the central mystery isn't reached until a ways into the book, but suffice it to say that Okada is as descriptive and unflappable as the classic Chandler protagonist. First he receives strange phone calls, then goes to a closed-off alley behind his house to look for his cat. He encounters an alluring teenage girl while thinking about a creepy abandoned house at the end of the alley. Then, strange people suddenly begin to appear and disappear from his life. His primary antagonist in the book hardly ever makes an appearance. Some of the most compelling parts of the book are stories told to him by passing acquaintances with whom he feels a strong connection. Some other passages are stories that he will never hear.

All in all, this is a strange and beautiful work with an atmosphere of social horror (founded on the horror of history, specifically the atrocities of WWII) that more than compensates for the somewhat unsatisfactory end. Although it reminds me of several different Western writers, it ultimately speaks with a voice of its own.

2 comments:

Marvin 9:32 PM, September 22, 2005  

So the publisher fucked up the translation? Damn it, I knew some things were being left unresolved in the novel, but I HATE HATE HATE HATE WITH A SPITEFUL HATE it when these things happen. Argh! It makes me want to go gnaw on someone's intestines.

Hayden Childs 12:57 AM, September 23, 2005  

I would gladly join you in such an endeavor. I always wonder what we who speak no Nipponese are missing.

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