Shared Joy is Twice the Joy, Shared Pain is Half the Pain

TBTW: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

I have to be honest – I’ve been reading more than I may have let on last week. Specifically, I’ve been reading novels written by Haruki Murakami. For a class. So they didn’t always feel like novels, because they didn’t always feel like fun.

We started at the beginning, with the very first novel(la) he published – Hear the Wind Sing. We then continued, with Pinball, 1973, A Wild Sheep Chase, Norwegian Wood, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, four stories from the collection The Elephant Vanishes, and finally The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. All told, I read 2,049 pages of Haruki Murakami this semester. And I never wrote a single review.

But we’re going to change that, right now with this review of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I’m sure many a piece has been written on it, but I will do my best to both review this novel and explain my Murakami obsession.

think the first Murakami book I read was Kafka on the Shore, but I can’t be certain. Partly because it was so long ago, partly because I spent an entire summer basically on a Haruki Murakami binge, and partly because after a while, it seemed like all his books were melding into one. In some ways, this issue has become more pronounced, now that I’ve read about 50% of his published fiction. (For those who are curious, Murakami has thus far written 19 fiction novels and short story collections, translated dozens of books into Japanese, and written over 40 non-fiction works. Needless to say, I can read him forever and I’ll probably never catch up.) For those of you who have never read one of his books, they are typically collections of at least a handful of characters’ stories, interwoven sometimes through plot, sometimes through language, and sometimes not at all. They often converge but just as often stray even further apart. Whichever book you pick up, there will probably be at least one character of significance who remains nameless. There will probably be a second, parallel world accessed by only a handful of characters. This world will have significance, but that significance will be obscured. (It may seem strange, even absurd, to be able to summarize an author’s entire canon into a series of statements such as this, but I give you the rules I was taught in sixth grade to define all Shakespearean comedies: 1. mistaken identities/cross dressing, 2. a fool and his wordplay, 3. everything ends with a big, happy wedding.)

This semester, our class was guided through Murakami’s works from the beginning – I watched his language mature and his characters deepen; I watched as the worlds he created became more realistic and simultaneously more abstract. With each book, I became more and more absorbed, until we got to the books that have made him famous. Interestingly, one of his best selling novels internationally was Norwegian Wood, his only “normal” love story and a book which he has gone on record saying was his worst. Now, when I think about the seven books I’ve read this semester, as well as the others I’d read before (Kafka on the Shore1Q84, and South of the Border, West of the Sun), I realize I kinda want to read them all again. And for that, I blame this book:

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The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The last book of the semester, the last assignment of the semester, and one thing that will probably stick with me forever. It was originally published in Japanese as three volumes, and was significantly edited to become the single, 607 page novel it is in English. I have mixed feelings about this book. I enjoyed it, although it oftentimes simultaneously fascinated and terrified me. I appreciate it as both a standalone work and as a part of the larger Murakami world. But I also know that I didn’t understand it. In some way, I can feel that the novel has connections that I haven’t made, that certain aspects of the plot and individual details have significance I didn’t catch. More than perhaps any book I’ve ever read, I feel like Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a book that would reveal more and more of itself to me each time I read it. And in some strange way, even though I’ve got millions of things to do this week and at least a dozen unread books on my shelf just waiting for me, I had the nearly incontrollable urge to flip immediately back to page 1 and start the book all over again. I don’t know what precisely was different about this ending, but it certainly hit me differently and I consequently think I want to read more of Murakami’s newest works, even though I honestly expected to be sick and tired of Murakami forever (or at least a few months) by the end of this class.

On the surface, this is a book about a man. His cat disappears, his wife’s brother introduces them to a medium who says the cat won’t ever come back. His wife disappears, and he climbs into a well at another medium’s suggestion to think about his life. He meets a woman named Nutmeg, and her son, Cinnamon. He receives mysterious phone calls from another woman – his wife? – and eventually thinks he meets her at the bottom of the well. Throughout the novel, other characters tell us stories, usually in the form of letters or interviews, about living through the end of WWII in Manchukuo (Manchuria). A few people die, at least one is born, and two characters (are they the same person?) lose their voice. Under the surface, this is a very, very confusing book. Maybe that is why I want to go read it again?

One thing that really struck me about The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was the insertion of details of importance from other novels. Really, it was that details from other novels became important here. As I’ve been reading Murakami’s works throughout the semester, I’ve noticed this more and more: Murakami intentionally puts details of significance in other works. It is a little bit like the hints Pixar gives us in the movies, except for that sometimes the hints are finally brought to light three, four, even five books later. Ever since I first started reading Murakami, I’ve suspected all his books somehow connect to each other, and I kind of feel that this book solidified that assumption for me. Even though I don’t have any certain indication that these books all happen in a single reality (yet – The Strange Library seems like it might be the book that pulls all the books together), the connections seem too similar to not be connected. As we’ve been told, coincidences are rarely mere coincidences.

Believe in coincidences if you want, for doing so will probably help you understand this book. Or don’t believe in them, and be prepared to ask lots (lots!) of questions. Either way, this is a book filled with eloquent prose that effortlessly brings you from the depths of a dark, muddy well to the bright sunlight of the Chinese desert and then to the despair of a Siberian mine before taking you back again to the swirling dust of a cat-less living room. The story rises and falls, forcing you to stay in your chair for a hundred pages at a time while the short chapters also permit quick escapes. For anyone with who truly enjoys fantasy novels (although this might be more fantastical, less fantasy), I would recommend it. But I would also warn that it is a big book. It is long and it can be heavy, even frightening. It is not the Murakami novel I would suggest to a friend who had never read him before.

If you are looking for a first Murakami novel, I’d recommend Kafka on the Shore. (Note, however, that this one is also not for the faint of heart. Or for those with a strong cat affection.) If you want a Murakami to say you’ve read something of his, but don’t necessarily want the crazy worlds, try Norwegian Wood. But my strongest recommendation for a first-time Murakami connoisseur would be his short story collection – The Elephant Vanishes. Short stories always make for good exposure, and these are fully fleshed out (some of them…). They certainly give a taste of the fantasy and multiple worlds Murakami has become so well known for, while doing so in bite-sized pieces.

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