Review of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
—by Sam Loyd

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle written by Haruki Murakami; reviewed by Sam Lloyd


“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.”
- pg. 527  
Where to begin with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? To summarize the plot would be relatively meaningless. Essentially, a man starts looking for his lost cat, and then weird shit happens—with the weird shit being what makes the book unique. Throughout the course of the novel’s 607 pages, you might reach some conclusions about what’s real and what’s not real, and what each particular event is supposed to signify…but it’s equally likely that you’ll be left wondering about the wealth of other potential conclusions that could be reached. The book is that surreal, that emotionally detached, and that confusing. It’s a David Lynch movie set to paper.

            The protagonist of the story is Toru Okada (who is later given the nickname “Mr. Wind-Up Bird,” hence the title of the book), who lives with his wife, Kumiko, in what appears to be a fairly mundane suburban house in residential Japan. Toru is an educated but unemployed Joe Everyman who begins the story about as passive as it is possible to be; he harbors no desire to get a job, or make anything new of his life. Naturally, his wife seems emotionally distant from the outset and grows steadily more so as the book progresses. The nature of their relationship status is established early on with the book’s inciting incident: the couple’s cat, which symbolizes their happy union together and their collective strength in the face of the troubles the real world offers them, runs away. Given that Toru Okada stays at home all day while Kumiko works, he is entrusted with responsibility for finding the cat.

It is from there that everything escalates (although not at all quickly). Toru runs into several women throughout his quest to discover the cat: May Kashara (a nihilistic, possibly manic-depressive teenager); Malta Kano (a weirdly-dressed psychic medium who attempts to use her powers to help Toru find his cat); and Creta Kano (Malta’s sibling and assistant who sucks Toru’s dick in his dreams and then tells him about it in reality). No, you didn’t read that last parenthetical incorrectly. It is with the introduction of these women that the strange and bizarre aspects of the story begin to unfold: Toru’s search for his cat eventually turns into a search for his wife once she abandons him, and then escalates from a physical search for the two of them to a surrealistic, psychological search for them through the labyrinth of his own mind. As the story goes on, it becomes unclear whether or not Toru’s actions take place in his made-up world or in the real world (with an effective symbol of this coming via Toru repeatedly receiving random phone calls from a strange, unknown woman in the real world, and then actually meeting her in person in his made-up world), or what his actions in the made-up world are supposed to represent. A straightforward narrative, this ain’t.

The closest Wind-Up Bird comes to making a salient point comes during the sequences that flash back to Japan’s history. Part of the story revolves around Toru’s relationship with an ex-officer from the Japanese military, who is a self-proclaimed “dead man walking” (he is alive but considers himself to be an empty shell of a person simply waiting for death) and tells Toru his horrific World War II story gradually over the course of the novel. This story is later joined by a similar story from another acquaintance of Toru’s that revolves around the nightmarish conditions of homeland Japan during the war, and in both stories men either resembling Toru or exhibiting his typical actions or characteristics are present. A grand theme echoing throughout the story appears to be “how to live after you’ve all but died”; each supporting character in the book has suffered severe trauma at some point in their past to the point where they went on living but felt dead inside, and Toru struggles with this problem himself as soon as his wife leaves him. Author Haruki Murakami, then, might possibly be making the point that World War II represented the lowest point in Japan’s history, and that the nation has never really healed from that traumatic period. Therefore, Toru’s story could symbolize the uphill struggle for understanding and inner peace desired by all Japanese people due to the heavy baggage that they are born with because of the actions of their ancestors.

Of course, it’s equally likely that the story is about something else altogether. Murakami seems to deliberately want to confuse his reading audience, and there are any number of potential takes on what the book’s moral is or what its recurring motifs represent. This means that the book could fall into one of two categories: it could be considered a surrealistic masterpiece of a puzzle that only the shrewdest and most careful analyst could crack…or it could be considered a sprawling mess that doesn’t even understand itself. (This definitely brings the earlier “David Lynch movie” comparison all the way back around.) The author believes the former to be truer than the latter, but much more emphatically believes that the book’s interpretation can only be deduced on a per-individual basis.
Score:
1746 (on the 0-to-1984 scale).        
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Sam Lloyd is currently an English Major and Writing Minor at Portland State University, due to graduate in Winter 2013. Most of his work thus far has been in the field of literary analysis and criticism, although he is beginning to advance into the field of fiction specifically with regard to short stories. He hopes to become a writer in some capacity, whether as a novelist, a screenwriter, a journalist, or any field that involves creatively expressing truths to people that can affect them for the better.