Tuesday, 15 June 2010

One Review

Haruki Murakami - The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

I saved The Wind-up Bird Chronicle until last, based on its reputation as Murakami’s masterpiece. And I’m sorry to say I was greatly disappointed. I don’t consider it to be anywhere near one of his best. I mean it’s okay, it’s ambitious, but ultimately it fails to do what it early on implies it might.

In many ways it is typical Murakami – the narrator is a detached 30-something jazz fan, there are disappearing women, ears, cats, wells, snappy dialogue, subtle philosophical pondering... Toru, the ‘I’, describes himself thus: “I owned a signed copy of Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. I had a slow resting pulse rate: forty-seven normally, and no higher than seventy with a high fever. I was out of work. I knew the names of all the brothers Karamazov” (35). He cooks, listens to classical and jazz, walks around, no longer smokes. He, like most of Murakami’s homogenous narrators, seems incapable of dealing sensibly with real, immediate things, but unperturbed by the surreal and the impossible. So yes, initially it seems the book is just like all the rest of them. Which is no bad thing: Murakami does what he does brilliantly and inimitably (try as so many people might). But as it progresses it becomes apparent (well, sort of apparent) that this book has bolder aims.

The subconscious, the inner Other, is undoubtedly the driving force behind a Murakami novel. A character’s inaccessible depths are thrust onto their mundane existence; surreality and adventure ensue. His longer works are distortions of the conscious and the subconscious of the principle characters and those close to them, the microcosm of modern world he inhabits. ‘Wind-up Bird’ differs in that it attempts to link the subconscious ramifications of the events of one generation (Nomonchan, the wars) with the present generation – the violence, the suffering, the “defilement”, a kind of palimpsest of the conscious and the subconscious. And in a sense it works, but only if you step in to help the author’s failures. He sets up so much but cannot tie it all together, and ends up with a mess of empty symbols and vague links, the nearest thing to a resolution being Toru pointing out all the links in the story and hypothesising what they might mean. It’s not a nice postmodern touch: it is lazy writing.

Of course, there’s a lot more going on within the novel’s 600 pages. And for the first half it is brilliant. The narrative rages forward; the characters, while as shallow and arbitrary, as shown and not told, as Murakami characters often are, are engaging. Toru and his Kumiko’s failing marriage is convincing, the conversations between them full of silence and things unsaid or unsayable. This early depiction of the isolation of cohabitation is probably the most successful thing in the book, Toru’s pivotal realisation that it is not possible “for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another” (24) a perfect case in point. A minor domestic misunderstanding results in a beautiful description of the life happening between the private world and the public roles of Toru and Kumiko. A simple lack of awareness about a trivial thing unveils the possibility that he can never know her, this long-term wife and love. “I might be standing at the threshold of something big, and inside lay a world that belonged to Kumiko alone, a vast world that I had never known” (30).

Similarly, the scenes of suffering, torture and violence from Nomonchan onwards are unlike anything else Murakami has ever written. They’re unrelenting, free of whimsy, dry and bare. Unfortunately, the characters (or devices, as that’s really all they are) become the opposite: silly caricatures of moral absolutes, good versus evil, ruining all the quality tangibility and purposeful surrealism of the first half. It’s not that the ideas behind the novel are not good – it’s the way the story dissolves into pointless fragments, semi-relevant anecdotes and pseudo-philosophising before coming together into one massive béance that ruins the whole endeavour.

Perhaps the novel is best explicable through this: May Kasahara sums up the its stance on cause and effect, on the determinism/free will debate:

“Maybe the world has two different kinds of people, and for one kind the world is this logical, rice pudding place, and for the other it’s all hit-or-miss macaroni cheese. I bet if those tree frog parents of mine put rice pudding mix in the microwave and got macaroni cheese when the bell rang, they’d just tell themselves, ‘Oh, we must have put in macaroni cheese mix by mistake,’ or they’d take out the macaroni cheese and try and convince themselves, ‘This looks like macaroni cheese, but actually it’s rice pudding.’ And if I tried to be nice and explain to them that sometimes, when you put in rice pudding mix, you get macaroni cheese, they’d never believe me. They’d probably just get mad.” (462)

It’s the closest the book comes to revealing itself. For the first time, Murakami is making me cringe, properly cringe, not just another-silly-description cringe but an embarrassment that this attempt at an important piece of literature has failed, fallen into silly non-philosophy in an attempt to say something profound. It is probably the only Murakami I won’t reread. It has nothing on Hard-boiled Wonderland or South of the Border, none of the unclear clarity or nonsensical epiphany or affecting semi-resolution.

To quote perhaps the worst line Murakami has ever written, this is how the novel leaves me feeling: “To say that [my] reception was cool would be an understatement. The doors of all the world’s refrigerators seemed to have been thrown open at once” (49).

Oh Haruki...
by Joshua Jones

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