I just finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, another phenomenal book by Haruki Murakami. Murakami is coming up strong in my mental list of top living authors.
Who should read this book? You should definitely try it if you've read and enjoyed Kafka on the Shore. This book was an earlier effort, but it shares a lot of similar traits: the dreamlike logic of the plot, the vivid descriptions of scenes, fascinating characters. You should also give it a try if you've enjoyed psychedelic or paranoid authors like Pynchon, Vonnegut, or R. A. Wilson. (Actually, Murakami is kind of the anti-Vonnegut, but I think their fans could probably appreciate both authors.)
Murakami is such a treasure because he combines fun writing with good literature. This is a trait I find myself valuing more and more the farther removed I get from my English Lit training; I still crave the quality and thought-provoking enigmas of complex books, but it's so hard to find the time and mental energy to track through the dense prose that usually accompanies them. There's no way I'd be able to read Ulysses or Moby Dick on my own these days. Murakami is like a still, deep pond - you can easily move along the surface, but those deep waters are just waiting for you.
In some ways, discussing the plot feels almost superfluous. I'm incapable of writing a three-paragraph review post, though, so here come some:
The protagonist and narrator is Mr. Okada, an amazingly passive individual. The novel starts after he has quit his job and is living at home, supported by his wife's work at a publishing agency. He cooks and cleans and goes shopping and sometimes reads the employment ads. He isn't a slacker, exactly; it's more that he doesn't know what to do more than that he doesn't want to do anything.
A sequence of strange events occur throughout the novel, and even stranger characters are introduced. The pair's cat leaves, and a psychic called Malta Kano is consulted to help find it. She is more interested in the energy of the household, though, perhaps because her sister and fellow psychic, Creta Kano, has a history with the wife's brother Noboru Wataya, an amazingly unpleasant academic and politician whose star is rapidly rising. And so on; more people are brought into Mr. Okada's circle, not only by physical meetings, but also people from stories in the past, or who appear only in his dreams, or as disembodied voices on the telephone.
The story itself is kind of fascinating, equal parts mystery, domestic drama, historical fiction, and fantasy. There are also some intriguing themes which I won't claim to understand but that imbue all the action with a sense of mysticism and timelessness. One big concern is that of water: water, and the absence of water, is of enormous concern to many of the characters, and appears in both physical manifestations and psychic concern. There's a lot of talk of "flow," which might be thought of as fate but seems to be something different. Mr. Okada is an unusual hero, but he is the perfect hero for the logic of this universe; his power lies not in prevailing against overwhelming odds, but by recognizing and submitting to the movement of the flow. His archnemesis, Noboru Wataya, is a man of evil agency; Okada opposes him not through good agency, but by good passivity. This isn't to say that Okada never takes action, just that he only takes action when moving with the flow.
Besides this idea of "flow," there is a lot of concern with identity in this book. Even more so than in Kafka on the Shore, there are a lot of characters with multiple personalities, characters trying to find themselves, people becoming other people, and otherwise exploring or transmuting their own identities... or, far more sinister, the identities of others. A question which is raised early on in the book is, "Can one person truly know another?" One of the most seemingly mundane aspects of the book proves to be among the most frightening: Okada's discovery of how little he knows of Kumiko, despite having been married to her for years.
More so than Kafka on the Shore, I get the impression that this book probably has extra levels of resonance with Japanese readers that I just can't get. A significant concern of the book is Japan's role on the Asian mainland prior to and during World War II. Murakami is far from an apologist for Japan's actions during this period, though at the same time he shows how some individual Japanese had qualms about what their country was doing.
Murakami does some interesting things with the narrative in this book. Kafka on the Shore was mostly narrated in the third person limited omniscient, following two main characters in largely separate storylines, except for a few chapters presented as classified documents from a government ministry. Early on, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is even more conventional with just a simple first-person narrator. Commensurate with the book's concerns with identity, though, the narrative starts to expand and scatter as the story reaches its end. We get letters written by a teen girl, long monologues from supporting characters, documents on a computer, and sensational articles from tabloids. Most disturbing for me were two small chapters told by a third-person limited omniscient narrator; it is such a common literary style, but one totally missing from the book up to that point, and it's hard to figure out how the style and the content fit in with the rest of the book. The mystery is eventually resolved, and I thought it was one of the many impressive examples of Murakami's skill at weaving together a whole work out of disparate pieces.
So how does this book compare with Kafka on the Shore? I think Kafka is more assertively supernatural. It's also funnier; though Wind-Up Bird has its amusing moments, it doesn't have anything to compare with the Colonel Sanders pimp. Both books have bizarre sex scenes, although Wind-Up Bird's are less offensive. While I won't claim to understand The Wind-Up Bird, I do feel like I "got" more of it than Kafka; in some ways it's a more satisfying story, with more pieces of the puzzle fitted together at the end. I can't say that either is better than the other; both are masterworks. I can't wait to read what Murakami has in store next.