My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Murakami is a polarizing figure; I like polarizing figures, because the lack of consensus about their merits deprives my adolescent contrarianism, which resists all consensus indiscriminately, of its fuel, and, in consequence, I have to make up my mind freely. To my free mind, Murakami is a writer of extraordinary gifts and terrible limitations.
I certainly enjoyed this novel. Murakami can be a mesmerizing storyteller. “Can be” because this particular novel has three distinct modes, one of which is not at all successful. It begins as a wryly oneiric domestic drama in which the protagonist, Toru Okada, starts to experience strange events and to meet strange people after his cat goes missing. I found the novel’s first quarter or so, in this gently Kafkan idiom, wholly seductive and genuinely unpredictable, because it is guided not by generic rules but by authorial sensibility. The novel’s second mode narrates incidences from the Second World War through the eyes of several of Okada’s interlocutors. In these sections, Murakami writes with a traditional kind of novelistic clarity and authority, owing more to the realist and historical commitments of, say, Tolstoy than to magical realism; there are harrowing set-pieces in these sections (the skinning of Yamamoto, the execution of the Chinese deserters in baseball uniforms, the slaughter of the zoo animals) that I doubt I will forget.
The novel’s disastrous third mode, however, features an indistinctly narrated mystical battle between the protagonist and his brother-in-law, an evil politician who is holding the hero’s wife captive and who is also poised to hypnotize Japan into some return to the era of imperialism. This fantasy-novel stuff is both morally simplistic and dramatically unconvincing—the hero apparently has to kill the politician in his dream-life, which will have the effect of slaying him in reality. If this is a metaphor for “killing the fascist in oneself,” as Foucault or somebody once said, Murakami does not make this clear; the end of the novel reads more like a duller version of A Nightmare on Elm Street than like any kind of serious novel about a person’s inner struggle with his or her own authoritarian and violent tendencies, as in, say, Coetzee’s or Ishiguro’s fiction. (Now I know, by the way, where David Mitchell gets his vices.) As I neared the end of the novel, I was hoping for a very different sort of ending, one where the protagonist realizes that he himself is the villain. But the externalization of absolute evil in the figure of the hero’s brother-in-law is the kind of genre-fiction trope that explains why some people still hold genre fiction in low regard.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is very much a novel of its time: the mid-1990s. It has an end-of-history faith in the power of storytelling to commemorate and redeem, to remake the self and the world. The best parts of the novel resist this tendency by insisting on loneliness and isolation and fate and pain, as well as on how these terrible necessities may be resisted through small gestures and careful artifices. The worst parts indulge in the exasperating garrulity and quirkiness that mar so many other global fictions of the period, from Rushdie to Wallace to Gaiman, as if storytelling, even storytelling without purpose or relevance to human reality, were a virtue in itself. This would be so much better if it were a shorter novel, or, even better, two shorter novels: a work of domestic surrealism and a work of wartime tragedy. But fantasies of good vs. evil and their psychic battle over the body of a prostrate woman/nation can surely be left on the adolescent bookshelf.