Who would I be at the bottom of a well wrapped up in darkness so absolute that time and space seem not to exist? Who would I be in the dark? I don’t know, but Haruki Murakami has me asking the question with a seriousness that felt impossible to imagine before reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
It almost feels like a disservice to even try to explain what Chronicle is about. It’s so much like a dream, where everything feels real until you reach the end of a chapter and then you’re not sure if it all really happened.
Ostensibly, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is about Toru Okada’s search for his missing cat, which then becomes a search for his missing wife. Along the way, he simultaneously retreats deeper within himself and forms connections with a cast of bizarre characters who then populate his increasingly bizarre world. From the mysterious psychic Malta Kano to a WWII veteran with dark tales of the war to a morbid 16-year-old girl, Toru drifts from one encounter to the next as he tries to unravel the mystery of where his wife has gone and how to get her back.
This being my first experience with Murakami, I didn’t know what to expect from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The first few pages did their best to let me know that this would be anything but typical, but I think about 100 pages into the novel, I realized that the chapter titles might be even better at getting at the overall theme of the book.
Every chapter had a multipart title such as “Tuesday’s Wind-Up Bird / Six Fingers and Four Breasts” or “Magic Touch / Death in the Bathtub / Messenger with Keepsakes,” which never made much sense. It was only after reading each chapter, then flipping back to the beginning to reread the title that you could understand its meaning.
It reminded me of the way a dream feels both real and mysterious until you wake up and begin to see how all the mundane parts of your day burrowed their way into your brain while you slept. Then it all seems to plain and so simple. It makes sense without needing to make sense.
Ultimately, it’s just one of many ways that Murakami is playing with your sense of reality. He puts you in this dreamlike state of confusion and uncertainty and then populates your world with unreliable narrators and unreliable narratives within unreliable narratives in a way that builds until by the end of the book, you feel completely unsure of what actually happened. But by this point, you also know it doesn’t matter.
What really matters are the questions you ask yourself, what he can force you to think about or reconsider. As Toru recounts at one point,
It was reality. True reality. But each time I recognized that fact, reality felt a little less real. Reality was coming undone and moving away from reality, one small step at a time. But still, it was reality.
I was completely wrapped up in the writing. I hadn’t really felt that way about any book since House of Leaves, and I loved it. It felt like an exploration of what a novel could be—how it could break the rules—and what it really means to be human. It’s weeks later and there are still mysteries in the text left to be unraveled.
I’m not even sure I know what the wind-up bird is, but I’m in love with the question.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle falls squarely in that subset of books that have me hungry to read more. I don’t know what Murakami I’ll pick up next, but I know I can’t wait to see what I ask myself when I’m done.