Recently I’ve been making a conscious effort to read more. A few years ago, you would find me reading about 60-75 books a year, a number which seems absolutely baffling in retrospect. That would mean I would have consumed probably millions of pages each year, though it would have admittedly been made up of a lot of YA fodder and the occasionally more thought provoking Newbery award winners.
Still, I kind of miss those days. Being a writer, one of the most important thing I should be doing is reading, reading, and, well, reading. Consuming the works of other writers isn’t just a good way to absorb techniques, but it also helps you better understand what you like and don’t like to write about in your own fiction. Do you hate unsympathetic characters? Do you find certain stylistic quirks to be generic and/or annoying as hell? Then it’s safe to say you shouldn’t try to write using those tools.
So with these efforts, I decided to finish up a book I started all the way back in July, aka Haruki Murakami’s seminal late 90’s classic The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I got into Murakami about two years ago with his most recent novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki & His Many Years of Pilgrimage, which I learned about through the lovely folks on anitwitter. And while my roots with him are centered in my weebiness, my appreciation of his work is decidedly much more literary.
When reading Tsukuru Tazaki, I was struck by how well Murakami managed to convey intense emotions with such simple language. Despite how heavily ingrained his books are in the main character’s subconscious and surrealist urban settings, his books are incredibly easy to read, without coming off as dumbed down or unauthentic. Of course it also helps that he dabbles in a lot of themes I like. Alienation, human connection/empathy, and self acceptance; basically the kind of dark, but ultimately optimistic stuff I eat up all the time.
After Tsukuru Tazaki, I briefly dabbled in after the quake, his famous collection of short stories focused on the 1995 Kobe Earthquake (Though not in entirely obvious ways). I found it less impressive overall, but it still kept me firmly hooked into checking out his other books. And so in July 2015, I started The Wind Up Bird Chronicle!… And I didn’t finish it until this month. Yeah, with school summer reading and my general laziness, it ended up getting put on the back burning for a while.
In spite of that long wait though, I can safely say that this is probably my favorite Murakami work I’ve read to date. Of course it’s also probably one of this most complex, so even as I write this, I’m still struggling to fit together all of the book’s many strange and disparate elements. Unlike Tsukuru Tazaki, which had some pretty mid-level subway and color symbolism, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle’s story is decidedly less straightforward.
There’s not much off a central force driving the narrative forward, with the book being composed from a series of strange vignettes set over a small overarching plot line. Protagonist Toru Okada may just be looking for his cat and wife, but you also get to hear the stories of an old war veteran, a strange non-psychical prostitute, and a young boy who hears a wind up bird in the middle of the night.
In most stories this kind of structure wouldn’t work. After all, unless you’re a short story or a slice of life anime, having a threadbare plot is a terrible idea that will only weaken the core strengths of your work. Luckily though each side story is imbued with a sense of importance just by simple connections to the main story’s themes and plot points. As this seemingly disconnected web of stories slowly comes together by the end of the book, you get this incredible light bulb moment where everything just clicks. Oh so that’s why we had to chapters about a boy losing his voice! That’s why we heard Kumiko tell that weird story about her brother near the beginning of the novel!
In fact, my only real complaint about these reveals is that they’re a little too condensed into the final chapters of the book. As I neared the 560 page mark, I began to worry that the novel was heading towards a rushed and unsatisfying conclusion. I mean I was only 40 pages away from the end and the build up was still going on in the foreground. Luckily though the final act is incredibly rewarding, bringing everything together in a way that’s efficient but not too fast or overbearing. There are some parts that I wish had been better explored (I thought the wrap up on Lieutenant Mamiya and Creta Kano’s plotlines were a little rushed), but ultimately I came out of the experience with a lot of intense emotions. Also that final chapter just kills me.
I find it kind of hard to recommend this book though. I mean it’s lethargically paced, obtuse and weird in its scenarios, filled with unanswered questions (At least in my mind), and I’ll admit that there were several times where I felt like just giving up. The book is so rich and dense and surreal that wading through it all kind of felt like a chore, especially after reading it so inconsistently for over half a year.
But to me that doesn’t matter.
What this book accomplished is something I can only dream of. Not only does it tell an emotionally gripping story, but it spins off into so many different genres and territories without ever straying from its compelling central themes. It may be a bit of mess, modern and strained by its own intensity, but I love it for everything it tries to say in its 600 pages of prose. It’s the kind of novel I want and dream of writing, and I hope you will see the same beauty in it that I have seen in it for over the past couple of months.