Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

This entry deals with a book my book group is reading so I won't go into as much detail as usual. Instead, I intend to focus on a single aspect of the book.

I think there is an assumption underlying most fiction, that the story being told must in some way be interesting to the reader. The very fact that a story is being printed calls out that there is something special about it, and we align our expectation to that—something worth telling must happen in the story or the story wouldn't be told. Haruki Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle takes that assumption and breaks it, because I don't think there is a more uninteresting character than Toru Okada, the "protagonist." Okada is ridiculously mundane, between jobs and biding his time so that he can evaluate what he really wants as a career thanks to a successful wife, Kumiko, who can support them both for a while. In his newfound free time, he does a little job hunting and keeps house for his wife, but most of the time he looks out from his veranda at his lovely garden. He wears t-shirts and jeans and sneakers and basically does nothing each day, not even watch TV since he does not own one. The first few chapters make clear the total banality of the character as he gets up in the morning, makes breakfast, washes clothes and dishes, and then ponders his navel until it is time to prepare dinner for his wife. It would be tempting to think that something would be made of his utter normalcy, that perhaps he is special exactly because he is so normal, but that isn't the case. In essence he floats along wherever fate takes him and does enough to keep from falling asleep, and sometimes doesn't even succeed at that.

There are only two things that are exceptional about Okada: his love for his wife and his utter hatred for his brother-in-law. Sadly, he uses more passion describing his hatred than his love because he is so confident in Kumiko's love that he takes it for granted. And so it is he tries to be helpful when Kumiko asks favors of him—when their cat goes missing, she asks him to look around the neighborhood, especially in the odd closed in alley that backs up to his home's property. And as he searches, he is propelled on a journey that dances on the thin line between magical realism and surrealism. Each succeeding interaction from that point forward adds to the layers of weirdness, much like Griffin Dunne's journey through New York in Scorsese's After Hours. For instance, Kay Masahara is a teenaged neighbor who is skipping school in order to, in part, poll men's hair loss for a toupee company. Kumiko introduces Okada to Malta Kano, who supposedly has some sort of psychic power and whom Kumiko has enlisted to find the lost cat, but all she can say is that the cat is not near the house. There is also the odd woman who calls Okada's house, claiming to know him, and offering him phone sex.

And through each relationship, Okada remains completely passive, doing whatever is asked of him no matter how ludicrous and only drawing a line at actions that might be taken as unfaithfulness to his wife. Such passivity leads to more bizarre interactions that begin to pile up on each other, so that Okada comments to himself how strange his life has perhaps become, but he never does anything about it. As the strangeness piles up, the most active thing he does is take a train daily to a high rise and sit in the plaza, watching the people there until it starts to get dark.

It's frustrating for the reader, because we have been trained to try to make connections between the events in a story, to unify them in some way that pushes the plot along. But not only does Okada resist any such impulse, so does the novel, actively forgoing any but the most ephemeral of relationships between events. And as a writing device, it's wildly successful: while I wanted to throw the book aside in frustration as more and more inexplicable things happened, I was determined to make it to the end of the novel to find out why they were happening. The result is an incredibly dense narrative of the life of an average man, from the moment he wakes up until the moment he goes to sleep, and sometimes even into his dreams. And this denseness seems to be the hallmark of literariness; density of narrative more accurately reflects the disparate aspects of any person's life, so that the more faithful a narrative is to that multi-layeredness, the "better" the writing. One of the points of humor in the novel is that Okada does stupid things, things each of us does when we are alone, things for which we have no explanation other than we did it. But even those moments are fleeting and add to the banality of Okada's life and his unrelenting acceptance of it.

The Wind-up bird Chronicle is a peculiar statement about daily life: no matter how odd or bad things get, life goes on. You have to get up the next morning and face it all again. And perhaps, Okada's response to all of it is the best response; getting worked up like a reader will only be frustrating. You just have to turn the page and keep going. Such a thesis is at odds with most story-telling experiences, when the specialness of the story is why we want to read it. Murakami is thought-provoking and at times painful to read, but The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is a fascinating experiment nonetheless.

No comments:

Post a Comment