The Wind-up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

TWUBCOn the face of it, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle seems a fairly innocent and quirky coming-of-age story; an earnest yarn about a passive, unemployed waster who only realises the true value of life and love (etc.) when his wife leaves him, an old friend dies, and his, er, cat disappears (what is it with Murakami and disappearing cats?).  But even the most superficial reading will soon reveal a cliché-riddled and structurally confusing mess of a book populated by inconsistent and ungraspable characters whose various motivations, behaviours and decisions are just completely baffling.  Worst of all, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is underpinned by the most appalling misogyny, reinforced by a fetishistic presentation of violence and a dismissive treatment of rape.  It’s a male power fantasy that lamely attempts to justify itself by gradually exposing all of its female characters as adulteresses, pathological liars and manipulators, as if in some way this validates the male-gazey, objectifying and frankly gross way the book presents women.

It begins well enough; protagonist Toru Okada – a polite, shy, loving but unambitious sort – is introduced living in suburban Tokyo with his wife Kumiko and cat Noburo Wataya.  Soon both wife and cat mysteriously vanish from Toru’s life, and what follows is an increasingly confusing sequence of events interspersed with cod-philosophical musings on, for example, the transitory nature of love, Japanese consumerism, and the modernist quest to find meaning in an increasingly homogenised world.  Punctuating the mundane, kitchen sink-ness of the runaway wife plot are some slightly more “weird” (a favourite adjective of Murakami’s) events: mysterious phone calls, visits from people with access to information they shouldn’t reasonably be expected to have access to, occasional prophesies from old, wisened herbalists etc..  It’s the sort of trendy, surreal-lite kind of stuff that literary hipsters dine out on.

The prose, meanwhile, is characteristically understated and blunt; there’s little in the way of lyricism, but the matter-of-factness of tone is perfectly charming, and the frequent off-tangent ramblings and numerous adjacent references to classical music and food preparation give the writing an identity truly its own.  The clipped, simple sentences and the author’s reluctance to indulge in polysyllabic words lend great pace to the narrative, and I found myself turning pages at a pretty good whack.

It’s not long, however, before this quirky and amiable tone is subsumed by a more sinister penchant for titillation, exploitative quasi-pornographic writing and a truly unbelievable description of one woman’s sexual “awakening” (more on this later).  Toru’s investigations into the whereabouts of his missing cat lead him to recruit the services of Malta and Creta Kano: sisters who offer a sort of life-coaching-cum-spiritualism advice service.  During Toru’s first meeting with Malta, she describes the rape of her younger sister at the hands of Toru’s brother-in-law.  This long passage of direct speech is constantly interrupted by copious descriptions of Malta’s breasts, the shape of her buttocks as discernible through her dress, the movements of her tongue as she speaks etc. and etc.  Malta is recounting an act of monstrous sexual assault, meanwhile the author’s gaze (and by proxy the reader’s) is focusing on her body.  It seems that while Murakami is attempting to elicit an emotionally sympathetic response in his readers, he is at the same time trying to… turn them on.  The juxtaposition of a distressing rape confessional with constant descriptive asides about the speaker’s body is unsettling in the extreme, denigratory towards women and patronising to the reader; as if the only way Murakami can hold our attention during what should be one of the book’s more difficult, more emotionally demanding scenes is to make cheap appeals to our sex drives.  I say ‘our’; of course the writing is actually targeting a very specific readerly demographic: probably young, definitely straight, men.  Murakami lets it be known in no uncertain terms who he wants reading his book. The overall impression of the scene is this: “yeah, her sister was raped: but phwoar!”

There’s no saving grace; this contrasting placement of rape confession and perving is not trying to make some larger, over-arching thematic or structural point: there’s zero nuance at play here, and suggestions that this scene is meant, in some way, to tell us something about Toru as a character are, I feel, generous in the extreme, as Toru’s behaviour is completely at-odds with his pre-established personal concern for sympathy, kindness and respect.

And unfortunately this is not an isolated example; there isn’t a single female character who isn’t first introduced (and then meticulously described) in terms of her physical characteristics.  Of course this isn’t by any means unusual – writers have to paint their pictures – but the descriptive focus of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is distinctly sexual and, I might add, this is a narrative idiosyncrasy that does not apply to any of the book’s male characters.

To return to the aforementioned “sexual awakening”, then.  At about mid-way through the book, the rape of Creta Kano is described for a second time, only now it has been re-evaluated not as rape “per se” (Todd Akin, anyone?), but as a kind of re-birth for the victim.  I shit you not.  Creta takes great pains to describe herself as a previously numb and empty shell, devoid of all passion and emotion; literally incapable of feeling.  All of this changes when she is raped [[and as a note, the word ‘rape’ mysteriously vanishes from the text at this point – whatever it is that happened, both narrator and characters stop calling it ‘rape’; it’s now just sex, or whatever]].  Creta Kano, upon being raped, undergoes a miraculous transfiguration and is now capable of love, compassion, anger, happiness – why, the whole gamut of regular human emotions! Now that she’s been “made to feel such intense sexual pleasure” she undergoes a “gigantic physical change” and an “escape from [her] profound numbness”.  What was initially described as a rape becomes, without any pretext, explanation or logic, some kind of sexual rite of passage requisite for any woman to truly become able to experience proper emotion.  This is reiterated later, too, when Toru’s wife Kumiko writes a cold and uncaring letter to him in which she confesses to months of promiscuous adultery (over which she has “no sense of guilt”, of course) with men she doesn’t even like, but which sex enables her to finally enter the world of stable, adult emotional life.  The Wind-up Bird Chronicle offers a “literary” (word used in the loosest possible way) equivalent of the macho cliché “what she really needs is a good seeing to”.

The conception of women as numb homunculi or empty shells incapable of feeling until true emotion is fucked into them at the behest of men’s generous cocks is just… well… the word offensive doesn’t quite seem to cut it.  The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is founded upon a deep structured misogyny, and any reading that doesn’t interpret the book in this way would be very forgiving indeed.

Of course, no journey into the finer points of what it means to be human would be complete without our hero having lots of no-strings sex with beautiful women – but there’s a problem here, too: our hero Toru is married, and Murakami has already established that adultery is wrong. The solution? Dream sex! You’ve never heard of it? Throughout the novel Toru has multiple sexual encounters with women in his dreams – but these are no mere wet dream fantasies: the women in question experience everything, but in some mutual otherland or dreamscape rather than the real world.  Imagine that shared dreaming stuff from Inception, only with lots more sex, and you’ll get the idea.

Essentially, dreamsex is a mechanism employed by Murakami to exonerate his hero from any accusations that he is committing adultery (which would reduce him to the same moral level as the other adulterers in the novel –all, by the way, female) while at the same time enabling him to screw all of the women he desires.  The point of all this dreamsex is narratively incomprehensible, seeming to serve no purpose in the wider plotting of the novel, nor in its emotional intricacies, as Toru, remember, is supposedly a man broken by the abandonment of his wife.  We must conclude, then, that the dreamsex serves no other function than to titillate the reader by breaking up the monotony of what would otherwise be a primarily thoughtful and philosophical rumination on the agony of love.  A kind of bribe to maintain our interest, treating the reader with the same disdain for our attention spans that T.V. and film producers have for their audiences’: keep the action and the sex frequent, lest we give the impression that this is a work of cohesion and depth.

The preposterous height of these non-sequitur titillations, if you will, occurs at around the three-hundred-and-fifty page mark, when Toru picks up a garden hose and is propositioned by a bikini clad sixteen-year-old school girl:

“Would you spray me with that? It’s sooo [sic] hot! My brain’s going to fry if I don’t wet myself down.”

It was warm and limp. I reached behind the bushes and turned on the tap. At first only hot water that had been warmed inside the hose came out, but it cooled down until it was spraying cold water. […] I aimed a good, strong spray at her. I looked at [her] body, hardly covered by her bikini.  She was sixteen years old, but she had the build of a girl of thirteen or fourteen.

I hope by now that I’ve established that I’m not just being prudish: quite why this gratuitous scene (it goes on for several pages) is even in the novel is completely beyond me.

Anyway, you get the idea: it would do my review a disservice were I to list, verbatim, all such sequences in the novel. But over and over again in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, women are routinely objectified, vilified and pacified by the actions of character, narrator, writer and, in a kind of gross by-proxy complicity, reader.

Elsewhere the story unfolds in myriad confusing and messy ways until the final 200 pages: an entirely baffling and bizarre sequence of events that defies any logical explication and structure.  Can Toru melt through the walls of a well? Sure! Does the black mark that appeared on his face for no reason 400 pages ago similarly vanish without ceremony? You bet!  Does Toru follow a Tokyo stranger all the way home and beat the living shit out of him with a baseball bat in a superfluously violent scene that undermines everything Murakami has heretofore done to establish his character? YES!  I’ve read various internet reviews/commentaries/forums in which critics have attempted to paste some philosophical or moral reasoning over the book’s nonsensical events, but very little actually seems to stick.  I’ve enjoyed novels by Murakami before (Kafka on the Shore and After Dark I thought were pretty good), and taken pleasure in the obvious fact that he doesn’t plan before writing (he’s admitted it, too), but The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is just surreal for surreal’s sake; a trendy misappropriation of post-structuralist genre proclivities that captures much of the style of the continental philosophical novels that Murakami is clearly aping, but none of the depth.

So, no redeeming qualities then? Well, Toru’s neighbour May Kasahara is a wonderful character: playful, puzzling-but-not-in-a-maddening-way, idiosyncratic in speech and morally aware of her own past mistakes and limitations. It’s unfortunate that about mid-way through the novel, then, Toru and May are separated and reduced to corresponding via letter; at which point May loses much of her personality and quirkiness, as if once May is out of Toru’s arm’s reach, Murakami couldn’t be bothered with her anymore – it was the proximity of their relationship and the obvious contrasts therein that made the characters work together. Adding distance subtracts tension.

But that’s about it.  The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is a sinister, misogynistic book characterised by an overabundance of pointless sex and violence, coupled with an alarming treatment of female sexuality, emotion and morality.  The placing of long, rambling descriptions of the Japanese military efforts in Manchuko adjacent meaningless sequences of dreamsex is puerile, belittling and offensive.  Ostensibly the book is about the journey from numbness to feeling – but I just don’t see it; for me and my own journey reading this book, it was the other way around.


Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami

Uncomfortable writing this review.  Any book with such a plurality of possible critical interpretations is bound to be difficult to précis; and similarly I’m almost certain to fail the interpretive expectations of any number of fans, purely because Murakami enjoys such a breadth of readership that any attempt to pigeon-hole this book is likely to satisfy readers of one particular ilk, and disenfranchise many others.  And I wouldn’t want to do that.

Actually – scratch that – I am going to plant my flag; if anything, Kafka on the Shore, rather than defying meaning, challenges the reader to find it; so let’s go, let’s chuck some ‘interpretations’ at it, and see which ones stick…

If you’ve not read it, Kafka on the Shore goes something like this: it’s a bildungsroman (of sorts) – 15-year-old  Kafka Tamura runs away from home, simultaneously running away from his father’s sinister Oedipal prophecy that Kafka will sleep with his mother (and, in an odd addendum, sister) and destroy his Dad.  A concurrently running narrative involves 70-year-old illiterate “cat tracker” Nakata and his ill-defined quest across Japan; having murdered a mysterious stranger and abandoned his life-long home – his journey of self-discovery provides a charming parallel to Kafka’s, despite the disparity of age.

So far so de rigueur, but what begins as relatively standard litfic fare soon acquires various tropes and motifs of genres diverse: a Midwich Cuckoos-esque intervention of an ‘other’ force lends a striking sci-fi bent to the plot, while devices of metaphysics and magical-realism invade the narrative of both protagonists to radically alter the course of the story.  Finally, the intervention of a ghost (or, rather, an earlier version of an older character) brings touches of Derridan hauntology (on a personal level) to the text, as spectres of happier, perfect versions of the past continually haunt the hierarchies of the present.  So if this book does tickle your fancy, prepare for ghosts, spirits, (possible) aliens, rains of leeches, never-aging WWII veterans and many more peculiarities.

The crux of the fan-divide is this: are the (how shall we put it..?) oddities/weridnesses/non-realistic aspects of Kafka on the Shore merely manifestations of the characters’ internal psychoses, or are they objective, physical facts of the universe of the novel?  It’d be easy, for example, to categorize the ‘boy named crow’ character as an internal fancy of Kafka – an ‘imaginary friend’ concocted by the protagonist to accompany him on his journeys (both physically through Japan and symbolically into maturity) and to provide a narrative reason/(excuse) to engage Kafka in psychoanalytic dialogue.  But (methinks) such a boring interpretation is dismissive of the weird/fantastical aspects of the narrative.  So much of the book questions the nature of the subjective (what is love, what is family, what is sex, what is home etc.) that it is surely fruitful to extend this enquiry into the objective by introducing non-naturalistic/weird phenomena (strange crow-boys, raining fish, talking cats, invisible gateways, magic flutes…) and using them to probe the nature of the universe, as well as the nature of ourselves.

So, here’s my two pence (cents, for my transatlantic friends): all the weird/metaphysical stuff functioning in Kafka on the Shore is real!  I want it to be real, and I want to believe that this is a story of the fantastic, and not just an over-extended sympathetic fallacy.  Of course, any book featuring a coma is open to that most boring post-modern question: “what if the entire book is the coma?” – well, I choose to suspend my disbelief entirely and I have faith that the oddities are realities, not delusions.  100 pages in, it became clear that there is no single, obvious way to interpret this book’s persistently weird events; so I abandoned an attempt at a psychoanalytic reading and embraced the oddness as physical fact rather than a narrative manifestation of the characters’ inner turmoils.

But that’s not to say that Kafka on the Shore’s metaphysical/sci-fi/weird elements are meaningless trivialities crow-barred into the narrative to earn literary cool-points.  There’s a complex system of signs operating in Kafka on the Shore, and if the magic is real, then what it stands for is real too.

Kafka’s quest to discover sex is quest for completeness, of sorts.  In an inversion of Western/Judeo-Christian notions of sexuality, Kafka believes that he banishes impurity in the act of sex, and the fact that these acts are shared with a spirit (stick with me…) creates a bridge between the modern and traditional as the spirit/ghost/(whatever) acts as a guide to Kafka and helps him to overcome the Shinto notion of impurity.  In effect, Murakami has fashioned a modern, physical world that echoes and reflects themes and motifs of older legend/myth cycles. Here ancient spirits haven’t gone away, or been defeated by science – they function in 21st Century urban Japan in real and influential ways.

Kafka on the Shore, then, is most beautiful when Murakami converges his traditionalist influences with the modern setting.  An ancient spirit that guides Nakata to an ‘entrance stone’ can only be explained as a genuine visitation from a Japanese deity.  Likewise, a disgusting tentacular creature that emerges from the mouth of a dead body is at once a very modern manifestation of a horror film grotesque, and a very traditional materialization of the wingless dragons of Japanese folklore.  The Weird (yup, now with a capital ‘W’) is no less serious in Kafka on the Shore than it was in the most fantastic of Japanese myths.  So, you know; I recommend that you embrace the weirdness, and don’t try to explain it away.

Kafka on the Shore is a love-letter to traditional Japanese literature.  And while I’m hardly steeped in the oeuvre, I was able to recognise where this book pays homage to its sources, and where it deviates.  Kafka on the Shore operates in the margins between the traditional and the modern: where urban realities and mythical fantasies collide and function together, rather than in opposition.

How does it read?: very well, for the most part.  Occasionally Murakami gets a little self-indulgent and pretty much copy-pastes long passages of Nietzsche or Goethe into the book.  Plus the frequent and (often random) sex scenes go too far in their gratuity; unfortunately they end-up dominating the narrative in abrupt and distracting ways.  Whether Murakami did this as an act of titillation (a failed one) or to heighten a connection with the concerns of our teenage first-person narrator is unclear – either way, I found the constant sex obstructed the flow of the story by effectively grinding things to a halt every 50 pages.

Don’t be scared of Kafka on the Shore.  The trick is to wrestle it into submission and pound meanings out of it.  And you really should do this: too much dithering or on-the-fence thinking and this entire book will elude you.  The above is how I’ve chosen to read it – but your reading history/tastes may well make you more inclined to dismiss the fantasy elements, or at least to psychologise them, in order to produce a more naturalistic interpretation.  The fundamental question “what is it?” is still up for debate: urban fantasy, psychological enquiry, Weird fiction (there’s that upper-case W again!) or simple horror/ghost/sci-fi story.  It’s up to you.  For once, I don’t find genre pigeon-holing useful, and if anything, this book is a very good example of the 21st Century phenomenon of the literary genre smorgasbord.  So I recommend you forget labels and enjoy this weird, magical, beautiful book for just what it is.