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Hard-boiled po-mo Wonderland

September 23, 2004

It’s about a man at the bottom of a well. Or two men, in different wells, fifty years apart. Or maybe it’s about the nature of consciousness, the strange links between things, and the tremendous significance of everyday objects. Or something else entirely.

In The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Japanese author Haruki Murakami has written that rare thing, a post-modern novel that is well-plotted and gripping as hell. It is perhaps the best example of his style, the metaphysical detective story: Philip K Dick meets Raymond Chandler in Tokyo. Philip K Dick, the American science fiction writer who gave us Bladerunner, wrote a book, The Man in the High Castle, which he plotted using the I Ching. The result was a compelling, yet inscrutably surreal storyline. Murakami’s stories have the same feel of intuitive plotting, but on a much grander scale.

Born in Japan in 1949, Murakami is a Japanese literary phenomenon and has a cult audience in the West — his novel Norwegian Wood sold more than four million copies — but continues to confound critics with his discursiveness, apparent lack of narrative discipline, and freebooting approach to the hallowed standards of Japanese literature.

In The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, our main character is vague, directionless Toru Okada, voluntarily unemployed in the land of the salary man. He is a low-key figure who expects to be forgotten: “People have lost track of me before,” he tells us plaintively. In a fast-paced, highly technological society, Okada is a misfit. One day, the cat goes missing. His wife, who is growing more distant by the day, urges him to make himself useful by searching for it, and so he adds walking through the disused alley behind his house to his daily routine of doing the ironing and cooking pasta. One day, his wife disappears too.

Confounded by his misfortune, Okada discovers a disused well in the garden of an empty house, and gets into the habit of climbing into it to meditate and hide from the world. Eventually, trapped in the well for three days, the boundaries of reality start to dissolve and Okada is able to enter an alternate world and find some answers.

Psychic prostitutes, an insightful 16-year old, a bizarre mother and son team of healers, and a curious blue mark that appears on Okada’s face are all thrown into the mix, as is the villain, shady politician Noboru Wataya, who shares a name with the missing cat. A strange visitor, old soldier Lieutenant Mamiya, has a story to tell about Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in the 1930s. As a prisoner of Mongolian forces he was left to die at the bottom of a well. Getting to the bottom of that story is crucial to understanding the mystery of the missing wife. Or is it?

Each thread is compelling, and seems important to the whole. But it is hard to see how it all links together. Alternate realities? The Manchurian Campaign? The blue tattoo and the event in the zoo? What’s the connection between them all? Thirty pages from the end of this epic, 600-page metaphysical masterpiece, the reader is left with dangling threads, leads and false ends, red herrings and distractions. And a man sitting at the bottom of a well. “There’s no way Murakami can pull this off,” you think to yourself. “No one can tie up all these loose ends”.

Okada — still at the bottom of his well — obviously has the same thought: “I have to solve some riddles, and there’s not much time left… The events that I have been through are tremendously complicated… If I try to think about them in order, I lose track. Viewed from a distance, though, the thread running through them is perfectly clear.” He proceeds to construct a narrative out of all the disconnected loose ends, until he has a story he’s happy with. But his is clearly not the only interpretation.

So what really happens in the book? Maybe Okada went a little nuts when his wife left him, climbed into a well and had 600 pages worth of weird dreams. Then he climbed out. Yet the minutiae of Okada’s life, the debris inside his head as he wades through the shocks that have been dealt him, all lend an endearing pathos to the story.

Or maybe everything has a strange significance, and Okada is fighting a psychic battle for all of us. His victory over the forces which oppose him is our victory, each slip or failure is a setback for all of us, a collective surrender in the whole field of consciousness. So he sits in his well, battling demons and trying to find his wife, his cat and some truth, and we are passionately rooting for him, because we sense he is part of a massive struggle being fought in the realm of consciousness, and that the outcome matters very much.

In the end, though, one of the points Murakami makes is that the truth isn’t as important as having a workable theory. As the main character in an earlier novel, Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World remarks, “convenient approximations bring you closer to comprehending the true nature of things.” This novel is about an info war between Calcutecs working for the System, and Semiotecs working for the Data Mafia. Calcutecs use the differences in the activity of their brain hemispheres to process and encrypt data, while Semiotecs attempt to crack the data. But what do paperclips, unicorn skulls, and the sessions reading old dreams in the library have to do with all this? Murakami beguiles his readers deeper into the complex morass of his characters’ psyches.

These themes occur in Murakami’s shorter novels too. Sputnik Sweetheart is about a woman who disappears into an alternate universe. The sputnik in the title hints at the essential loneliness of the human condition, how we are all tin cans drifting isolated through the remoteness of space, and how important, yet ephemeral, our links to each other are.

Incidentally, the cat comes back — but there’s something different about it…..

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