I wish that I had known before I read this book that Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is really creepy. I wish someone had told me: "Hey, this is an entire book written in dream-logic, and it works, but it's really creepy." So there's that.
some things about this book: it is slow. Very slow. Long stretches of time pass where the narrator (Toru Okada) simply sits on his couch, or goes for walks, or sits on a park bench, or sits at cafes. There is a lot of sitting. The most significant sitting happens when--spoiler!--Okada decides to sit, for three days, at the bottom of a well. I mean, there's action, too--the random scene where the main character assaults a random passerby for reminding him of the wife who left him--but overall there's just a lot of nothing happening.
And what you get from it more than anything is atmosphere. You meet other characters and hear their stories, and for the most part the stories of Creta Kano, Lietunant Mamiya, Malta Kano and even May Kasahara are far more interesting than our main character. If I had such a boring main character I'd go insane and throw up and follow someone else and Murakami sticks with him, persistently, stubbornly, clinging to his every move. And sometimes (usually) his monologues go something like
She seemed to have some kind of a clear image in her mind of how I should look. It took her no time to pick out what she bought me. I would have spent more time at a stationer's, picking out a new eraser. But I had to admit that her good taste in clothes was nothing short of astounding. The color and style of every shirt and tie she chose seemingly at random were perfectly coordinated, as if she had selected them after long, careful consideration. nor were the combinations she came up the least bit ordinary. (p380)
which sounds straight like, ugh, bad fanfiction. I do not care how long it takes you to pick out an eraser at the stationer's, why would you tell me this, do I need to know it? Magical woman magically buys you expensive clothes while you sit around doing nothing? Cool. Right. I believe it. NO. I say fanfic because this...this passive main character, who while doing nothing begins to have magical things happen to them, is very fanfic. It's very wishful thinking, and it clashes entirely with my experience of reality and it grates on me, rubs me the wrong way.
In fact, the entire book is best when the main character is not present. Then the simple writing turns from banal to beautiful, as in
This submarine has come up from the bottom of the ocean to kill us all, she thought, but there's nothing strange about that, it could happen anytime. It has nothing to do with the war; it could happen to anyone anywhere. Everybody thinks it's happening because of the war. But that's not true. The war is just one of the things that could happen. (p 398)
which is magical. When the narrator gets out of the way, the book becomes a dark wooden box full of small, delicate, ornate objects. Too bad the narrator is an ugly newspaper stuffed over these objects for most of the book. All the other characters actually tell the interesting parts of their story, while our narrator either can't seem to figure his out or won't tell us what's going on. Is he running a psychic detective agency/prostitution service/spiritual healer? Is he a dream-walker? I mean, we assume that much.
The end of the book--as a warning--is really creepy (especially when you're finishing it at midnight alone in bed). I wish all the people who told me this book was charming (how? what?) would have told me that. The dream sequences, because the book is written in dream-logic, make the most sense and have the most internal consistency, and provide the most poignant atmosphere:
"This place is dangerous. You are an intruder here, and I am the only one on your side. Don't forget that."
"Who are you?" I asked.
The faceless man handed me the flashlight as if passing a baton. "I am the hollow man," he said. Faceless face toward me, he waited in the darkness for me to speak, but I could not find the right words. Eventually, without a sound, he disappeared. He was right in front of me one second, swallowed up by darkness the next. I shone the light in his direction, but only the dull white wall came out of the darkness. (p 575)
It also reads a bit like a detective story--in the way that all these mysteries are presented, you--and the narrator--both feel like soon, there will be a fact handed to you, and that fact will act as a key, and you will be able to Figure This Out. There's even a little explanatory scene at the end, insofar as we get any explanations, but they're all rather vague. I've included excerpts, but if you're afraid of spoilers, don't be, because there is no big reveal to spoil:
I sensed the darkness around me increasing in density, much as the evening tide comes to fullness without a sound. I had to hurry. I didn't have much time left. They might come looking for me here once the lights came back on. I decided to risk putting into words the thoughts that had been slowly forming in my mind.
"This is strictly a product of my own imagination, but I would guess that there was some kind of inherited tendency in the Wataya family bloodline. What kind of tendency I can't be sure, but it was some kind of tendency--something you were afraid of...And your sister, I'm sure, didn't die from food poisoning. No, it was more unusual than that." (p 578)
I'd like to say the rest of the explanation gets more specific, or that this is the explanation for a big plot point of how Toru Okada's sister-in-law died--but it isn't. Those things don't really matter to the plot, as best as I can tell. (It's hard to interpret a book written in dream logic.)
And don't get me wrong: I like dream logic. The sequences when he is dreaming, dreaming of a hotel with endless rooms, labyrinthine hallways--I love those dreams, I have those dreams, and Murakami writes them well. They're creepy and suitably vague, and only in dream logic would sentences like "there is some kind of inherited tendency in the bloodline" be a solid conclusion to draw that explains your problem. The way that time moves slowly in a dream, the way events that happen in separate places, to separate people, or even maybe in separate timelines seem to be connected--all this is beautifully put into place in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and written well. There's just too much stuff in the middle: too much picking up clothes from the cleaners, too much brooding on the couch, too much reading junk mail and opening the fridge. This is how time passes in real life. We really do spend a lot of time waiting in traffic and opening mail and licking envelopes and doing unthinking, meaningless work. But that's not what I want to do when I read a novel, and sitting through the domesticity to get to the eccentricity feels a lot like a bore.