Broken Mainspring

Like a stopped timepiece, Haruki Murakami’s clockwork fiction tells the right time twice a day.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
By Haruki Murakami
Knopf; 611 pages; $25

If you’re in the market, Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle will teach you how to 1) kill with a bayonet (thrust deep under ribs, drag in slow, deep circle to scramble organs); 2) skin a man alive (slit skin at shoulder, peel slowly down right arm); and 3) eliminate a zoo full of carnivores (four snipers per tiger best). It will steep you in the bizarre lives and roles of 30ish Toru Okada, an out-of-work law clerk, bent-tip-tailed-cat owner, house husband, toupee researcher, well dweller, and prostitute. It will titillate you with red-hatted mind readers and sexy phone calls, oozing pols and hot dreams, ill-omened houses and unwaveringly plastic characters named Nutmeg and Cinnamon. Hanging over the overwrought whole are an overcast sky and an elusive “wind-up” bird–so named for its creeeak, creeeak song, which nauseates and dooms the select few who hear it. Stripped of their powers of volition, they become “no more than dolls set on tabletops, the springs in their backs wound up tight, dolls set to move in ways they could not choose, moving in directions they could not choose, … most of them died, plunging over the edge of the table.”

How dystopian is Murakami’s Japan, how sterile and subwayesque. Not for him the cherry-blossom viewings and golden pavilions of Yukio Mishima, the monarchist who disemboweled himself in 1970. No nostalgic ramblings, only details that overrun the canvas and add up to nothing. A best-selling author in his country, Murakami’s most recent work before Wind-Up was Underground, a mammoth exploration of the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. Away at Princeton when they occurred, he returned to examine Japan’s fascination with the cult and its tubby, half-blind leader. Underground describes a nation bored and isolated by its successes and its failures alike. Wind-Up fictionalizes that world–but barely, and to less effect.

R ootless and lonely, Toru Okada plods across his strenuously postmodern space. Until, that is, his spaghetti-cooking, Rossini-humming contentment is dissolved by the sudden departure of first his cat and then his wife of six years. Noburu Wataya (the cat) returns about halfway through the novel; of Kumiko, the wife, one is less sure. She works at a health magazine, whose strange hours screen her infidelities from an improbably credulous spouse. Leaving as if for work one morning, she does not return. She picks up her dry cleaning the following day, however, and eventually writes him a letter, in which she recounts earth-shattering orgasms with other men: “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but the fact is that I was never able to have true sexual pleasure with you.”

Toru’s life disintegrates following Kumiko’s departure. Obsessed with finding her, he takes off on a cinematic odyssey that collapses time and space. Murakami lays several plot lines and, both consummate miniaturist and committed pessimist, appears to develop each carefully while keeping the mix unstable. And so the pressure builds. Toru reaches out to a pair of allegedly clairvoyant sisters (as it turns out, to little result beyond a few crepuscular couplings that may or may not be real). He meets a veteran whose wartime experiences allow Murakami to play anti-imperialist. Toru’s conversations with the lieutenant yield an enduring image: a dry well, whose dark silences facilitate thought and force people to confront their demons. Toru’s suburban alley offers convenient access to such a well, and into its clichéd dankness he descends (“my body began to lose its density and weight, … my mind was dragging my body into its own territory”). It is the perfect birth canal, a magical anti-environment that both suspends and exaggerates all sensation. For Murakami’s reader, it conjures up the excitement and terror, the white hots and the blue colds, of childhood treks through a storm sewer system. For Toru, who is drawn back to it repeatedly, it is simultaneously prison and release. It makes him face his deepest fears (which puddle up in a stigmatic stain on his right cheek), then allows him osmotic and healing passage to other worlds and narratives. Mysteriously transported from the well to a mysterious Room 208 in a Tokyo hotel, he taps into a labyrinth of stories that eventually reconnects him with humanity.

Murakami’s fiction before Wind-Up was less ambitious in scale and makes a compelling case for his return to a smaller canvas. He is a good reporter, well read, well traveled, and keen-eyed. All this makes for good documentary and great short stories: His book about the cult sticks with the conventions of storytelling and delivers emotion, analysis, and narrative; the many-splendored tales that interpolate Toru’s story find Murakami at his most engaging. Each plot is painstakingly tooled, generates momentum, and invites you to share.

But look at the whole, and Wind-Up confirms the Norman Mailer principle: The birth of a great journalist is often paralleled by the death of a novelist. Murakami lets the narrative lines, so carefully laid, snap; you’re suspended midair, your tender attentions scattered to the winds. You gulp, tell yourself you can transcend the Aristotelian unities, and would move on if Murakami allowed you to. But he does not. In what is either a belated acknowledgment of your investment–and his own–or, less likely, a more directly subversive move, he starts reeling in the lines about 100 pages from the end. The obvious is manfully recapped, the bows tied in tweet, tidy trills. “Cinnamon’s grandfather, the nameless veterinarian, and I had a number of unusual things in common–a mark on the face, a baseball bat, the cry of the wind-up bird. And then there was the lieutenant who appeared in Cinnamon’s story: he reminded me of Lieutenant Mamiya [the war veteran].” And shortly thereafter, “Everything was intertwined, with the complexity of a three-dimensional puzzle–a puzzle in which truth was not necessarily fact and fact not necessarily truth.”

Back in Room 208 a few pages before the novel’s conclusion, Toru encounters a woman on the bed. Ping, goes the call button in his head: “I think you are Kumiko. Because then all kinds of story lines work out.” I’m tempted to give Murakami the benefit of the doubt–to say, even, that his pat machinations force his readers into his crowd of wound-up dolls (of whom most died, remember, “plunging over the edge of the table”). But I’ll settle for this: Murakami’s story ran away with him. Too little too late, his impulse to tidy resolution testifies more to his discomfort with an expanded canvas than to his plug-and-socket skills.