The Short Version: Toru Okada’s cat has disappeared. He’s out of work so he goes to look for it, unsuccessfully. But when his wife disappears as well, he’s drawn into a strange low-key conspiracy involving a well, a ‘psychic prostitute’, a mysterious bruise, family, cats, and World War II…
The Review: I saved this Murakami for last this year, because it’s the one book that everybody who has read Murakami says “oh, it’s our favorite.”
And I wonder if there’s something of the ‘truffle problem’ happening here – and, for the first time, I really wonder if The Ten Year Catch-Up (reading 5-6 major works in a year) is, by its very nature, a flawed experiment. Because even spreading an author’s work out over an entire year, you’re still getting a lot of that author in a relatively compressed timeframe – and when would you otherwise read six books by the same author in a calendar year? (ed. note: I did this, I know, as a kid – Palahniuk being the first example that comes to mind but there are plenty of others and certainly a bunch of series where this happened)
And with an author like Murakami, at least, that can feel a little exhausting. It’s strange, actually, how an author who is so notably a calm writer can exhaust the reader so thoroughly. And that’s how I felt at the end of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: just tired. Happy to be done. And I felt like the quirks that I’ve really enjoyed in other Murakami novels left me cold here. Let me begin from the beginning.
I read the short story that predated this story (“The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women”) in The Elephant Vanishes late this summer and I wasn’t crazy about it – it felt like it was ticking off the things that we joke about as being Very Murakami: a cat, cooking, jazz, strangely sexual women, dreams, ears. And so when this novel started, I was already wont to start skimming (I didn’t, don’t worry) because instead of revisiting a story I liked now shaped into something longer, I felt like I was hearing something over again that I didn’t love the first time.
But then the novel doesn’t really go anywhere for quite some time. There are mysterious occurrences, sure – the cat’s disappearance, Kumiko’s disappearance, the odd sexual phone calls, the well, Malta Kano’s odd behavior – but it all felt like it was lacking a center of gravity. These things were happening and Toru seemed mostly apathetic to all of it, a sense which then infects the reader. If our main character doesn’t care, experiences these things without much in the way of emotion at all, how then are we supposed to care?
This is not to say that the mystery doesn’t grab you from time to time. As we began to circle Noboru Wataya (the guy, not the cat) and sense that there’s something decidedly wrong with this guy, I found my interest hooked and I wanted the story to charge down that path. Instead, we get tangents and digressions and strangely fluid moments that don’t seem to flow anywhere. There is, for one thing, a whole lot about Japan’s World War II in this novel: two old men, one of whom doesn’t appear in the present tense of the novel, who became friends with Toru describe their time during the war – there’s even a nearly novella-length story spaced out in the middle of the book about Lt. Mamiya’s war (part of that was published in The New Yorker as “The Zoo Attack”). But while it has superficial connections to the main plot (specifically that both involve spending some time at the bottom of a well), it didn’t feel at all important. In fact, it felt like it was meant to be another novel or a novella or something – meant to exist on its own but hadn’t ever come fully to fruition and so it was melded into this novel.
Whether or not that’s true, I guess the point is that I didn’t enjoy the tangents and found myself clamoring for more story. Even 1Q84, Murakami’s doorstop of a few years ago, had more story propelling it forward even when it was in resting mode (which was relatively often). This, I just couldn’t really figure out where anything was going or why it was going there – and even after the (admittedly very exciting) last 40 pages, I closed the book questioning just what it was that had happened and if any of it really mattered. Toru doesn’t seem to have changed, the questions surrounding Noboru Wataya wrapped up in an almost perfunctory way (as though to say “hey, oh yeah, here’s some plot to wrap things up real quick”), and the hazy dreamscape of the whole novel seems to already be fleeing from my mind.
Rating: 3 out of 5. Perhaps if I had started with Murakami here, I might feel differently. Or if I had read it spaced out over more time. But instead, I read this as the last of six over the course of a year and, frankly, it was my least favorite. The things that might seem magical were irritating and I found myself wishing the book over by the halfway point. I saw glimmers of hope and of interesting moments but I much prefer Murakami when he lets his weirdness really fly – there was some strange restraint here, resulting in a book that feels like those weird muggy mornings that make you just feel like going back to bed and starting over again. His dreamy stories are better the crisper they come.