The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews  The
Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Haruki Murakami.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
by Haruki Murakami

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

“The Orient,” Edward Said writes at the beginning of his oft-cited
Orientalism, “was almost a European invention, and had been
since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting
memories and landscapes, remarkable
experiences.” Here is a formula, and a
very familiar one. Yet one could easily
apply these same descriptors in summing
up the fictive—and very non-formulaic—
world of Haruki Murakami, Japan’s most
famous novelist and one of the most
compelling authors of recent times.

Are these recurring elements imposed by
the author’s self-imposed Western
notions?—the jazz-loving Murakami,
after all, is markedly Americanized, a
translator of US books into Japanese who
taught at Princeton and Tufts. On the other
hand, this writer seems to derive his sense of “otherness”—another
favorite Said term there—from the depths of his own psyche rather
than from the free-floating ideologies of our time. Indeed, few
novelists are less susceptible to reductive sociological frameworks,
whether homegrown or imported from afar, than Haruki Murakami.
In that great tradition of fiction, he creates his own universe, rather
than borrows ours.

Uncanny, haunting, romantic, exotic. These elements were evident
in Murakami’s early writings, notably his immensely successful
Norwegian Wood—which sold four million copies in Japan
after its 1987 publication. But his later works add large doses of
fantasy and magical realism to the brooding J.D. Salinger-esque
narratives and alienated young protagonists that had long been his
calling card. Even before
Norwegian Wood, he had dipped into the
mystical with his
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the
World. But since the publication of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,
Murakami’s weaving together of urban realism and eerie fantasy has
become his trademark style.

We still have the alienated young protagonist at the center of
Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Toru Okada has left his job as a “gofer” in a
law firm, and instead of studying to pass the bar, he settles into a
routine of housekeeping, doing laundry, buying groceries, cooking
dinner and waiting for his wife Kumiko to come home from her work
as editor of a health food magazine. But one day his wife doesn’t
come home.

Okada’s passivity in the face of the collapse of his personal life is
almost pathological. By nature, he would probably sit things out and
let events take charge. But he finds that strange people track him
down, and try to shake him out of his reveries.  Puzzling phone calls
lead to an encounter with a woman named Malta Kano, who is a
mystic and medium. She gives him advice but, clouded as it is in a
typical Murakami fog, her guidenace is far from straightforward. “I
believe you are entering a phase of your life in which many different
things will occur . . . bad things that seem good at first, and good
things that seems bad at first.”

And other people—invariably strange ones—also take an interest in
our hero. Creta Kano, Malta’s younger sister, has plans for him that
might change his life completely. His neighbor’s daughter, the
attractive May Kasahara, might be his best ally or his most
dangerous adversary—it’s hard to tell. Nutmeg Akasaka is another
mystic, with healing powers that draw many influential people into
her personal orbit. To some extent, Toru is caught up in the dreams
and schemes of each of these women. They are akin to the type of
visionary described by Saul Bellow’s Augie March, who are “each in
his own way trying to recruit other people to play a supporting role
and sustain him in his make-believe.” The only different here is that
make-believe and reality are fluid concepts in the universe of
Haruki Murakami, and as as Toru Okada tries on the worldviews of
his different friends, peculiar things begin to happen to him.

Not everyone who crosses his path is an intriguing woman. A strange
old soldier, Lieutenant Mamiya, literally comes to his door to share
a long, disturbing story about his activities in Outer Mongolia during
the 1930s. This powerful interlude could stand alone as a novella,
and its incorporation into the text of
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,
where it shows up roughly one-third of the way into the book,
indicates how willing our author is to disrupt traditional concepts of
narrative flow. This too is part of Murakami’s typical arsenal of
tricks, one more way of imparting a sense of dislocation to his
books, a filtering through a dream (or nightmare) landscape that
seems both real and unreal.

The other, even more central male character in this novel is Toru’s
brother-in-law Noboru Wataya. As the book evolves, this
disagreeable figure becomes poised as the antithesis and adversary
of Okada. If Toru is indecisive and passive, Wataya is driven and
power-hungry. If Toru is a failure in the eyes of the world, Wataya is
a prodigious success. He has parlayed his notoriety as an author into
fame as a media pundit, and now politics looms as his next arena of

Is the disappearance of Okada’s wife linked somehow to her
brother? If so, how can Okada take on one of the most admired and
influential individuals in society? A conflict between the two
deepens as the book progresses, but in true Murakami fashion, it is a
battle that takes place in a mystical quasi-alternative universe. Our
hero finds that his own sense of mastery require a paradoxical
increase of his own passivity—almost to the point of complete
sensory deprivation. This part of the story is odd, even by
Murakami’s loose standards of realism.

In truth, much of this book takes on an almost zen-like opaqueness,
a resistance to logical categories and syllogistic thinking. Certain
charged incidents and agents—confinement in the bottom of a well, a
missing cat, a debonair man who hasn’t spoken since age six, an
unlucky house, and the call of the recurring wind-up bird (yes, there
is one)—each add to the growing weirdness of the tale. And, as
always in Murakami, we have final resolution. But when you add it
up, the numbers don’t really compute—not the way readers have
come to expect from most novels. In a different age, this might have
been Oriental “otherness.” Then again, in the future they might just
label it as Murakami-esque.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

Home Page

Gabriel García Márquez:
Love in the Time of Cholera

David Foster Wallace:
Infinite Jest

Margaret Atwood:
The Handmaid's Tale

Toni Morrison:

Jonathan Franzen:
The Corrections

Don DeLillo:

Zadie Smith:
White Teeth

Roberto Bolaño:

Mark Z. Danielewski:
House of Leaves

Cormac McCarthy:
Blood Meridian

Philip Roth:
American Pastoral

Jonathan Lethem:
The Fortress of S0litude

Haruki Murakami:
Kafka on the Shore

Edward P. Jones:
The Known  World

Ian McEwan:

Michael Chabon:
The Amazing Adventures of
Kavalier & Clay

Philip Roth:
The Human Stain

Mario Vargas Llosa:
The Feast of the Goat

Marilynne Robinson:

David Mitchell:
Cloud Atlas

José Saramago:

Jennifer Egan:
A Visit from the Good Sqad

W. G. Sebald:

Jeffrey Eugenides
The Marriage Plot

Donna Tartt:
The Secret History

Michael Ondaatje:
The English Patient

Saul Bellow:

A.S. Byatt:

Umberto Eco:
Foucault's Pendulum

Cormac McCarthy:
The Road

David Foster Wallace:
The Pale King

J.K. Rowling:
Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone

Arundhati Roy:
The God of Small Things

Roberto Bolaño:
The Savage Detectives

Paul Auster:
The New York Trilogy

Per Petterson:
Out Stealing Horses

Ann Patchett:
Bel Canto

Ben Okri:
The Famished Road

Joseph O'Neill:

Haruki Murakami:
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Marisha Pessl:
Special Topics in Calamity

Jonathan Franzen:

Colm Tóibín:
The Master

Denis Johnson:
Tree of Smoke

Richard Russo:
Empire Falls

Alice Munro:

Martin Amis:
London Fields

Mark Haddon:
The Curious Incident of the
Dog in the Night-Time

John Banville:
The Sea

Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club

Jeffrey Eugenides:

Junot Diaz:
The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao

Aravind Adiga:
The White Tiger

Tim O'Brien:
The Things They Carried

Irvine Welsh

Tobias Wolff:
Old School

Tim Winton:

David Foster Wallace:

Oscar Hijuelos:
The Mambo Kings Play
Songs of Love

More to come

Recommended Links:

Great Books Guide
Conceptual Fiction
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's personal web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

American Fiction Notes
LA Review of Books
The Big Read
Critical Mass
The Elegant Variation
Dana Gioia
The Literary Saloon
The Millions
The Misread City
Page Views

Disclosure note: Writers on this site and its
sister sites may receive promotional copies of
works under review.