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Prostitutes of the Mind & Damp Wells: A Review of Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle”

“Is it possible, in the final analysis, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another?We can invest enormous time and energy in serious efforts to know another person, but in the end, how close can we come to that person's essence? We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?”



 

I recently had the pleasure of reading the 600-page book that had been rotting on my bookshelf this past year – “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami. I was a little bit hesitant to read it, since I have acquaintances who started from another side of his oeuvre, and who were thoroughly put off by works like ‘Norwegian Wood’. But after voluntarily sitting through ‘Saltburn’ (2023) twice, I thought to myself, the apparent genitalia mentions, and mild creepiness (delving into May Kasahara later…) will never compare to watching that bathtub scene in cinemas. And so, ready for a fever dream, I started the book.

 

The book starts with the soon-to-be-unemployed lawyer Toru Okada, who seems to be living a standard Japanese life with his wife Kumiko. Everything seems to be pretty normal; he makes a simple dinner, has simple evenings, and listens to simple classical music on the radio. Until he suddenly gets plunged into a strange, and later sexual, phone call with an unnamed woman. And even worse, the guy loses his cat (who he named after his evil, megalomaniac brother-in-law, more on that later).

 

The first thing I was enraptured by wasn’t the flowering of the persona’s psychedelic subconsciousness, no, it was actually the relationship between Toru and Kumiko. I don’t really annotate books often, but there was something about the tension and the crumbling nature of their relationship that just fascinated me. In Chapter 2, Kumiko is thoroughly upset when Toru buys patterned toilet paper and blue tissues – with the aesthetically sensitive Kumiko shocked that Toru doesn’t even know her tastes. “You’ve been living with me all this time… but you’ve hardly paid any attention to me” (p.27). What we don’t really know as the reader is that Kumiko is far more enigmatic than expected. She starts to descend into what I interpreted as a borderline episode: she comes home late, starts to wear expensive perfume (purchased by another man) – and weirdly, the affair isn’t even the most confusing part. It’s Kumiko’s reluctance to discuss her family, and most parts of herself.

 

From here we start to unravel a few gems of discussion, which I’m going to split off into sections:

 

A Case of Well-Described Characters (and Interesting Names):



I’d really like to see “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” reimagined as a film, or television series. The reason for this is that the psychedelic writing style that Murakami employs produces these incredible, dream-like character designs that I now want to sketch out myself. The first case is with the clairvoyant sisters, Malta and Creta, with Malta in a distinct red vinyl hat, and Creta dressed in ‘60s garb. We see this amazing character description again once Nutmeg and Cinnamon, a mother and son duo, are introduced. Both are clean-cut fashion icons (halfway through I started envisioning Nutmeg as a cross between Elspeth Catton from Saltburn and Effie Trinket from The Hunger Games…) – and I would willingly read pages about their daily outfits and Pinterest boards. That is how invested I got.

 

The one misgiving I have with Nutmeg and Cinnamon is that they seem to come in too late, while Malta and Creta seem to linger around too long. This upset me a little, because both sets of characters were unique, magical, and interesting to read about – but the sudden introduction of Nutmeg et al. just kept me wondering about Malta and Creta.

 

Spirituality and the Well:




 

I understand Toru on a strangely familiar level. While I don’t think I would go down to the bottom of a damp well to think about my relationships and the course of my life, I would definitely sit in a cupboard doing something similar. It’s those strange, dark, and claustrophobic places that just make you ponder.

 

A lot of reviewers didn’t really like the spiritual references of “flow” that came up in the book, but I think they emerge beyond the surface – Toru’s arc is concerned with him just going along with life to find his way to the end. We see him struggle with this, get extremely fixated on getting Kumiko back (even engaging in an archaic email conversation with her out of desperation), only to find himself sitting and having a conversation with May Kasahara at the end.

 

Toru doesn’t just follow a flow, he exists in a cycle with himself. Overcome by what seems to be a deep depression, he rides the subway into Shinjuku and spends his days sitting on a bench, eating donuts, and drinking coffee. I get him. Although, I would probably prefer a park, rather than the centre of a city. The cycle itself is a kind of flow, though, because it opens up the second half of the book, and Toru’s adventures with fashion and strange spiritual consultation.

 

There is just so much I could say on this, but the last thing I’ll say about the well, and cycles, and flow, and sense of ouroboros, is that it is just so real. He always comes back to the well, wet or dry, his life is always full of warnings about ‘water’ yet an emphasis on allowing ‘flow’, in some sense it all exists as a sort of philosophical story. But…. I’m not entirely sure what that story is yet.

 

A Character Study of Noboru Wataya:



Noboru Wataya, in my mind, is like if you combined Scott Pilgrim’s Gideon Graves with Patrick Bateman. Despite being Kumiko’s brother, Kumiko never discusses him in completely friendly terms, and we start to understand why pretty quickly. He’s a serious and ambitious man, with a kind of fakeness and cultivated image that makes Toru deeply uncomfortable. Beyond the tangible power he has, Noboru also has an underexplained spiritual power. He ‘defiles’ women, but in a distinctly non-physical way. There is even suggestion that he has done this to his own family, and maybe even Kumiko herself.

 

He's interesting because I initially interpreted him as an archetypal parody, like a classic and serious villain who wouldn’t really capture my interest. But somehow it even got to the point where I was fascinated, but still wanted to know more – Toru was soon becoming irrelevant to me. Murakami does a good job withholding information from readers, and then once he reveals it, it all feels like one big & vague spiritual vision that we can’t confirm the accuracy of.

 

Epistolatory Form – Is it done well?



The first time I saw letters being used as a literary device was in Shelley’s Frankenstein. I didn’t really know how I felt about it, and I wasn’t sure if it added much for me. In this book, Murakami somehow does letters well, and poorly.

 

There’s an arc where a strange 16-year-old girl, May Kasahara, moves away from Toru's neighbourhood and starts a new life in a wig-making factory. There is a sort of beautiful spiritual exchange through her letters that happens between her and the reader, excluding Toru in the process. I really enjoyed reading these parts of the novel, as they acting as interesting cut-scenes that helped us understand what Toru’s strange life must appear like to an outsider.

 

There is… another arc… where we start delving deep into Japanese military history. This felt so far removed from the actual narrative that I struggled to pay attention to it. I understood the whole story – there’s a man getting skinned alive, an attempted murder, among other events – but I couldn’t really find a place for it in my schema of the book itself. This section, too, is explained through letters, and even has its own bibliography to supplement the information given, but I just couldn’t progress with it. Before you come for me, as well, I know that this was included because some context was needed, like the Japanese invasion of Manchuria somehow ‘causing’ the cat’s disappearance, but it all felt a little boring and disconnected.

 

On Chronic Pain and Creta:



One of the clairvoyant sisters, Creta, unveils a backstory to Toru, where she explains her life-long experience of chronic pain and suicidal ideation. I’ve read a lot of books that dive into descriptions of chronic pain, both fiction and nonfiction, but this somehow hit the nail on the head. Creta feels this full-body burning sensation, she tries to hide the true nature of it for years, and she crashes her brother’s car attempting to end her life completely. There is a strange magical twist where Creta’s crash somehow reverses her pain, and her body feels entirely normal again. Now in full control of her body, and all out of money, she becomes a prostitute, and ends up not minding it. Though after a while, she realizes that like her sister, she also has a place in the spiritual world, and so she communicates through ‘soliciting’ people in the dreamscape.

 

A lot of people chalk up Creta’s character to being weird, and overly sexualized, but there is a part of me that wants to read her ‘prostitute of the flesh/mind’ arc as something a little more complex. For a lot of people with chronic pain, myself included, it can sometimes feel like we’re only at peace when asleep, or dreaming. I know for a fact that I relish in every hour I spend dreaming, and not focusing on my popping candy bones. So to me, it made a lot of sense that Creta uses her body, and becomes a changeling of sorts, in a dream dimension, even after curing her pain.

 

After a while, I missed Creta, though there was an attempt to introduce Nutmeg and Cinnamon as equivalents. But if Murakami even wants to revive her… I’m ready to read about it.

 

On my favourite character, May Kasahara:



May Kasahara is a 16-year-old girl who skips school to make pocket money working for a wig survey company. She is friendly, usually bored, and usually overthinking more than she needs to be. May acts as a perfect foil for Toru’s story, because she encourages the progression of cat-searching and investigation into the strange, haunted house in the neighbourhood. I really did want to read more of her, and she added the perfect level of comedy to the book.


I had my worries that things between Toru and May would get creepy, simply given the theme of Toru having ‘many women in his life’, but it was delightfully tame and even heart-warming. This is a review that I don’t give often. And I actually completely disagree with some reviews who characterize May as a “Lolita/Manic Pixie” figure because she is her own person, she doesn’t come back for Toru in the end (he actually ends up visiting her)… I think some reviewers just hate when quirky teenage girl characters exist (and happen to be written by a male author).


 

Wrapping up my Ramble:

 

I think I should reiterate that I don’t really take reviews all that seriously on my blog. These are all just massive cerebral splotches that have been travelling around my mind for too long. But my main conclusions are:

 

  1. David Lynch should direct the film adaptation of this

  2. I wish I could forget this book and read it again


If a bit of this review, or most of it, doesn't make a lot of sense, it's either because the book is a little strange, or because I currently have a fever. Or both. But I hope you enjoyed it.

 

Thank you.

 

Sincerely,

Dorian

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2 Comments


the poets pain
the poets pain
Dec 26, 2023

just wanted to let you know that the notification for your blog posts make me smile :) xx

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Dorian Winter
Dec 27, 2023
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Thank you, I appreciate all the support :)) Hopefully you enjoy my next article!

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