Holy shit, this is a big one. In so many ways.
The plot is almost unsummarizable. It starts, famously, with a veeerrry slightly revised version of the short story “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women.” Reading this is like having a dream for the second time – weird. And it just gets weirder from there.
Names. Oh we have names. The narrator is Okada Toru. The sixteen-year-old girl at the end of the alley (who we now realize was a precursor of Yuki in Dance Dance Dance) is Kasahara Mei. His wife, who leaves very soon after the short-story-redux part ends, is Kumiko. The cat is now, not Watanabe Noboru, but Wataya Noboru – as is Kumiko’s brother. The phone-sex woman is not given a name, but (spoiler) it’s suggested in the end that she is Kumiko, or rather part of Kumiko. A version of Kumiko.
It’s a novel about versions: versions of reality, versions of selves, versions of stories told about selves and realities. This is the book where Murakami takes the Big Leap from what has been, even in spite of all the mind-games of Hard-Boiled Wonderland, a very sovereign-self-affirming narrative universe and lands in one in which everything is fragmented. We get many, many chapters narrated by other characters; we get chapters in the third person; we get bits of narrative we have a hard time assigning to anything, really. We get quoted letters. Quoted magazine articles. Quoted instant-message chats. We get disembodied voices and devoiced bodies.
We get names, and we get monickers – self-styled non-name names, some of the most memorable in his oeuvre. Kano Creta and Kano Malta, and maybe Kano Corsica. Nutmeg and Cinnamon. Boris the Manskinner.
So, about that unsummarizable plot. Boiled down to its essence, it’s this: Kumiko leaves Okada. One day she just doesn’t come home from work. For the rest of the book, he’s trying to get her back. But we never see her again.
Eventually she sends him a letter saying she’d been seeing someone, and is sorry about it, but never wants to see Okada again. Okada believes it – is prepared to accept it – but just wants to talk to Kumiko about it face to face. He distrusts the whole situation for a number of reasons. First, her letter is enigmatic about the important things – she always was a bit laconic about her inner life – and he just wants to get some things straight. Second, in her disappearance she seems to have retreated into the protection of her brother, who’s now insisting that Okada grant her a divorce. Okada can’t swallow this, because he hates Wataya Noboru, and knows that Kumiko does too. He suspects some kind of coercion.
So what we have here is a domestic drama. Something really new in Murakami. A guy’s wife leaves him – that’s not new. But him trying to fix the situation, to get her back, to understand her – that’s new. Okada is committed to his wife. He’s in love with her. He’s faithful to her. He reminisces about her frequently – and as a result we learn more about her, and about their relationship, than really any other marriage in Murakami’s work to date. This book concentrates on families, on parents and siblings and above all marriages, to an unprecedented degree.
And the brother, the brother-in-law: Wataya Noboru. We only meet him a couple of times in the book. I can’t decide if this is a strength or a weakness in the narrative. He’s meant to represent evil, a great threat to Okada and Kumiko and even to Japan as a nation, and in some ways the brevity of his appearances make him a half-glimpsed figure of dread hanging over the narrative. But truth be told sometimes the digressions get so drastic, and our information about Wataya is so tenuous and vague to begin with, that it’s hard to know just how worked up we should get over him. Then again, criticizing the narrative pacing of this book is just like shooting fish in a barrel: utterly easy, and utterly pointless.
Wataya, and how he’s evil. Kumiko’s family is a Tohoku political dynasty, conservative and linked to wartime militarist figures. Noboru himself, when we meet him, is just an academic rising star – economist and political theorist of some sort who ends up being unexpectedly telegenic. Even his telegenic qualities are dark, though – he’s not described as winning support through his charming personality, but through his cutting intellect, his cruel way with interlocutors. Okada’s read his books, and can see right through the guy’s intellectual mumbo-jumbo – he knows Noboru’s a soulless fake. As the book progresses, Noboru inherits his uncle’s seat in the Diet, and becomes a political rising star. Okada fears for the soul of the country if this guy gets real power – but there are no Dead Zone-style flashes of a nuked future or anything like that. Rather, it’s just that to Okada, and to us through him, Wataya Noboru represents the worst, most nihilistic aspects of Japan’s postwar elite. For him to take power means nothing good, for starters.
Privately, we gradually learn that Noboru has perversions that can’t quite be named. He seems to have driven Kumiko’s older sister to suicide by sexually defiling her – but what he did was not quite, or not just, rape, but rather a kind of psychological and perhaps mystical penetration and defilement. And by the end of the book we fear that he’s starting to do the same to Kumiko, too. He’s not just evil, in other words, but Evil.
So as a villain he’s hardly present – like I say, he really only appears in a couple of scenes – and one of those is a flashback. And it’s not like he and Okada are engaged in any direct conflict. And for long stretches, the narrative meanders away from their conflict altogether. But still, he’s the villain of the book. A traditional political villain who might be sequestering Kumiko to keep her from talking to the press about his incestuous relationship with their sister and thus ruining his political career, and also a metaphysical villain with the power to utterly defile women with his touch.
Counterposed to him is Okada himself, who is fighting the good fight. He is (Mei calls him) the Wind-Up Bird, a guy who, by quietly and secretly, in his own haphazard way, fighting the good fight, keeps the world’s spring wound, keeps the world going round, and ultimately keeps people like Wataya from taking over the world. Maybe. How does Okada fight the good fight?
Veeerrry passively. This is one of the book’s really curious, and very Murakami-esque, aspects. Mostly what Murakami does is refuse – to accept that Kumiko left him of her own volition, to sign off on the divorce Wataya demands of him, to give up. And all of this, let’s not forget, stems from his refusal, in the original story, to go on with a job that he finds meaningless, and to accept another job just because that’s what society expects. The whole epic begins with Okada dropping out of society, and he stays dropped out. Drops further and further out.
Discovers that the house across from Mei’s has a dried up well in it. Hears a haunting story about a well in Mongolia from a veteran, and recalls a psychic once telling him to go down when he’s supposed to go down, so he goes to the bottom of the well to think. Spends days there – Mei pulls up the rope ladder – and has some kind of breakthrough, confronts death, etc. Then is set free by Kano Creta. Nothing immediately changes in his life, but somehow when he’s at the bottom of the well he’s better able to access his dreams, and in his dreams a strange hotel room where a woman he thinks is Kumiko, or might have access to Kumiko, might be. So he eventually buys the property and spends a lot of time in the well trying to reaccess the dream room.
In the end he succeeds, and while there, wandering around the dream hotel, he attacks Wataya with a baseball bat and kills him. Then has a long conversation with the woman who might be Kumiko, or one aspect of her, and learns how Wataya had defiled her. Then returns to the “real” world, to find that Wataya has collapsed of a brain hemorrhage, and Kumiko sends him an email saying she’s going to unplug him from life support. It’s what she has to do. The book ends with Okada awaiting the results of Kumiko’s trial. He’s reunited with her, sort of, and she’s free and Japan is spared whatever dire fate Wataya might have dragged it into.
Which means that his struggle, his fighting of the good fight, has paid off. And what was the manner of that fight? Waiting and thinking at the bottom of a well. Descending, symbolically, into the deepest parts of his own psyche – memories flood over him, anxieties, archetypal fears. Descending into something deeper than his own psyche – this isn’t just “End of the World” territory, this somehow connects to Kumiko’s psyche, and to Wataya’s, since violence committed against him there affects him in the real world. It’s as if Okada has accessed the universal unconscious, at least as it connects to a very few people close to him.
Of course he has help, as the above summary makes clear. At first he’s aided, guided, and tantalized by two psychic sisters, Kano Malta and Kano Creta. At first they’re enlisted – by Wataya on Kumiko’s behalf – to help find the cat. But then they reveal to Okada that long ago Wataya had violated Creta just as he had violated Kumiko’s sister. Malta is somewhat neutral in the Okada-Wataya struggle, but Creta is on Okada’s side.
These sisters are classic Murakami creations. Malta has taken her name from the island of Malta, where she spent three years in some sort of spiritual practice, self-designed, centered around the waters there. Her talent has to do with the balance of waters in the body. She always dresses impeccably, but wears an outlandishly out of place red hat. Creta, so named by her older sister Malta, is a medium of a different kind: she can enter people’s dreams and make love with them there, as a means of gathering information about them and ultimately helping them. She is, as she says, a prostitute of the mind. This follows several years of being a prostitute of the flesh – Wataya Noboru was her last customer. And that had followed twenty years of being in excruciating physical pain: Creta’s life consists of a period of experiencing every pain imaginable, followed by a period of total emotional and physical numbness, followed by Wataya’s violation of her (which involved physical ecstasy as well as defilement), followed by the present mental prostitution. She always dresses and does her hair like Jackie Kennedy. In 1984.
The Kano sisters are fascinating, but not half as surprising as their disappearance is. The first volume of the book was serialized in a magazine in 1993, then published in book form in 1994 along with the second volume, which was written directly for book publication. The third volume came out in 1995, and in that volume the Kano sisters are simply written out with very little explanation.
Instead, Okada finds a very different, but equally entertaining, pair of allies. Akasaka Nutmeg and her son Cinnamon. Nutmeg is a wealthy ex-fashion designer turned spiritual healer; Cinnamon, her mute son, is her assistant. Nutmeg has retired from the healing game, and when she meets Okada she realizes he can take her place. She blindfolds him and lets wealthy, ailing women touch and lick the blue mark on his cheek – which he obtained the first time he went through the wall of the well into the mysterious hotel room of the collective unconscious. In return, Nutmeg helps him buy the land where the well sits. They’re his partners until the end of the book, and they’re very intriguing as well. Cinnamon, for one thing, has heard the wind-up bird, although he can tell no one.
And Nutmeg has a Manchurian connection. This is the other major element of the book: an obsession with wartime Manchuria. The fortune-teller, Mr. Honda, who first gave Okada the idea to go down the well to think was a veteran of the Manchurian front; when he dies, his friend Lieutenant Mamiya makes contact with Okada and ends up telling him lengthy and harrowing tales of that war. Mamiya’s stories, in fact, are one of the things that connect the first two volumes of the book with the third. His first major story involves an intelligence mission he had been involved in before the war proper, trying to foment rebellion in Mongolia, and getting caught by Mongolian and Soviet intelligence. This tale involves a gory description of watching his commanding officer be skinned alive by the Mongolians, and then himself being abandoned in a dry well. He eventually escaped – saved by Honda – but he’s never been the same since. His second tale comes from after the war, when he, along with thousands of other Japanese soldiers in Manchuria, was taken captive by the Soviets and forced to do essentially slave labor in Siberia for years after the end of the war. Here he again meets the Soviet intelligence officer who had skinned his commander alive – tries to kill him, but fails. There’s a distinct parallel between this intelligence officer, Boris the Manskinner, and Wataya.
Nutmeg’s Manchurian connection is less gory. She was born there – her father was a veterinarian attached to the zoo in Hsin-ching. Her story has two parts. First is a recollection (perhaps heavily embroidered) of herself as a child with her mother on a ship, being evacuated back to Japan on the last day of the war, and being stopped by an American submarine. The sub is just about to open fire on the ship when word of the surrender comes. The other story involves her father the vet, left behind in Hsin-ching, being forced to watch as Japanese soldiers slaughter the large animals so that in the impending Soviet invasion they won’t escape and cause chaos. Later he’s also forced to watch as the same detachment of soldiers slaughter four Chinese men wearing baseball uniforms. They had been Manchukuo army cadets, but they had tried to flee, disguised in the baseball uniforms, and the army had ordered them killed; their leader is beaten to death with a bat. The execution and mass burial is performed in the zoo, with the vet in attendance.
All of these references to WWII, specifically the Manchurian theater, brought the book a lot of attention when it was first published, and first translated. Those who saw it as a long-overdue coming-to-terms with Japan’s history in Asia must have slept through A Wild Sheep Chase, but still, it’s a pretty major engagement with history. And of course it’s handled differently here: we get war experiences narrated to us by participants, or the relatives of participants – not mediated through I, and not related to us primarily for their significance to I. We’re getting here more of a sense of a variety of perspectives in contemporary Japan, and how life today (or in the 1984-5 of the setting) is connected to the past. And while the emphasis is definitely on the sufferings of Japanese in the war, the sufferings they visited upon others is acknowledged, and in some cases dramatized. Murakami isn’t giving us a narrative of victimization here.
What is he giving us? I’m not quite sure, to be honest, exactly how the Manchurian thread is supposed to resonate with the rest of the book. Is it there to show the violence in Japan’s past? Violence both committed and experienced, as a contrast to the placid surface of contemporary Japan, suggesting that violence may not be as remote a possibility as it now seems? Is there a suggestion that Wataya, an elitist, a nihilist, and perhaps a rightist, might lead the country back in that direction, and therefore must be stopped?
That unsurety is, in the end, my most powerful reaction to the book. As the almost comically convoluted (and yet oversimplified, at that) plot summary above shows, it’s a weird book. Jam packed with incident, with an unprecedented number of vividly-realized secondary characters. Digressive beyond belief. Oddly paced, with big jumps in time and incident. The disappearance of the Kano sisters and sudden introduction of Nutmeg and Cinnamon is just one of the violent disjunctions between the second and third volumes. Details suggestive of amazing, virgin fields of subtext.
But I have no idea how it’s all supposed to fit together, or even if it’s meant to. Among other things, this book is where I goes from being passive, a lone hermit living his life unstained by compromise or even contact with the world, to being active, enmeshed in ties of family and love, fighting and suffering to remain connected, and to make sure that his values prevail, or at least that their antithesis doesn’t prevail. That much I get, pretty easily. But that’s obviously not all that’s going on in this book.
There also seems to be a critique of contemporary Japan – but it’s not exactly contemporary. He goes out of his way to set it in 1984 and (in the third volume) 1985. Why? 40th anniversary of the end of the war? But why not set in the present of the writing – the 50th anniversary would surely feel more significant? Is it rather just that he likes the resonance with Orwell’s book? Is he still trying to write a definitive critique of the Bubble years? If so, his previous two books do that much better and clearer. And what, in the end, is he saying about the war?
There also seems to be an attempt to extend Hard-Boiled Wonderland’s exploration of the mysteries of consciousness. In sci-fi terms, he’s again interested in the ideas of layers of consciousness acting like, and being manifested as, alternate worlds. But this time those alternate worlds don’t isolate the self, but connect it to others. We’re not ultimately alone – but in the process of showing that, he also shows us a self, a subconscious, that’s porous, with ill-defined boundaries. There’s a serious slippage of subjectivity here – not a complete dissolution, but at least the danger of it.
I’m not sure if it’s a masterpiece. That may be beside the point. It’s a big glorious mess of a novel. That may blunt some of the book’s messages, confound some of its critiques, but perhaps the book’s intellectual fecundity is all the greater because it refuses to resolves itself into anything clear and univocal. Similarly, its shapelessness and overstuffedness (and with all this, still the translation cuts out some things – a thread about swimming, for example) prevent the book from making the kind of clear impact on the reader that the 1985 and 1987 masterpieces did. But that, too, is an aesthetic: one experiences this book as a kind of labyrinth, full of fascinating narrative cul-de-sacs and unexpected connecting passages. The confusion and feeling of unsettledness that lingers after one finishes the book is part of the design, I’m certain.
It is a great leap – not straight forward, though. A little slantwise.