Haruki Murakami, 1994-1995
translation: Jay Rubin, 1997
(I've credited the translator above because apparently the English version is a pretty major reworking of the original Japanese editions — editions, plural, because in Japan the story was serialized over three volumes. The English version removes 25,000 words — and the gaps in the story are noticeable, with characters abruptly disappearing — and several chapters are reordered.)
the twenty-seventh book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested by Jess Haskins, Jake Eakle, and Nick Branstator
I went to a huge public university where I took lots of big lecture classes with 100 or more students — I wondered whether it was more than half, so I actually did the math and discovered that in fact it was precisely two-thirds, 22 classes out of 33. Of the eleven smaller classes, six were taught by grad students. Recognizing that this made for very little personal contact between undergraduates and actual professors, departmental rules mandated that English majors take two seminars led by members of the faculty, one sophomore year, one senior year. My sophomore seminar was a dud, but my senior seminar was one of the better classes I took in college, "The Fantastic in Literature", taught by Ojars Krātiņš. Those who signed up hoping for orcs were disappointed, because Prof. Krātiņš filled up the book list with metafictional novels that put forward an ostensible real world and a fantasy world and then focused on the overlap and bleedthrough between the two. It was in this class that I first encountered Haruki Murakami, as one of the assigned texts was his 1985 novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, in which the odd chapters are cyberpunk, written in contemporary language full of pop culture references, and the even chapters strike a mythic tone, with Gatekeepers and Dreamreaders and the occasional unicorn. That's pretty much all I remember — it was a long time ago — but the class did give me some familiarity with Murakami before I started into this one.
And insofar as Prof. Krātiņš spent a lot of time talking about the blurred boundaries between the real and the surreal, I have to figure that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was at least shortlisted for subsequent iterations of that class. It's the story of a guy who has recently turned thirty and quit his job as a paralegal, figuring that if he was ever going to change his life, now was the time — he could live off his wife's income while he figured out what to do next. What he didn't know was that his wife was going through a personal crisis that would lead her to leave him, disappearing one day with so little warning that he doesn't know what's happened until she sends him a Dear John letter several days later. His response is to retreat to the bottom of a dry well near his house in hope of experiencing a revelatory change of consciousness that will help him figure things out. I could relate! When my life fell apart a few years ago I didn't go down a well, but I did go up into the Sierras to a meditation center, hoping for the aforementioned revelatory change of consciousness; instead, all I did was uselessly hallucinate for a few days. But this guy does gain access to a parallel world that corresponds to the real world in a distorted way in the manner of a dream — yet he can't just be dreaming, because outside the well he receives phone calls from the dreamworld…
The fact that three people recommended this one, along with the fact that the library had eight copies all of which were always checked out, had me expecting that this might be the highlight of the visitor recommendation series, but while I'd give it a thumbs-up overall, the very blurriness that so delighted Prof. Krātiņš was a drawback for me. Patterns 37 and 40 both touch on my aversion to stories that don't make it clear what is even happening, and there is a whole lot of whut in this book. "Out from between the two cleanly split halves of my physical self came crawling a thing that I had never seen or touched before." Whut? What worked better for me were the contrasts we see within the real world. When I walk down the street of my town at midnight, it doesn't just feel like a different place from that same street at noon — the very experience of being alive feels different. This is something I think about a lot, so I liked the way that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle captures how very different it feels to be in your own apartment from at the bottom of a well a few yards away, or how very different it feels to be behind enemy lines in a war zone from safe in one's home country during peacetime, even though there's nothing inherently surreal or fantastic about any of these places. (Though recent headlines suggest that it doesn't take a Murakami to blur the boundaries between the everyday world and the surreal. It's been happening just fine on its own.)