Preliminary warning: this may well have spoilers because I can’t be bothered to censor or think about what you might not know if you haven’t read the whole book. But so do most reviews.
This review will take the form of a few short musings and then some quotes I liked from the first two books (I left the third one at home).
“Is this what Stieg Larssen is like?” I thought to myself on multiple occasions when I was reading this book. I have no idea, as I have never read any of his trilogy. It isn’t that I don’t think those books are “worth” reading – lots of smart people I know have read them – but (a) I get nervous when everyone is reading the same book and raving about it, particularly when it includes most people on the Tube and on TV, and (b) I also get a little bit nervous about reading crime or thriller books. I don’t read genre fiction, so I have no way of differentiating whether something is good, and then I wonder if I will just get sucked in and never read a serious book again. So I stay away.
This means that I probably review books that straddle the genre-literary border in a weird way. For example, I sort of liked that Thomas Pynchon crime novel, Inherent Vice. It was sort of stupid, and didn’t make a lot of sense, but it made more sense than his other books, and it seemed to have a more coherent plot. And it was more entertaining than many of his books, so I gave it a good review.
A similar situation sort of happened to me with this book. Is this book a thriller or a mystery or a fantasy or a sci-fi novel? Yes, sort of. And so I feel I don’t have the tools to judge it by; I don’t believe in any of the made-up world that he created – it didn’t make much sense and what the heck are the Little People? So I sort of found that frustrating because not only was I being asked to believe in this world, but the world is incomplete. You never really figure out what any of that world was about. But then, I enjoyed it. It is easy to read books that have plots like that because you keep going, trying to figure out what happened. So do I think that I enjoyed this book, or that it is really good because it made me keep reading it? Not necessarily. Do I think it is bad because I didn’t figure it out by the end? Again, not necessarily. It is confusing.
I suppose that, unlike in the case of Pynchon (which seems to follow a traditional story arc), my lack of experience in the fantasy/sci-fi/whatever genres actually made me more willing to accept the uncertainty of the plot. I felt there was something deeper, or more literary, that could excuse these gaps.
But was there? NYT’s Janet Maslin would, apparently, argue not. I am not sure. I finished the book, and actually throughout the entire third book, I kept wondering, ” But what does it mean?” I was stuck in an airport with only this and Confederacy of Dunces (and several e-books and editions of the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books), thought, so I pressed ahead. I actually might have given up. From about halfway through the first book through the beginning of the third book, I really cared about the characters and the plot. But as the third book’s pages dwindled, I increasingly realised that actually not much was going to be resolved, and I started to lose the will to continue.
I think that, for me, the book lacked a sufficient balance between weird and crazy plot and something important to say about our current lives. As always with Murakami, there is something vital and contemporary about even books set in the past (say, in 1984), which I find endearing and interesting. But why 1984? Was this about a police state? Not really – there are barely any police? Was it just an allegory about loneliness in religion? If so, why couldn’t it have been called 1q86 or whatever other date you wanted? I wanted the book to tell me something important, or to make important things more obvious, and it did not.
This all made me go back to wonder: what was Wind-Up Bird Chronicle even about? I don’t remember, and all the answers online do not sound familiar. But I remember it as being a lot more about something: about the loneliness of the contemporary world, about this idea of going down into the well and embracing difficulty until you become strong enough to come out of the well. And a remember a man being skinned alive. Apparently there’s a cat as well. I am not great with plots, but I am usually good with the general gist or “message” I take away from a book. I am not sure I will have something strong enough to remember and hold on to with this book.
But fiction is a lot about what state we are in when we read it. Maybe I am just not looking for what the book is telling us. The Millions has an excellent review of the book – and one man’s experience of reading it – that made me think maybe there was a little bit more than I had taken away. There is an affirmation of love at the end of the book – a heavy-handed one, where people find each other – that I found somewhat appealing. I liked the image of climbing the expressway ladder back up to the normal world, pregnant with a kind of demon baby (seriously, why would you want that thing?), and starting a new life.
Still, I didn’t really understand: why couldn’t they just go back to their normal life, if they had escaped back into the normal world? And if their problems followed them back into the normal world, then they aren’t really safe? And if they didn’t, how did the money follow them?
I guess my overall verdict is that it is entertaining, if you don’t mind books that leave huge gaping holes unanswered, and if you don’t mind generally unsympathetic characters. I thought it was a good, long-winded and unresolved meditation on the way society ruins children, and the role of religion (specifically, crazy cults) in doing that. But then it absolves some of these sins with the parts about the dohta and the maza – they weren’t really even attacking children, they were attacking weird ghost versions of the children made by the Little People. Unlike Aomame, who was genuinely abused emotionally by the cult, or like Ayumi, who was sexually abused. It is also a long-winded, unresolved meditation on the violence against women, and the way society permits this. But it doesn’t seem to advocate anything different, or even imagine that anything different is possible. Sure, two people can find each other, but can they defeat the world? Or will the crazed cults find them and destroy their lives?
The fact that I am still thinking about it, and its magical world, it probably a good sign, but I am not sure if it is good enough. I haven’t decided how many stars I will give it on Goodreads.
Finally, I would like to start a pop-up concept restaurant serving the food Murakami describes in various scenes (he is excellent at food) and playing the music he mentions. He’s inspired me to download some Janacek.
And now, onto the quotes:
These are just from Parts 1 and 2.
“Real life is different from math. Things in life don’t necessarily flow over the shortest possible route. For me, math is — how should I put it? — math is all to natural. It’s just there. There’s no need to exchange it with anything else. That’s why, when I’m doing math, I sometimes feel I’m turning transparent. And that can be scary.” (57)
(about butterflies) “When the time comes, though, they just go off and disappear. I’m sure it means they’ve died, but I can never find their bodies. They don’t leave any trace behind. It’s as if they’ve been absorbed by the air. They’re dainty little creatures that hardly exist at all: they come out of nowhere, search quietly for a few, limited things, and disappear into nothingness again, perhaps to some other world.” (93)
“Maybe I can look at this way — the problem is not with me but with the world around me. It’s not that my consciousness or mind has given rise to some abnormality, but rather that some kind of incomprehensible power has caused the world around me to change.” (119)
“After the Queen video ended, ABBA came on. Oh, no. Something tells me this is going to be an awful night.” (147)
“‘Good-bye,’ she murmured, bidding farewell not so much to the apartment as to the self that had lived there.” (398)
“It is not that the meaning cannot be explained. But there are certain meanings that are lost forever the moment they are explained in words.” (493)