The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
by Haruki Murakami
Buy it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble
Recommended by Erin Donohue
My first exposure to magical realist Haruki Murakami was a short story called "The Dancing Dwarf." In a nutshell, a man who spends his day making elephants (not statues or replicas - actual, real elephants) enlists the help of a malevolent, dancing spirit to help him win a woman's heart. This all happens within the span of about twenty pages, and it's a wild ride from beginning to end. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, one of Murakami's most recent and best-known novels, is kind of the opposite.
Rest assured, there is some very strange stuff in this book, but you'd never know it from most of the plot developments. Toru Okada, an ordinary man living on the outskirts of Tokyo, sets out to find his missing cat and, in so doing, starts a chain reaction involving Toru's emotionally distant wife, his malicious brother-in-law, a traumatized WWII veteran, a pair of psychic sisters, a death-obsessed high school girl, and a mysterious woman who communicates exclusively through lewd telephone calls. There isn't much of a plot to speak of. It takes almost 300 pages for a real event to set the plot in motion, and another 250 before Toru takes some proactive steps to bring about the climax.
The novel's biggest issues all stem from its main character. While Toru Okada is a charming everyman, he is also one of the most lazy, unambitious, passive leading men this side of the Dude. He doesn't work, he accepts criticism without comment, and nothing seems to anger or excite him. This drags what could have been a concise story into one that's over 600 pages long, with very little actual action happening during that time. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle's pacing is glacial and branches off into nearly irrelevant digressions about side characters frequently.
However, taken as a whole, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle works, despite the fact that without a plot or a compelling main character, it really shouldn't. Murakami's writing (and Jay Rubin's excellent translation) makes Toru's constant stream of thoughts and inaction a joy rather than a slog, and the book's climax and ending make the interminable buildup very nearly worthwhile. The characters (even Toru, to a certain extent) are offbeat and memorable, and when the supernatural elements come into play towards the end, they elevate what could have been a trite suburban drama into a life-or-death adventure.
I don't have a solid recommendation for this one. If you can endure 600 pages of nothing much happening for the promise of good writing and an excellent conclusion, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is definitely a good read. Otherwise, you can find more concise magical realist tales in Murakami's own short story collection, The Elephant Vanishes. Be sure to check out some of Franz Kafka's work as well if you'd like to learn about one of Murakami's biggest influences.