Chances Are

Haruki Murakami
translated by Jay Rubin
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Knopf

WE'VE ALL GOT those moments that stick in our heads, the ones that alter the course of our lives. Say you meet your future beloved in an elevator; you bless your luck and wonder at the random series of coincidences that brought the two of you to that exact place at that precise time. Moments like those leave us with two options; life is either some intricately devised plan, or a frighteningly lonely series of coincidences.

Haruki Murakami's intricate and engrossing fourth novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, raises the old fate/chance quandary through the story of one man's experiences with cause and effect--a trip that takes him from the mundane to the fantastical. Toru Okada, the narrator, begins by searching for such common ideals as career fulfillment and marital understanding. "The point is not to resist the flow," an old augurer tells Toru Okada and his wife Kumiko at the beginning of their marriage. "You go up when you are supposed to go up and down when you are supposed to go down. When you're supposed to go up, find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you're supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom. When there's no flow, stay still."

We meet Toru Okada when he is quite still indeed; we're presented with a man who believes firmly in pasta al dente and who details the precise procedure with which he irons his shirts. He's quit his paper-pushing job, and spends his days cooking for Kumiko and waiting for direction to hit. Then the cat disappears. Soon after, Kumiko leaves for work and doesn't come back. Malta Kano, a not-for-profit mystic, again advises Okada about flow; so this househusband gathers up a rope ladder, a canteen of water, and some lemon drops and crawls into an empty well. His mission: to follow the flow as far down as he can.

So it is that throughout the rest of the book, Murakami strings together a chain of discrete coincidences, propelling his narrator toward a kind of reckoning. If the soothsayer hadn't been caught running a spy mission in 1937 Manchuria and tortured in some unconventional ways, he never would have mentioned a well in the first place. If Toru Okada didn't have a teenage neighbor who happened to be captivated with the mechanisms of dying, he wouldn't have been shut in the well and left to die. If he didn't get shut in the well and left to die, he wouldn't have had the hallucinations that left him with an all-too-real black mark on his face. If a woman named Nutmeg had not been passing Toru Okada one day, she would never have seen the mark, identical to the one on her father, which lent him healing powers. And, if Nutmeg had not involved Toru Okada in her secretive business...

All right, enough. Suffice to say it's easy to see where Murakami comes down on the fate/chance debate; there's something at work here that controls people's lives. The happy Miyawaki family moves into a cursed house; they fall bankrupt and kill themselves. A soldier is given a prophecy that he will not die in Manchuria; as a result, he cannot die, no matter what he does. Kumiko says she has fallen victim to "something decided in advance, without me, in a pitch-dark room somewhere, by someone else's hand." Murakami's characters experience lives that are not quite their own; they are all protagonists at the mercy of some supernatural author.

Of course, literally they're at the mercy of Murakami, not exactly supernatural but certainly metaphysical. His narrative style, called by one critic, "Arthur C. Clarke tipping his hat to Nietzsche," is new to Japan, earning him a passionate following among Japanese youth and a few raised eyebrows from the establishment. His other books, including A Wild Sheep Chase and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of The World have earned him prestigious literary awards in Japan and a small but partisan following in America. (Like all reputable iconoclasts, Murakami has spawned a few Internet sites devoted to his work, maintained by rabid fans with a few MBs and a dream.) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the requisite big book (640 pages) designed to call up Murakami into the international big leagues. And it should, though the possibility exists that the very aspects that make it so artful could garner criticism.

On the surface, much of the novel seems disjointed. Major characters disappear without herald, pages are devoted to long narratives about seemingly unrelated events in history, tantalizing questions appear and then dissolve without resolution. Yet these wanderings seem intentional and even crucial; each instance is necessary to the cause-effect chain of the story.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is an expressionist mirror of a life: In a world where, as one character puts it, "fact may not be truth and truth may not be factual," the only rule and the only truth are those that guide Toru Okada. Fate, coincidence, and chaos masquerade as each other, and all avenues to certainty end in a familiar cul-de-sac: Chances are that chances are... rather good.

 
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