At the Bottom of a Well and on Top of the World

Lately I’ve been interested in reading Haruki Murakami’s newest magnum opus 1Q84, but then I overheard someone who was already halfway through it, saying about the book, ‘All things being equal, I would rather be re-reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.’ So that’s what I did.

I heeded her warning and am re-reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the book many consider Murakami’s masterpiece.

And it’s only upon this second reading I have discovered that what on my first time through seemed merely a confusing and surpassingly strange story — the type of book only a Japanese writer could have written — was, the second time around, really a long and involved (not to mention, fascinating) metaphor for what a writer goes through in order to produce a novel.

The story, in short: A man’s cat goes missing. Then his wife. And so the man, who for no good reason recently has quit his job and sits around all day doing very little, searches for them both by climbing to the bottom of a dry, abandoned well where, gripping a baseball bat as a lucky talisman, he manages to sort-of imagine his way past the interior walls of the well to a place where his wife is being held captive, sort of, by a man who is nothing more than a shadow.

Magical wells figure prominently in Murakami’s fiction, and it is not hard to see the hero’s descent into the well in order to set things right in his life as a most Jungian descent into the collective unconscious; or, rather, a physical representation of the author’s own descent into his imagination to produce the book we are at that moment reading. The hero of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle mysteriously passes through the interior of the well to a mystical dream place where he must do psychic battle with a far-right politician, with Japan’s own war guilt for its actions in 1930’s China, and with people who do nothing but watch television all day and mean to do harm to our hero.

How Haruki Muraki became a writer is something of a legend. Shunning the traditional Japanese career path, desk work at a large corporation, he opened a night club instead. Then one day he was at a ballpark drinking a beer and watching a baseball game when a batter, an American ballplayer playing overseas, stroked a double — and like a bolt out of the blue, at that moment Murakami knew he could be a writer. He had never had any interest in writing before this, but after the game Murakami bought some pencils and a pad of paper  and immediately set to work on a novel, embarking on what has become a more than thirty-year career as Japan’s leading exporter of fiction.

So knowing Murakami’s biography does help us, to some degree, to suss out what exactly that man is doing at the bottom of that well with a baseball bat.

Or as one of the characters in the book describes the hero: ‘You’re such a supernormal guy, but you do such unnormal things…when I’m looking at you, I get this feeling like maybe you’re fighting real hard against something for me…in your own way, you’re out there fighting as hard as you can, even if other people can’t tell by looking at you.’ She just as easily could be describing the role a writer — any artist — plays in contemporary society, railing against those malign forces in the world that would divide us or destroy us, and turning the reader, hopefully, towards the path of love, acceptance, and understanding — that is, if you ascribe to such warm and fuzzy notions about art.

While the hero of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle does little writing himself, the book is full to bursting with writing: personal letters, war remembrances, journal entries, memoir, newspaper articles, emails, instant messaging, hate mail. And so it is by the end of the novel that the hero finally sets out, using nothing more than his imagination and the stories all the other characters tell him, to work out in his mind an alternate reality — or fate — where the boy gets the girl, justice is served, and a lonely teenage girl (the book’s single greatest creation, the amazing May Kasahara) finds some long-awaited solace, self-understanding, even redemption.

And so, like the hero of the story, as a writer we too go into our own private, special place surrounded by our totems and talismans — our favorite books, a ‘lucky’ pencil, a forensics award from high school, some old love letters — as we attempt to break through the limits of our existence to reach a world where the impossible, or at least the improbable, happens.



Filed under What I'm Reading Right Now

2 responses to “At the Bottom of a Well and on Top of the World

  1. As much as I love to argue with Wes or any of you, I have to echo Jill’s comment. I’m not sure if I want to read Murakami or more Pierce. Pierce at the moment. Wes, you are my role model for literary theory.

  2. Bravo!!!! Bravo, Wes!!! Take a bow! Flowers pelt the stage as everyone in the audience leaps to its collective feet. And I–all I can do is stand on the seat of my swiveling, adjustable computer chair and applaud furiously. In response, I’d like to recommend a tiny novel I just completed: Good Offices, written by the Columbian writer, Evelio Rosero, and translated by Anne McLean and Anna Milsom. It, too, gives the reader a sense of following the narrator into the well-like depths of the human psyche. There are no baseball bats, however, just shovels, candles, spirits, lust, and Catholicism. I couldn’t put it down.

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