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Weekly Alibi The Songs of Mechanical Birds

Haruki Murakami's "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle."

By Steven Robert Allen

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  Toru Okada quit his errand-boy job at a law firm. For the moment, he shops, cooks and cleans, while his wife Kumiko works as an editor at a health food magazine. He reads a book from the library. He plans what he should cook for dinner. He meticulously irons his shirts, an activity that helps him relax.

Quickly, though, this mundane existence is perverted by unforeseen events. Toru begins receiving unrequested phone sex calls from an anonymous woman who insists she knows him. He befriends a 16-year-old, death-obsessed girl who conducts research for a toupee manufacturer. Two sisters, who run a "clairvoyance service," contact him, ostensibly to help him locate his wife's missing cat. Instead of finding the cat, though, they take samples of his bath water and tell him that his brother-in-law, Noboru Wataya, a powerful politician and "intellectual," brutally raped one of them.

Then one day Kumiko doesn't come home from work, and Toru is suddenly drawn into the sticky web of his powerful brother-in-law. The book becomes a kind of magic mushroom mystery novel: Why has his wife left? What does his brother-in-law have to do with it? How did he get this strange blue mark on his cheek, which seems to give him psychic powers? Why does everyone he knows have some connection with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria before World War II?

Those familiar with 20th century Japanese literature will notice that this kind of plotting is not exactly standard fare. In Japan, Haruki Murakami is considered to be the leading exponent of a new wave of young writers: cynical, weird, piercingly mo-dern, searingly in-tense. His fiction reads in sharp contrast to the Japanese writers of the recent past who have tended to focus on the traditional aspects of Japanese society and the way they are being swallowed up by encroaching modernity and influence from the West. In Murakami's work, that Japan has vanished, replaced by a society dominated by computers, urban decay, sex and mass media.

In this society, technology and media have become sinister forces aligned against the best interests of humanity. Noboru Wataya, Toru's brother-in-law, is Murakami's version of the Information Age. He is manipulative, inflammatory, superficial, utterly lacking in integrity and incredibly adept at delivering the kind of performances required to thrive on mass media. Toru, on the other hand, to everyone's astonishment and irritation, does not even own a television. Kumiko falls into the slim wrinkle separating these two worlds: the dark world of lies, half-truths, sickness and image, and the light world of truth, health and integrity.

Toru is not a genius, but he comprehends the difference, in a spiritual and political sense, between what should be valued and what should be undermined. Information, we often forget, is not the same as knowledge. Nor is it the same as truth. Paradoxically, the introduction of new media, such as TV and the World Wide Web, has not necessarily allowed us to understand our world better. In many ways it has simply led to heightened confusion and paranoia.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle portrays a society and an in- dividual life that are disintegrating largely because of these factors. Thankfully, there is nothing heavy-handed about Murakami's social commentary. Societal problems and personal ones fester, convincingly, like a single infected wound. Murakami's Tokyo is saturated with commercialism and media. In fact, the city is so isolated from truth and reality that even the birds sound mechanical. Nothing is quite what it seems. Toru Okada, the tiny everyman, sorts and organizes the events, personalities and stories that swirl around him. Moderately bright, yet far from brilliant, how can he make sense of a world such as this?

Knots of tension are tied and loosened in rapid succession. In the final third of the book, the reader becomes apprehensive that Murakami will lose control over his narrative. The novel seems destined to degenerate into empty surrealism, or worse, allegory. Murakami, though, knows what he's doing. By the last page, every piece has fallen into place in a way that is surprising and twisted, but at the same time aesthetically satisfying.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a major work that deserves the attention that it will inevitably receive. It succeeds because it tells a story about real people, keeps the reader gripping the rail with white knuckles and reveals glimpses of our evolving world, which we desperately need to see. (Knopf, cloth, $25.95)

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