The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is a wildly imaginative tale straddling the known and apparent world and a shadow world where strange, malevolent and sometimes inexplicable forces are at work. On its face, the tale concerns a jilted, cuckolded husband whose cat and then his wife disappear. Trying to understand and regain her, he encounters a series of very odd women, some of whom he sleeps with. His attempt to reconnect with his wife is punctuated by long stories of the pre-World War II occupation of Manchuria related in part by one of the strange women and in part by an old soldier of the war. Much of the book is spent in the bottom of a literal well.
It is a nonlinear tale, a pastiche of news accounts, real-time narrative, old war stories, letters, and personal histories. A number of disparate themes present themselves throughout: fate, water, birds, baseball, skin, men without faces. None is really tied up in a neat way; unfinished threads hang from this book’s pages. While many of the individual war stories would themselves make fine stand alone narratives full of doomed and evil men and driven by strong narrative force, the tale of the main character’s search for his wife is far more slack.
What drives this slackness is the fact that the main narrator, the husband, is by far and away the least interesting character in the novel. Females full of character and drive and ambition surround and dote on him, but he is completely acted upon rather than acting as an agent himself. He largely obeys their direction. We learn a lot about the sandwiches he prepares and the cigarette varieties he does not smoke. When the going gets tough, he disappears down a well for days to think. I kept hoping he would disappear from the novel and let the more interesting characters have more room on the stage.