Sunday, May 24, 2009

Room 208

A couple years ago my daughter Jane Bob was looking for something to read and asked me to recommend a book. This came as quite a shock because she'd always been hostile to any reading advice I might give. Now she was asking for it?

I looked across the book shelf and picked out "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" by Haruki Murakami. She looked at me with undisguised disgust. It's like a gazillion pages. Don't worry, I said. You'll like it. It's like totally inappropriate for a kid your age. Really? Yea, really. Only a totally irresponsible parent would recommend that book.

So she took it and I forgot about it. A couple weeks later she gave it back. Did you like it? Yea, it was good. Thanks.

I liked it when I first read it, and then I read "Kafka on the Beach" and liked that as well. But over the years I got to wondering if Wind-up Bird was really that good. It was a page turner, sure, but was it great literature?

As someone who probably took a few too many English classes in college, I tend to consider whether or not someone is a great writer and if his or her work is great literature. What is great literature? Impossible to say, precisely, but it usually involves some combination of great writing and great insight into the human condition. Is Murakami a great writer? Is Wind-up Bird a great novel? I finally got around to reading it again.

Several years had passed and I found I didn't remember many of the story details. That happens a lot, I think, with page turners. You get so engrossed in finding out what's going to happen that you kind of skim important parts leading up to the resolution. But this time I was more interested in what it was "about" than in what was going to happen.

So, you read Wind-up Bird, I said to Jane Bob. What was it about? It's about a guy whose wife leaves him and he spends the rest of the book trying to get her back.

Wow, I said dumbfounded. I never thought about it that way. So what did you think it was about? she asked. You're supposed to be some kind of Mr. Literature aren't you? I don't know, I said. That's why I asked. I guess if it were a question on a test, I'd say something like it's an examination of Japan trying to move into the modern age while still mired in its supernatural heritage and lingering angst about the war.

What did she think about all the supernatural stuff? Really made it interesting. What did she think about all the WWII historical stuff? First she'd heard of it (her U.S. History class didn't even get to WWI), but it was interesting. Was it great literature? I don't know Dad, I'm leaving now.

After reading "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle" again, I don't think it will prove to be great literature. Cause when you cut through all the supernatural and historical elements, it's simply about a guy whose wife left him and he's trying to get her back. The idea that heaven and earth play super complicated games that involve the lives of millions over some guy's missing wife is a bit too much.

But as always, I may be wrong. Murakami could well be like Miyazaki. Perhaps his references to the supernatural aspects of Japanese culture go over the heads of ignorant westerners and there is much more depth to the story than we can comprehend.

The New York Times had this to say. I don't know about any of that, but Wind-up Bird an enjoyable read and a good page turner. I guess time and more intelligent readers than I will ultimately determine its literary merit. Jane Bob, btw, has never asked me for another reading recommendation. My advice on that score: If your teen-aged daughter asks for reading advice, recommend something with significantly fewer than a gazillion pages. Maybe "Even Cowgirls get the Blues?"