I have to admit something — I can barely remember the details of one of my favorite books. There are strong images that have stuck with me over the years: A man in the bottom of a well. A soldier skinned alive. A sexual encounter that is neither dream nor reality. A magical birthmark. A missing cat. A man slowly and carefully boiling water for pasta. Characters named Cinnamon and Nutmeg. But the plot? Well that utterly eludes me.
Partly, of course, this is because Haruki Murakami, the author of this favorite book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, do not follow the rules of conventional novels very often. The experience of reading a Murakami novel is more like following someone through a dream than it is actually picking up a physical book and reading it, left to right, cover to cover.
Most disturbingly, I couldn't read. Every book I picked up made the spiral worse. I tried everything from Roald Dahl (pretty helpful, actually) to the Twilight series (seriously, seriously unhelpful). I didn't want to think; I just wanted to vanish.
Feelings hold on more tightly than Murakami's story. The plot itself is loose, elusive, and sometimes downright confusing. What's real and what isn't are questions often left to the reader, or left deliberately and altogether unanswered. What "happens" is not — at least in my opinion — the point of a Murakami novel.
The point is the simultaneously soaring and sinking experience of being drawn so completely into his worlds that real life begins to feel flat and leeched of color. The point is how you feel emerging from his books; blinking, fogged like glass by hot breath, changed.
When I picked up The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in 2007, it was, to put it mildly, not a great time for me. I was a freshman in college, and my boyfriend of six years had just broken up with me, suddenly and abruptly, via AOL Instant Messenger. It sounds dramatic, but I was sure I was going to die.
I was so anxious that most of the time, I couldn't breathe. I couldn't eat, I couldn't keep down what little I was managing to eat, and I couldn't sleep at all. Most disturbingly, I couldn't read. Every book I picked up made the spiral worse. I tried everything from Roald Dahl (pretty helpful, actually) to the Twilight series (seriously, seriously unhelpful). I didn't want to think; I just wanted to vanish.
I don't even remember how I came across a copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I had heard of Murakami, and had his work recommended to me before. And so, with trepidation, during one of many miserable, empty afternoons, I began reading.
What is it about Murakami that saved me? The depth, the dreaminess, the horror, the humor, the super-weird sex? All of it, I think. As long as the book continued, as long as I could follow Toru Okada on his ever-more-bizarre quest, I could breathe. The words seeped into my soul, and like a balm, they slowly healed it. The novel was both a masterful distraction from anything real, and a peek into what might lie beyond my own sadness. It was a reminder that a wider, more strange and beautiful world could — and still did — exist.
It couldn't have been any other book, I don't think. I have read a whole lot of books since, some in times of vast sadness, and nothing else has tugged me out of the darkness in quite the same way. I have read other Murakami books, though not many, and always only when I really need them. He has rescued me more than once, but never more than that first time, when his words gave me back my life.