At the Bottom of a Dry Well
To make it through the length and breadth of Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Vintage Books, 1997) is no small feat. Personally, it took more than a few months of stops and starts, fits and bursts, to read or not to read, to cross the finish line of Murakami's weirdly satisfying novel.
For me, the lingering effect of the book arrives from a complex array of vantage points. Most prominently, it's a writer's off-beat experiment in storytelling and world-making. But it also serves as a natural stimulant for philosophical thought—especially on matters of life, death, and the meanings in between.
In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle you're sure to find an interesting example of fiction's capacity to accommodate and accentuate social commentary—in this case, Japanese imperial ambitions in "Manchuria" in the first half of the 20th century and the internal machinations of the Japanese political class in the late 20th century.
Meanwhile, for those of us raised on some version of religious faith, explorations into alternative spirituality and unusual healing powers will undoubtedly extend the boundaries of the mind. Then there's the intricate emotional passage through a relationship that has gone from difficulty and struggle into estrangement.
Upon further review, critics have previously observed: the author's long, strange trip in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle often ventures between the real, the illusory, and something akin to a waking dream. For the most part, this trip occurs through the experiences of Murakami's protagonist-narrator Toru Okada.
As a reader, it is precisely these tripped-out contours of the story—numerous stories within stories; some better than others—that make for a series of unique encounters with the book's collage of characters. Perhaps the most existential of these encounters takes us to the bottom of a dry well, where, it turns out, Toru spends several cathartic days.
Not insignificantly, the well sits on a piece of neighborhood property deemed to be haunted by death, including the actual deaths of several former residents. Inside the well, meanwhile, Toru travels through his questions, thoughts, and emotions—and at different aspects of light/darkness depending on the time of day. Which prompted me to consider:
"How much can we really know about ourselves if we've never spent a day or two, alone, at the bottom of a dry well?"
You might recognize the variation on Tyler Durden's famous question in Chuck Palahniuk's novel Fight Club. The altar ego of "Jack," Tyler intones his fervent plea for a cultural awakening of male consciousness:
"How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight?"
And who can forget the lovable-pitiable Delmar O'Donnell, one of the motley crew in the Coen Brothers' film O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Delmar channels both his inner male and his inner American Dream in 1930s Mississippi during the Great Depression:
"You ain't no kind of man if you ain't got land."
In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle the "fight" is so desperately internal, and the "land" appears somewhere beneath the land, underground, at the bottom of a dry well.
The author details Toru's reflections upon one particular occasion:
I climb down the steel ladder anchored in the side of the well, and in the darkness at the bottom, I feel for the bat I always leave propped against the wall.
I go on from there to check that nothing has changed down here in the darkness, where there is nothing to see. I listen hard for anything new; I take a lungful of air; I scrape the ground with the sole of my shoe; I check the hardness of the wall with a few taps of the bat tip. The well bottom is like the bottom of the sea. Things down here stay very still, keeping their original forms, as if under tremendous pressure, unchanged from day to day.
A round slice of light floats high above me: the evening sky. Looking up at it, I think about the October evening world, where "people" must be going about their lives. Beneath that pale autumn light, they must be walking down streets, going to the store for things, preparing dinner, boarding trains for home. And they think—if they think at all—that these things are too obvious to think about, just as I used to do (or not do). They are the vaguely defined "people," and I used to be a nameless one among them. Accepting and accepted, they live with one another beneath that light, and whether it lasts forever or for a moment, there must be a kind of closeness while they are enveloped in the light.
I am no longer one of them, however. They are up there, on the face of the earth; I am down here, in the bottom of a well. They possess the light, while I am in the process of losing it. Sometimes I feel that I may never again find my way back to that world, that I may never again be able to feel the peace of being enveloped in the light. And then I feel a dull ache in the chest, as if something inside there is being squeezed to death.
Down here, the well is warm and silent, and the softness of the inner earth caresses my skin. The pain inside me fades like ripples on water. The place accepts me, and I accept the place.
In Toru's alone-ness amidst the well, I sense a kind of beauty which is also a kind of terror.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night. These are the words we dimly hear:
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don't let yourself lose me.
It is this tension, this "dull ache in the chest," this space between our alone-ness and our found-ness, that Murakami shakes and stirs within us.