The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki MurakamiKnopf$25.95, 611 pp.Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is an intermittently successful attempt by the author to expand and deepen the coolly absurd terrain he has staked out as his own in such previous novels as Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and A Wild Sheep Chase. Something of a cult figure in this country, the boomer-aged novelist is widely popular with young adults, who respond to his hip disaffection and culturally Westernized heroes as they wander through their shaggy-dog adventures like hapless ghosts. The obvious precedent for these deadpan, comically ominous narratives would seem to be Kafka, though "alienation" is too soft a word to describe Murakami's characters' conditions; in Murakami's world there has been little indication of anything to be alienated from. But in Wind-Up Bird he's upped the ante, both by newly introducing Big Topics -- World War II and the death of love are two monstrous presences threading through the book -- and by forcing his hero to confront what lies beneath his typically feckless facade. If this event-crammed novel could be summed up in a phrase, it would be the story of a man who finally loses his cool.Murakami is a great short-story teller (his collection The Elephant Vanishes is easily his most flawless work) and his novels tend to read like cobbled-together tales. In Wind-Up Bird the "action" proceeds via the telling of several personal histories, meant to be absorbed by the protagonist, one Toru Okada. Okada is a typical Murakami dangling man -- in his early 30s, out of work due more to inertia than to misfortune, with no particular past and little concept of the future.Okada's journey toward becoming something more than a human doorstop begins when, out of the blue, his wife leaves him ("out of the blue" is where pretty much everything in a Murakami novel comes from). In short order, the encounters begin -- he meets the otherworldly sisters Malta and Creta Kano, the latter having the unnerving ability to enter into his dreams; a singularly obnoxious 16-year-old girl named May Kasahara who serves as his burgeoning conscience; a psychic healer named Nutmeg Akasaka and her mute, savant son, Cinnamon; and, most providentially, a decrepit old gentleman named Lieutenant Mamiya who relates some particularly grisly experiences he had in Outer Mongolia during that period in the '30s when Japan was still occupying Manchuria.It's in the telling of the stories of Mamiya and Nutmeg Akasaka that Murakami stretches beyond anything he's attempted before. These passages have a different feel from the rest of the book, which tends to seesaw between the mundane and flat-out fantasy. The author's usual airy nonchalance disappears and is replaced by a steady, pitiless sense of detail, a thickening of reality which enfolds the reader. In Mongolia, while on a pointless patrol, Mamiya is captured by the enemy (a Soviet officer and his Mongolian henchmen), forced to watch as one of his compatriots is skinned alive and then is himself tossed into an empty well in the middle of nowhere and left for dead. Nutmeg's story is more arabesque but equally gruesome, telling of the wanton slaughter of zoo animals in Hsing-ching, Manchuria, by Japanese soldiers about to be overrun by Soviet troops.Okada, for whom life is making less and less sense, is impressed by a particular aspect of Mamiya's story -- that after a couple of days in that abandoned well in Mongolia, he felt his body and then his very being melt into the surrounding darkness after which, during that brief period each day when the sun would shine directly down the shaft, he would experience a feeling of transcendent wholeness so intense that the remainder of his long life has been anticlimactic. There are stretches of Murakami's novel that are very much like sitting at the bottom of a well -- one is totally in the dark and dubious about continuing the endeavor. That Murakami is a gifted storyteller is never in question, but whether he's given much thought to the inner-connectedness of his various stories is doubtful. The author himself has said as much, that he is an intuitive writer who starts with an image and then elaborates in order to see what will happen. And a great deal does happen in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, much more than has been mentioned here. Yet while one can be continually interested in and occasionally dazzled by the unceasing flow of inventiveness, in the end the string of impressive set pieces simply does not cohere. This is the paradox of Murakami: that this major novel can only enhance his reputation as one of the finest short-story writers of our day.Richard C. Walls writes frequently about the arts for the Metro Times. You can e-mail him c/o email@example.com.