The phone rang one day during the Christmas rush. We were all busy helping customers find books or wrapping presents or ringing up sales at the register. Everyone tried to ignore the phone, but it kept ringing. Finally, with a sigh, a senior clerk answered.
"Do you carry books by female authors?" said the man on the other end. The voice was soft-spoken and familiar, probably someone who had been in the store and conversed with any one of us at one time or another.
"Of course," the clerk replied. "We carry many women writers. Are there any in particular you're looking for?"
"No," the customer said. "No one in particular. Just a good woman fiction writer."
The clerk mentioned some tried-and-true favorites such as Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, to which the customer responded, "Yes, of course. I have read books, you know."
The clerk tried a few more: Ellen Douglas, Elizabeth Spencer, Carson McCullers, Jill McCorkle. "Too regional," the caller said. The clerk mentioned some recent customer favorites — Kathryn Stockett, Jodi Picoult, Muriel Barbery, Audrey Niffenegger. "Too contemporary," he said. The clerk tried a few of his own favorites — Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Annie Proulx, Lorrie Moore. "Too prized."
"Excuse me, but could I ask who's calling?" the clerk pried.
There was a pause, then, "Joseph Conrad."
"I see," the clerk replied. "Perhaps you can tell me more of what you're looking for, Mr. Conrad."
"I'd like something great, something proven; perhaps a little dark, a little dangerous; and certainly nothing obvious. Recommend to me the best female writer I've never read, and maybe never even heard of."
The clerk lobbed a few more names: Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, Louise Erdrich, Joan Didion.
"Mmm, yes, I know these, very good," Mr. Conrad replied. "Tell me more."
"Are you looking for a gift?" This was becoming quite involved, and the clerk wanted to make sure he wasn't being put on a fool's errand. The customers were lining up at the register, and now the staff had become distracted by the one-sided conversation. We all began tossing out names — Mary Robison! Barbara Kingsolver! Ashley Warlick! Zora Neale Hurston! — not even knowing the context of the call but deducing the pattern from the clerk's responses.
"I'm leading a book club discussion, and my fellow members have tired of reading men," the caller explained.
"I think we can find something for you," the clerk responded. "But it's kind of busy here. Can I talk with some of my colleagues and call you back, or email you a list?"
"Tell you what," Conrad said. "Why don't you tape the list to the bookstore door and I'll come by tonight and retrieve it. Also, if you could charge my credit card for a copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Murakami, then gift wrap it and leave it over the transom, I'll pick up the list and the package later this evening. Thank you for your time."
When the rush died down, the clerk described the call to us, and we were all suitably intrigued. "Could it be the secret book club?" we wondered. Generally, when the Club selects a new book for their clandestine meetings, we recognize it immediately. Whenever we receive several orders all at once for the same obscure or mysterious novel, that's usually it. Several of us often read along as part of our own shadow secret club. To our knowledge, the real Secret Book Club has only ever read male writers, mostly dead, and come to think of it, their last couple of selections were quite macho. It stood to reason that members in the club, especially females, would want to read more women writers.
And what of Murakami? The clerk who took the order found the book on the shelf, charged it and started to wrap it but first opened and read several pages before snapping back to reality. "Hey, that's pretty good," he said. "Entrancing."
We walked around the store gathering more names for our list of women writers: Grace Paley, Ruth Rendell, Rebecca West, Amy Bloom, Kelly Link, Dorothy Parker, etc. We came up with several dozen names, typed them up and pasted the list on the front door, then stashed the gift-wrapped Murakami over the transom and locked up for the night. The next day was busy with holiday shoppers, and the next day and the next day after that, and we thought very little of secret book clubs or women writers or obscure and mysterious requests. The holidays came and went, it was a bountiful season, and all was well in books.
Calculating the end-of-year sales, we noticed a sudden spike in sales of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The uptick had occurred in mid- to late-December, and the sales were all easily traced back to staff members. It appeared as though we had all quietly, and of our own volition, chosen Murakami's modern classic as our holiday read.
Naturally we agreed to meet and discuss the book. Our little shadow club needed to recharge its batteries, and everyone who had read Wind-Up was quietly buzzing about this strange and lovely novel. And so, on one of the coldest Sunday afternoons of winter, we met at the home of one of the bookstore managers. It was a modest red-brick bungalow on a quiet side street. In the spirit of secrecy, he advised us all to enter from the gravel alley in back, which ran parallel to the street and provided rear entry for all the houses on the block. Also, the manager had told his wife and family he was having a few colleagues over for a cook-out to celebrate a prosperous holiday season, neglecting to mention it was a secret book discussion.
Everyone stood in the backyard, huddled together, freezing to death as the temperature hovered in the low 20s. At least the host had built a campfire in the middle of the yard, and we stood around, warming our hands and feet, as burgers and hot dogs cooked on the grill.
"So, this book...." someone said, trying to start the book discussion.
"Yes," another agreed.
No one seemed willing to talk, whether because of the cold or because the dreamlike quality of the novel resisted discussion. It's like when you wake from a bizarre dream that has a profound, altering impact on you, but when you try and describe it to someone else, it seems trivial and absurd. There must be a secret language to dreams that only the dreamer can understand. But could a writer achieve such a thing? A novel of certain potency whose brilliance, once brought to air in a public forum, dies quickly, like a fire in reverse. Or were we all just too numb to come up with any intuitive remarks?
For those who have not read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami, it's essentially the story of Toru Okada, an unemployed man in modern-day suburban Tokyo who must contend with the sudden and mysterious disappearance of his cat, followed soon by his wife. During this time, Toru encounters a host of new acquaintances, whose appearance may or may not be related to his wife's departure, and he experiences a series of bizarre occurrences that may or may not be dreams themselves. If it sounds tiresomely contrived, the art of it may lie in the fact that it is definitely not. It feels completely natural as the story unfolds, and Murakami writes in a hypnotic, deceptively plainspoken style that draws you into its hallucinatory core. If it sounds melancholy and absent of plot, then perhaps it is, but also, like the dichotomy of dreams, full of joy and stories also, along with the cruel comforts of darkness and unknowing.
In many ways, the book suggests that life's meaning comes from such random encounters as those experienced by Toru. "People were no more than dolls set on tabletops, the springs in their backs wound up tight, dolls set to move in ways they could not choose, moving in directions they could not choose," Murakami writes. We seemed to be having just such an encounter here, huddled around a small campfire in a co-worker's backyard, waiting patiently for grilled meat as we stomped our feet on the frozen earth and wedged our hands under our armpits.
"This reminds me of the lieutenant's adventure," one reader said, referring to one of the most fascinating sections of the book, which occurs about a fourth of the way through. Toru is visited by an old lieutenant from the Second Sino-Japanese War, the conflict between Japan and China leading up to World War II. The lieutenant is delivering a bequest from a recently deceased family friend and, in the course of conversation, reveals the epic story of his time as a solider in China serving as a mapmaker for the Japanese army. His unit was captured and tortured by brutal Mongol soldiers and a sadistic Soviet officer after they strayed into Outer Mongolia on a delicate intelligence mission, and his subsequent escape and ordeal in a dark, freezing well, without food or clothing, was the defining event of his life. Stranded for several days at the bottom of the pitch-black well, the lieutenant describes a brilliant light that flooded in for only a few seconds a day, the result of the sun's arc at its perfect angle, shining down through the small mouth of the well. He explains:
"Under these special circumstances, I believe, my consciousness had attained such a viscid state of concentration that when the intense beam of light shone down for those few seconds, I was able to descend directly into a place that might be called the very core of my own consciousness.... In the midst of my momentary blindness, something is trying to take shape.... Some thing that possesses life.... It is trying to come to me, trying to confer upon me something very much like heavenly grace. I wait for it, trembling. But then, either because it has changed its mind or because there is not enough time, it never comes to me. The moment before it takes full shape, it dissolves and melts once again into the light. Then the light itself fades. The time for the light to shine down into the well has ended.... The grace came to an end before it could be given to me.... (T)he life I led after emerging from that hole in the ground was nothing but a hollow, empty shell.... When the revelation and the grace were lost, my life was lost. Those living things that had once been there inside me, that had been for that reason of some value, were dead now. Not one thing was left. They had all been burned to ashes in that fierce light."
The lieutenant's white-hot story, told against Toru's gray narrative, inspires the narrator to seek out his own dark sanctuary, a dry well in his neighborhood, and reenact this intensely spiritual deprivation. Considering this, such a locale, whether a well or pit or even windowless room devoid of light, may have been a more suggestive setting for our meeting, spurring some visionless insights into this book, some blind core of truth that rubbed off on us.
Finally one reader, who was especially moved by the book, said that this was the book he'd been waiting for his entire reading life. We urged him to expound, and he said that early in his teenage years, he imagined that he would find one very special book, and once he read that book, his desire to read would vanish. It would be a sign that he had read enough. "I'm pretty sure this is the book," he said. "I haven't read anything since." He said that he also had no desire to talk about books and that he would be leaving now. And then he left.
"Don't you even want a hotdog?" cried the manager, who was busy tending the grill.
The discussion sputtered on awkwardly, in light of this admission. We couldn't recall or make sense of anything anyone said, as if the fire consumed the words as soon as they were spoken. Obviously, the group had submitted to the strange, dreamlike quality of the novel, and we began to mistrust that there was ever a secret book club at all, that perhaps this was as close to a secret book club as had ever existed in Greenwood, and that the other, supposedly true club, was just a figment of our collective imagination.
Finally, one reader in our group, a quiet staff member, the most recent hire, who we doubted had read the book at all, admitted that he had been a member of Secret Book Club all along. He told us about the books they read, and the coup that ousted the tyrant book group leader Dr. H, and even the book selections we somehow missed in the fall — two Russians, Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and Yuri Olesha's Envy! We were stunned to silence. Only the crackling of the fire and the sizzling of the grill could be heard against the cold, dead afternoon.
"I'm the one who called about the women," he revealed.
"Joseph Conrad?" said the senior clerk. "But you were working that day!"
"I phoned from the back."
We all felt betrayed and more than a little hungry. But mere burgers and dogs would not be enough for this particular hunger. The staff member and Secret Book Club member, here in our midst, thanked the manager for inviting him, then left quietly. Some of us went inside to eat, while others stayed and stared into the fire, mourning our friend, the reader who proclaimed he would never read again, and we each drifted away a little.