Norwegian Wood

So, clearly I'm missing something. The book that made the list for 1001 Books to Read Before You Die and that reviews seem to rave about can't possibly be the book I spent about three years slogging through, can it? I purchased this as an audiobook on Audible in late 2007 and made multiple attempts to listen and be captivated until this year when I finally decided it was not worth the space on my ipod and I just needed to make it happen. So over a series of trips (that always left me feeling disgruntled upon arrival) and afternoons knitting in the park, I finally finished Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood this past week, and for a book that is full of rather passive people, I felt pretty strongly about it. Prior to the last hour of listening, my review could have been summarized by: "Sigh. Really? Fine." After the last hour, I switched entirely to: "What the f--k?" When you can wrap up your entire review with two words and an expletive... well... unless it's "damn, that's awesome," then you have a problem. I'll try to write a non-biased description of the plot (but I make no promises) and I warn you now that I will summarize to the end of the book -- honestly, you're not reading this one for plot, as everything is painfully predictable, so I wouldn't worry if I were you. Then again, I also don't recommend reading this one at all, so it's your call.

Originally published in 1987, Norwegian Wood is told from the perspective of Toru Watanabe, a Japanese man looking back on his early days at university in Tokyo. In high school, Watanabe's best friend Kizuki committed suicide on his seventeenth birthday without giving much indication as to his intentions to either his beloved girlfriend, Naoko, or best friend Watanabe. Some time later, after Watanabe begins school in Tokyo, he and Naoko meet and begin to spend time together, finding some consolation in each other's company for the loss they still feel, and they come to love each other. (Or perhaps in reality, Watanabe wants to protect fragile Naoko as she quietly comes apart at the seams and they call this love.) They sleep together once on her twentieth birthday when Naoko's in a particularly unstable mental and emotional mood, then Naoko leaves Tokyo to commit herself to a sanatorium. (Presumably it wasn't the sex that did it, but the timing does make one wonder.) Meanwhile, Watanabe befriends a charismatic and yet callous fellow student named Nagasawa, who shares a love of literature with Watanabe, yet their ideas of the world are at odds. Nagasawa is older and a diplomacy student, with his future career mapped out, and this suits him just fine. Nagasawa's influence leads Watanabe to be a bit of a cad himself, particularly on nights spent on the town as they sleep with girls (including one incident where they swapped halfway through the night). Watanabe never really approves of Nagasawa's behavior, particularly as it pertains to his beautiful and loyal girlfriend Hatsumi, and yet all Watanabe can eventually do is stop going out on Saturday nights with Nagasawa. Lest you think that Watanabe was at least remaining emotionally faithful to Naoko while she's in the sanatorium, he also develops a friendship with an outgoing and outspoken girl from one of his drama classes named Midori, and though he still believes he's in love with Naoko, he rather leads both himself and Midori along in their "friendship," indulging her cheekily explicit conversations and making a promise to Midori's dying father to take care of her. They go drinking and to seedy theaters to watch really dirty porno flicks, and Midori is constantly talking... which can be annoying, but perhaps more annoying is the fact that Marukami thinks she's an independent and strong young woman all because she can care for aging family members and wear a super-short skirt. Her own feelings of self-worth are questionable and even if she knows that (on paper) she's a worthwhile young woman, she still falls for a man in a doomed relationship with another girl that only has the potential to taint their own relationship. Beyond all of Watanabe's personal issues, there's also a growing sense of revolutionary discontent at the University, which Watanabe largely absents himself from, yet cannot escape completely as he lives in a boys' dormitory for a large part of the novel.

Eventually, Watanabe gets his own place and wallows in his isolation. He does go to visit Naoko twice, meeting her roommate Reiko, a cheerful, middle-aged woman who jokes about how old she is and plays many instruments, including the guitar. At Naoko's request, she frequently plays the Beatles, including Naoko's favorite, "Norwegian Wood." While visiting, Watanabe plays confidante to both women, listening to Naoko talk about her older sister's suicide and listening to Reiko tell her own story of how she lost hold of her sanity twice -- once after buckling under the pressure from being a piano prodigy, and again after a young piano student challenges Reiko's sexual orientation and then spreads rumors that Reiko sexually assaulted her. The book is surprisingly explicit when it comes to sex, whether that be Reiko's account of the young woman performing oral sex on her, Naoko's description of how she could never get wet with Kizuki, or Watanabe talking about what he and Naoko do together (though each time he visits, Naoko brings him to climax without them actually engaging in sexual intercourse and without Naoko experiencing any pleasure). Watanabe pushes Naoko into thinking about leaving the sanatorium to come and live with him, where he can look after her, but Naoko only says she will consider it. After returning to Tokyo, Watanabe and Midori have issues with their friendship (Watanabe is a bit of an idiot when it comes to alerting people to his movements, as he tends to exist in his head a great deal) and eventually recognize that it's more than that. Watanabe now has to deal with the fact that he loves both women, yet understands his relationship with Midori is far more sustainable than that with Naoko, who seems to be getting worse and refuses to suggest another date when he can visit, claiming she wants to be all well when he sees her again. When he writes to seek advice from Reiko, she tells him that if he loves Midori, he should be with her, but he shouldn't yet mention it to Naoko for fear of harming her recovery.

Unsurprisingly, Naoko's condition worsens and when she appears to make at least a small recovery, that's only a precursor to her suicide. She hangs herself in the woods near the sanatorium, the same method used by her sister, after agreeing to go to a more intensive hospital for treatment and her only note is to ask that her clothes be given to Reiko. Watanabe attends the funeral and then disappears from Tokyo to live as a vagabond for a few weeks, yet this does nothing to help him heal, and he eventually returns. Reiko leaves the sanatorium and visits Watanabe, posing as his aunt and yet they sleep together before she leaves to take a job teaching music in an isolated place. (We'll also add Hatsumi, the long-suffering girlfriend of Nagasawa and ideal of womanhood, to the list of women too fragile to handle the world, as she also commits suicide a few years after the main events of the novel.) After Naoko's death and Reiko's visit, Watanabe wants to reach out to Midori, whom he's all but ignored following these events (and to whom he said precious little about his whole situation or Naoko's mental issues, save that he was in a complicated relationship), and the novel ends with him finally attempting to call her and Midori giving a somewhat chilly reception. Of course, what's irritating is that she's perfectly justified in her cold tone, yet she's not hanging up on him and persists in listening. There is no resolution here, only the open question of whether they managed to patch things up and my personal hope that Midori told him to piss off.

In general, I found this novel to be slow and dull, easy to put aside and hard to trudge through for the sake of completion. I didn't like any of the characters and I particularly didn't like our narrator, Watanabe. Sure, he might give a perfectly clear account of most things but this colored him as an incredibly detached young man, without real emotions or at least with ridiculously simplistic ones. He seems to have no passions and no personality. He blandly wanders through life, making a mess of things by not doing much of anything or making real choices, and yet we're supposed to identify with him and feel sorry for him? We know from the get-go that Naoko's a lost cause and her death will be a big event, yet we must endure her wilting-lily existence and uncharacteristically open talk about her body's inability to be aroused. Every woman in the novel is held up on a bit of a pedestal... and part of her perfection (despite their small differences) is that they really do need help at all times to stand on their own two feet... preferably strong male help. They seem to be nothing without being defined by male relationships and only Midori has personality (though really, all this "personality" consists of is a constant chatter coupled with an eager interest in discussing sex, though usually it's twisted sex). I like Reiko for the fact that she's pleasant... and indeed, she might seem to be the least stereotypically crazy person, as she only talks about the times she "snapped" and otherwise simply seems frightened of reentering a world that has gone on without her. On the whole, the characters just didn't seem very multifaceted and I know one need not like the narrator of a novel, but he should at least learn something during the course of the novel, right? Something should have happened to him, and yet I'm not sure if anything really did. These all seem to just remain as memories of his youth and since we know practically nothing about the adult Watanabe, the reader is forced to just accept everything as it is, with the knowledge that Watanabe did manage to at least get older.

I just don't get it... or rather, I think I get it, but I just don't want it. Was I supposed to survive on landscape descriptions alone? Was the explicit and detached talk about sex supposed to be revolutionary? Naoko's was awkward, ditto for Reiko, and Midori's seemed unconvincing in the supposed eagerness to go on about it. Was I supposed to swoon for the Beatles being used as a cultural touchstone in Japan? Obviously Murakami was basing the story on bits of the Beatles' song, pulling particular phrases to match so that we have a man remembering a girl, an intimate and yet awkward encounter, and an abrupt departure... but the Beatles have more emotive beauty in a single line of verse than this entire book put together. Sure, it's interesting that Murakami clearly was inspired by a song to write a book, but it didn't work out well. Clearly he spent a lot of time thinking about these characters and certain reviews that I've read suggest that the book isn't exactly autobiographical but Murakami drew heavily from his own past for the character of Watanabe. That fact makes me feel even worse about the book because Watanabe is the single worst part of it... okay, the second worst part; the first worst part is the overall depiction of such simpering women that shows Murakami can't understand a female perspective.

My emotional response tells me to give this book one star, but I'll tack on one more for the sake of the Beatles-inspired idea and certain passages where Murakami describes scenes with detail and care. I'm not sure who recommended this book to me originally, but rest assured, I will be hunting them down and making them pay for inflicting this colossally frustrating experience upon me.

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