Thursday, July 14, 2011

Norwegian Wood: Better To Have Loved And Lost?

A Japanese version of The Catcher in the Rye, only with more atmosphere and depth, and a lot more sex? Does that sound like something you might be interested in? Then, I'd humbly submit Haruki Murakami's slim, ethereal novel, Norwegian Wood.

Norwegian Wood is, of course, a Beatles song, the opening lyric of which is "I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me." The song itself, as well as the idea presented in its lyric of first love and the stinging memory thereof, are two of the major themes of the novel. The novel asks us to try to understand the dangers of taking love for granted; of assuming that there will always be time to work out problems; of waiting on one love at the expense of the possibility of another.

Such are the issues our narrator Toru Watanabe, a 19-year-old Tokyo college student, deals with. The year is 1969, and one day on the train, Toru runs into Naoko — the ex-girlfriend of Toru's best friend in high school, who had mysteriously killed himself. Toru and Naoko begin seeing each other once a week, and soon, their feelings intensify. But are the feelings genuine, or is Naoko simply using Toru as a stand-in for her dead boyfriend?

Meanwhile, Toru meets the flighty, but fascinating Midori, and begins seeing her regularly, as well. Such is Toru's dilemma: Whom should he choose? Or, is the answer neither: Should he continue going out with his friend Nagasawa, getting drunk and sleeping with slutty girls? At one point, he wonders aloud, "What if there were a deux ex machina in real life?" In other words, why couldn't life be simple like a Greek drama in which the resolution to any problem is simply a god's intervention.

And as if to make all these questions even more complicated for himself, Toru begins questioning how much he should even trust his own vision of the world. Midori lies to him. A friend's life is ruined by a manipulative, lying 13-year-old girl. And his friend Nagasawa constantly lies to his own girlfriend to continue his carousing ways. Toru begins to distrust his ability to parse the truth. "If I told myself (the events of last night) were real, I believed they were real, and if I told myself they were a fantasy, they seemed like a fantasy." And so how to make decisions regarding matters of the heart on information that's not trustworthy? 

This book is loaded with difficult questions. And sex. Lots and lots of sex. Indeed, Norwegian Wood is blurbed as "the most erotic of Murakami's novels." So, if you're not into all those coming-of-age, difficult life questions, there that to keep you interested, anyway.

But it is a quick, fluid read, and one I really enjoyed. This is the first time I've read Murakami, and while I understand that Norwegian Wood isn't the best representative of his oeuvre, it does seem a good introduction to both his style, which is as clear and sharp as any writer I've ever read, and also his acumen as a storyteller. This is the kind of novel you read in hundred-page chunks, and is over before you know it. How did it go that fast? What did that all mean?


  1. Great review. It's been so long since I've read this, I didn't really remember the plot, or all the sex. I thought this book was beautiful and it is my favorite Murakami read to date, although I would agree that it isn't the most representative. Wind Up Bird Chronicle is great as well.

  2. The book touched me (literally, I think) so deeply, I avoided everything by Murakami for the last several years. I just recently picked up a novella by him. I loved this book, mostly for the reasons you mentioned. Good review.

  3. I'm glad you enjoyed this one Greg. I liked it a lot as well. Is it weird that I didn't really take note of all the sex? I remember it was in there, but I don't remember thinking there was a lot. And I don't read many books with a lot of sex in them, so it's not like I'm numb to it. Anyway, this was my first Murakami as well. I'm thinking either Wind-Up Bird (which intimidates me a little) or A Wild Sleep Chase (I've read good things about it).

  4. @LBC - Yeah, it is a beautiful book. Simple and complex and magical and real all at once. I'm looking forward to taking on Wind Up Bird Chronicle later this summer in anticipation of 1Q84.

    @Kenneth - I'm not sure it got me so deeply as to put me off Murakami for awhile, but I would agree that it's affecting. Parts are kick-you-in-the-balls affecting.

    @Brenna - I think I took note of it a) B/c I'm a dude, and b) B/c it was so totally unexpected. I sort of had this notion of Hurakami as stuff and academic. How wrong, how so very wrong!

  5. This is also my favourite novel by Murakami closely followed by The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (which was the first Murakami I read). I read Kafka on the Shore a couple of years ago which I also enjoyed, slightly slower in pace. Now I'm waiting to read his first 2 books and of course 1Q84 when it comes out later this year. Norwegian Wood, together with South of the Border, West of the Sun , is probably the most normal of his novels. The others are more fantastical. Hope you go on to read more.

  6. This is my first and so far only Murakami but I've vowed to read more. I love your Catcher in the Rye comparison - I remember it being sad, bittersweet, and yes, lot of sex...but then again it revolves around a 19 year old :)

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