I’ve been wanting to read something by Murakami for a while now, just from reading reviews on other blogs. Right now most people are reading 1Q84, which is topping the critics “Best of 2011” lists, but I wanted to start with something a little more straightforward. Alley over at What Red Read had the same idea, and the recommendation she received was Norwegian Wood.
Norwegian Wood (referring to the Beatles song of that name) is one of Murakami’s earlier books and considered to be highly autobiographical. It’s also supposed to be more “linear” than his other works. It begins with the narrator, Toru Watanabe, on a plane in his late thirties and looking back to when he was 19 in the late 1960s. He tells us about a woman he loved intensely and lost. Toru at nineteen is a young college student who rekindles a friendship with Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend, Kizuki, who killed himself when they were seventeen.
I love the way the book begins, with Murakami writing about how hard it is to write about one’s most intense memories. This is something I really identify with. How an instance twenty years ago can stay in your head like it was yesterday; how you remember certain strange details, like a song playing or the weather or something you ate, but then can’t remember the faces of people who were important to you. I’ve tried to write some of my own memories and I couldn’t put it better than Murakami does:
Writing from memory like this, I often feel a pang of dread. What if I’ve forgotten the most important thing? What if somewhere inside me there is a dark limbo where all the truly important memories are heaped and slowly turning into mud? …
Once, long ago, when I was still young, when the memories were far more vivid than they are now, I often tried to write about Naoko. But I was never able to produce a line. I knew that if that first line would come, the rest would pour itself onto the page, but I could never make it happen. Everything was too sharp and clear, so that I could never tell where to start – the way a map that shows too much can sometimes be useless. Now, though, I realize all I can place in the imperfect vessel of writing are imperfect memories and imperfect thoughts. The more the memories of Naoko inside me fade, the more deeply I am able to understand her.
Going back to Toru’s youth, Toru and Naoko struggle to get past the tragedy of their friend’s death but still honor their friend’s memory. They also struggle to build a friendship that is more than simply sharing memories of their friend. They are bound together by Kizuki’s death, but also limited by it.
Unfortunately, Naoko grows increasingly troubled, and she checks herself into a sort of mental health “retreat”, a communal establishment hidden far in the mountains, where residents care for each other and retreat from the stress of the outside world. As Naoko struggles with her health, Toru must figure out what their relationship is and how he can help her. At the same time, he meets another girl, a student in his classes, who he becomes increasingly attracted to.
Interestingly, I saw a lot of parallels between this book and the book I recently finished, The Marriage Plot. Both are about college students, both focus on relationships and career issues, and both have characters that struggle with some sort of mental illness. The Marriage Plot is written from an American point of view, while Norwegian Wood is Japanese. As I was reading I definitely thought about how the Japanese perspective might be different from the American perspective, especially regarding suicide. Many of the characters in Norwegian Wood have friends and family members who have killed themselves, and there almost seemed to be more acceptance about it, or at least more pragmatism — although at the same time Murakami makes very clear that the characters in Norwegian Wood are dramatically impacted by these events their entire lives.
Unlike The Marriage Plot, Toru is viewing these events from a distance, and with the wisdom and knowledge of someone who has had years to reflect. A twenty-year-old wouldn’t say things like:
I felt a kind of loneliness that was new to me, as if I were the only one here who was not truly part of the scene. Come to think of it, what scene had I been part of in recent years? The last one I could remember was in a billiards parlor near the harbor, where Kizuki and I shot pool together in a mood of total friendship. Kizuki died that night, and ever since then a cold, stiffening wind had come between me and the world. This boy Kizuki: what had his existence meant to me? To this question I could find no answer. All I knew – with absolute certainty – was that Kizuki’s death had robbed me forever of a part of my adolescence. But what that meant, and what would come from it, were far beyond my understanding.
Toru, like Mitchell in The Marriage Plot, is a nice guy – he wants and desires Naoko and Midori (and women in general) but he also doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. He grows increasingly uncomfortable with meaningless sex, and he struggles to be whatever Naoko and Midori need him to be. This leaves him trapped in an escalating triangle, and clearly at some point he’s going to have to make a choice.
I read Naoko’s letter again and again, and each time I read it I would be filled with that same unbearable sadness I used to feel whenever Naoko herself stared into my eyes. I had no way to deal with it, no place I could take it to or hide it away. Like the wind passing over my body, it had neither shape nor weight, nor could I wrap myself in it. Objects in the scene would drift past me, but the words they spoke never reached my ears.
I continued to spend my Saturday nights in the lobby… I would switch on the baseball game and pretend to watch it as I cut the empty space between me and the television set in two, then cut each half in two again, over and over, until I had fashioned a space small enough to hold in my hand.
This book is beautifully written, and I really enjoyed the characters and identified with their struggles. The story is dark but not overwhelming; it somehow remains subtle. I occasionally found the dialogue stilted, compared to the rest of the narrative. I expect that has something to do with the translation of the book, or cultural/language differences.
There was one character I just didn’t like, and that was Naoko’s friend Reiki. I just found her bizarre – pushy and unrealistically written. She acts as sort of a mentor and friend to both Naoko and Toru, but I found her off-putting, particularly her story of how she ends up in the institution and her long speechmaking. Every time Toru visits Naoko she just takes over and manipulates both characters, yet it seems as a reader I’m supposed to admire her. Maybe this is a failure in the translation, or maybe I missed something, but I really disliked both her character and her role in the story. At times she seems almost more like a plot device (for example, Toru hears about Naoko through letters from Reiki) but then Murakami spends way too much time on her.
Otherwise, Murakami really shows you the complexities of mental illness, suicide, and just the struggle of every day characters to get past the tragedies in their lives and find happiness with each other. Toru is sort of a blank canvas – he has issues but really he reflects all the passions and worries of the people around him. His friends are strange and interesting while he seems to go through life as a passive observer.
I liked how Murakami, while concentrating on big themes of love, loss, and disconnectedness, really pays attention to the small details of daily life, like bus routes and part-time jobs. Money isn’t a key issue in the story but it’s definitely recognized by characters as important (Naoki’s sanatorium, for example, is only for the wealthy who can afford a place to just rest.) I’ve never been to Japan, but Murakami’s vivid description made me feel I was there.
This is a moving story about love and friendship and first relationships. I really enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to reading more of Murakami’s work. If you’re a Murakami fan, what would you recommend?