Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami)

3(!) years ago, I read Haruki Murakami's gigantic 1Q84. It was my first experience with the Japanese superstar. After I'd finished, I saw that people who had read a great deal of Murakami's work said that it's a terrible place for a novice to start, but I guess the joke's on them because I really, really liked it. I bought a couple of his more popular books and promptly did not read them because that's the kind of person I am.

In the three years it's been, I've agonized over how I ought to proceed. Should I jump into his actual masterwork, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or should I ease myself in with something equally as popular but without any of the weirdness I had enjoyed in 1Q84? I have seen Norwegian Wood described as the Murakami book for people who don't like the weirdness, and I was worried, since I like weird. But I read it anyway. What a bad choice.

The novel is about Toru Watanabe, a college boy in Tokyo. One of his closest friends, Kizuki, commits suicide, and it brings him closer to the girl his friend loved, Naoko. Toru and Naoko bond over Kizuki's absence and start going on long walks every Sunday. One night, it's Naoko's birthday, and Toru goes to her apartment and the two sleep together. Shortly thereafter, she leaves, saying she needs to take some time off from school at a sanatorium.

Enter Midori, a loud, bright student in one of Toru's classes. She is crazy and vulgar and fun, and Toru feels drawn to her even though he feels that he may be in love with Naoko. He spends time with her in between his visits to the sanatorium, where he meets Reiko, a music teacher who is also Naoko's caretaker. And there's Nagasawa, his college friend who sleeps around at every possible moment.

It's a growing up story, but it's not a particularly interesting or fun one. In fact, I'm glad I read it in such close proximity to Black Swan Green, which is everything I want out of a bildungsroman, precisely because I can have that contrast. Where Jason has a lot of insightful, thoughtful moments or revelation and realization, Toru has mopey moments. He spends a lot of the book oscillating between types of loneliness, and not in an intriguing way, either. How ensnaring can a book be if its main character plainly states he is lonely over and over?

Toru is not a really interesting character to follow, and I suspect that he's my underlying issue with the novel. He's quiet, he likes American literature, he is not the most unpopular boy in his dorm. The most exciting part of his personality is that he is in love with a really depressed girl who lives far away, but that so often fades to background noise that it's almost like a separate book. I would even have been on board with a lot of really fun vacillation between Midori and Naoko when he realizes that he loves them both, but Toru's insipidity means that he just says "I love Naoko but I also love Midori. What should I do?" There's no moments of real anguish or torment. It's boring.

I guess most frustrating for me is how everyone seems to be in love with Toru: three or four of the most important women in the story are so enraptured by him that they can't seem to help sleeping with him, and he apparently has no control, either. I can't imagine why people find him so alluring, because he is a quiet bump on a log mostly. I can't even say that it's a meaningful portrayal of sexual addiction--I've seen the movie Shame, and I thought that it was a much better examination of the issue (and it even has depressed people, so it's a win-win). I'm not even sure that's the point of this book; perhaps it's just a weird tangent. That's how this book feels in general, I guess, like a long string of tangents tenuously tied together by Toru.

There are two parts that stick out in my mind as worth reading, and I think they would probably work as stand-alone short stories. The first is Reiko's backstory, where we find out about how she ended up leaving her husband to come to the sanatorium. It's a filthy, inappropriate story, but there's something so fascinating about the way she tells it that I found myself really enamored of it. Her insistence that she is innocent is just so powerful and great, whether she was or not. The other moment is the very poignant scene between Toru and Midori's very sick father in the hospital; it's the sort of vignette that anyone familiar with a hospital and very sick people will understand. It's sad, it's heart-warming, it's lovely. Why was the rest of the book so bland?

From only reading two Murakami books, I know enough about him to understand that the general flavor of his work is nostalgic and sad and concerned with human relationships. But something about removing all of the wacky elements really doesn't do his themes any favors. Certainly I know people who would enjoy this book, but I also knew going into it that I'm not the sort of person who does. Sorry, Murakami. Better luck next time.

My rating: 2/5
Norwegian Wood on Goodreads
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