Norwegian Wood

norwegianwoodThe Short Version: A young university student named Toru Watanabe is devoted to his beautiful friend Naoko – his dead best friend’s former girlfriend.  But Naoko’s mental health begins to deteriorate and Watanabe struggles to balance his love for her with the time that is passing.  When he meets a vivacious girl named Midori and begins to fall for her, his world threatens to dissolve entirely.

The Review: I decided to get an early start to this year’s installment of the Ten Year Catch-Up because, on Friday morning, the snow twinkling down on New York City just felt so right for this novel.  I can’t even exactly say why – it just seemed right, instinctively.  And now, as the misty rain washes over my Sunday, I realize I made exactly the right choice.

Let’s dispense with the formalities: Murakami is everything he’s cracked up to be and I haven’t even gotten to the really crazy stuff yet.  His writing – and I felt this way about What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, too – is so beautiful and smooth (and the translations, here by Jay Rubin and elsewhere by Alfred Birnbaum, are as well) that you feel as though you’re sitting by a lake in a valley of two mountains, puffy blue clouds overhead and just a faint chill off the unrippled water.  There is a stillness here, flat and deep, that sort of just washes over you and leaves you floating, suspended in words.  You feel peaceful, serene.  It is a remarkable achievement, something not unlike magic.

The object to which Murakami turns his pen in this book helps add to that sense of serenity, too.  Everyone says that this is the book to start with because it is the least-weird of his fiction – but what they don’t tell you (or, perhaps, what they don’t know how to articulate) is that just because this novel doesn’t have talking cats and assassins and vanishing elephants doesn’t mean it doesn’t have something equally as destabilizing to reality: love.  Love is what makes this book go round and it is not pretty, happily-ever-after love.  It is messy, indescribable, nuanced love.  It is sexual love but it is also companionable love and familial love – facets of non-sexual love between two men and between a man and a woman play as much of a part in this novel as the varied permutations of sexual love.  And it all feels so damn real.
There are obviously differing circumstances – I don’t have a best friend who committed suicide, my university experience was wholly different, etc etc – but I found myself understanding on a level almost below the words, somewhere actually intangible and indescribable, how Watanabe felt about both Naoko and Midori.  I have had that relationship with someone where I felt so deeply and passionately but it could not quite be returned and I have had that relationship where I didn’t realize what was in front of me until she basically smacked me across the face with it.  I see myself in Watanabe and I see so many friends (former flames and just friends) in those two girls that I wonder how this man whose experiences are a world away from mine in both age and culture could capture aspects of my reality so damn well.

But then I realize that, like Shakespeare before him, some things transcend age and culture.  I’ve just never seen someone do it like this before.

There is an almost hypnotic quality to several scenes from this book – I suppose part of that comes from the sense that the whole thing is an extended reverie on the part of the narrator, who begins the story some 15+ years down the line from his time with Naoko.  But I find myself flicking my eyes from the screen and recalling, suddenly, moments from the story in vivid detail, as though I can almost remember whole scenes word-for-word (and this is nearly unheard of for me – I can remember quotes forever but whole scenes after a single read?).  Watanabe and Midori’s dad, eating cucumber.  The bookshop where Midori worked – the fire down the street as she and Watanabe had their meal.  Naoko and Reiko and Watanabe, sitting in the girls’ living room and drinking and singing.  The dinner scene with Nagasawa and Hatsumi and Hatsumi taking Watanabe to play pool after.
And what’s funny is that the narrator has almost this same experience with his memories.  He spends much of the book remembering moments vividly – moments with Naoko, mostly, but also moments with Kizuki and Midori and others.  So perhaps Toru and I are, indeed, somewhat similar – or Murakami somehow truly dropped me into his narrator’s head without so much as a sign he was doing it.  It just happened, fully and instantly.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.  There is a part of me that resists giving this book full marks – but it is the same part of me that might resist diving fully into a relationship.  There are some flaws here, but the flaws only serve to make the work more beautiful.  At the same time, some of that beauty and those flaws leave the reader feeling open and longing for more.  Not more in the sense of “you didn’t give me enough” but rather “I want something else.”  Not unlike in a relationship, I suppose.  And just like many good relationships, it has changed how I hear a certain song – but then, that song has always haunted me.  Hasn’t it you?


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