Norwegian Wood

I recently finished Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. I got a little frustrated, so there are sooo many spoilers. Proceed with caution.

The book
Norwegian wood is about a young man named Tory Watanabe who hears Norwegian Wood in an airport in Germany and it brings him back to a memory from about 20 years earlier when he heard the same song. And while the memory has faded over the last 20 years, but suddenly right there in Germany it kicks him in the gut, hard and heavy, and he feels it. He decides to write down his story, why he has such a strong memory of this song, and more generally about his life when he was around 19-20. When he was 17 his best friend Kizuki committed suicide, leaving behind his girlfriend Naoko, and Toru to sort of fend for themselves. Toru and Naoko meet again in University and form a friendship.

My thoughts
I kind of liked it, but at the same time I found a lot of things really annoying. So strap in, I guess. This is long as fuck.

I found a lot about Toru really annoying. Norwegian Wood is a coming-of-age novel and it does sort of show Toru’s growth, but at the same time I feel like he didn’t do a lot of growing. He is sort of pretentious, and only likes certain books, and he doesn’t really relate to people who don’t like the same books and music as him, instead he ridicules them. Not to their face, but sort of passive-aggressively behind their backs. He is in general a very passive person, which isn’t a great quality in a protagonist. You need them to do something, to feel something, but he just loiters around, nursing his budding alcoholism, and reading his literary masterpieces. Watanabe says himself that he isn’t very active, that he usually needs someone else to be the instigator. Kizuki was always a very vibrant, talkative, charming individual and he sort of dragged Watanabe along on his coattails. This repeats in University where his only real friend for a while, Nagasawa, is also a charming, charismatic, talker, who sort of brings him along. He is the only person Toru feels like he connects with because they read the same books. So Nagasawa takes Toru out with him to get hammered and laid.

Nagasawa is even more annoying than Toru. He refuses to read any book that isn’t 30 years or older, making only one exception for the Great Gatsby. He has a beautiful, kind girlfriend, but he sleeps around and doesn’t seem to care that he’s hurting her, because hey, he told her, so it’s her fault, right? Nagasawa pissed me off. He also seems like some sort of wish fulfillment, he’s this rich, smart, powerful, charming guy, and he chose Toru as his friend, a much poorer, lower-status guy, because only he understands. Man he pissed me off. His whole outlook on life is so toxic. And I also feel bad for his poor girlfriend. I realize that she can, theoretically, just leave him, but Nagasawa has a responsibility to this person, and he can stop acting like a piece of shit to her, or break up with her. There must be some reason for her staying, none I can see, but maybe he is seriously manipulative and has sort of tricked her into staying with him.

The book doesn’t really have a plot. It’s basically just a study into how Toru develops, and his relationship with Naoko, and later Midori. It doesn’t mean nothing happened, but it wasn’t really driving towards a big solution, or climax. I don’t really mind that, I like character driven novels, and I like it when nothing happens, seriously.

Okay, some other things that bugged me and I liked at the same time, sort of. Even though Watanabe is pretentious and passive the writing is very honest, and even though a lot of it made me cringe, the writing is very honest and direct, and I really liked that. The sex scenes are explicit and sort of odd, and again, much cringe, such awkward, but at least they were honest to an extent, and a bit… clinical in the way they were described. I doubt that a 19-year-old with limited experience is the sex god he seems to think he is, but it fits with his personality. So that’s fine I guess. And speaking of the sex. Good GOD! Why are these women attracted to him? He’s an arrogant, passive, withdrawn dick, who doesn’t seem to think he owes these women anything, but they owe him everything. They please him manually and orally, and he doesn’t do anything for them in return. To be fair, they say they don’t want him to, but that doesn’t make the relationships any less warped and wrong. The women aren’t really there to be developed characters, but to be sex objects for him, or Nagasawa. He has one-night stands, sleeps with Naoko, wants to sleep with Midori, but instead she gives him a hand-job. Even Reiko, this sort of sex-less, maternal figure, becomes an object of desire, and it made me kind of freaked out. It was a bit, gah. Cringe. Why does every woman in his life become an object of sexual desire?

There were aspects that I think were really good though. I can’t say much of the writing in the sense that I read it in English, so obviously it’s translated, but it was very lyrical and beautiful and descriptive. To me the writing really made it worth it, it was incredibly beautiful.

I also liked that it described mental illness. It wasn’t done scientifically, or medically, but I don’t know that many books about mental health, and illness, so that was good. And the way it described mental illness was also interesting. Naoko has a breakdown in the first half and she goes to a sanatorium, where she meets a woman named Reiko, who is also a patient, but who sort of works as an extra doctor. Naoko and Reiko know that they’re different, and that something is wrong. But you could see the same for everyone else, Watanabe is clearly not well, Midori also struggles with some issues, Hatsumi and Nagasawa aren’t great. The difference is that Naoko and Reiko find that their problems stop them from participating in the world fully and they need help. I think mental health is probably part of the reason Watanabe is so withdrawn. His best friend committed suicide, and he doesn’t want to sort of participate in the world, because he is afraid of losing the next person too. When he loses Naoko he completely shuts down and doesn’t really let anyone close to him. It really frustrated me that during his relationship with Midori he didn’t tell her anything about Kizuki and Naoko, he just let Midori assume what was going on. And I feel like she could have helped. I think it would have helped him a lot if he had just talked to someone who wasn’t Naoko, because she was too close to it. I realize that it was obviously really difficult for him to talk about it, because it made a huge impact on him, and no one ever tried to help him, so he doesn’t know how to ask for it or, I guess, that he can ask.

It’s also in many ways a book about suicide, through the story we are told of four people who commit suicide, and I don’t think I’ve read a lot of books where suicide is so prevalent. And it shows just how badly it can affect the people left behind. I don’t think we talk enough about suicide, it’s this scary taboo that we can’t talk about, and I think it leads to ignorance and fear, and it makes it even more taboo. And the suicides of Naoko and Kizuki have a seriously adverse affect on Watanabe, he just shuts out the world and tries to escape from his life, and it sort of feels irresponsible, but I understand the impulse to just run away in the hope that the problems end.

I also love Midori. I feel like she was the most honest character, and she made me happy. She’s awesome. Midori is a first year student in one of Watanabe’s classes. She finds him fascinating so she starts talking to him and they hit it off. They become friends and they talk about this and that. Midori cut all her hair off, so she has a pixie cut and she sort of stands out from the crowd. She also tends to be extremely direct, she’s fascinated with pornography and sex to a very serious degree. She’s really fascinating though. She just sort of speaks her mind, which I liked. She is also willing to sort of ask for help. She takes Watanabe to her father, who is in hospital, telling him that her dad is sick, and that he’s dying. She also lets him look after his dad so she can have some time to herself. She’s much more willing to reach out than Watanabe and the other characters. She’s also much less likely to take crap. When she feels like Watanabe has mistreated her she calls him out and pretty much cuts him out so she can figure out what she wants. I loved her. She’s lovely.

I liked it. I liked the writing, I found it fascinating. There were things that bothered me, a lot, but the writing was extraordinary and I really loved Midori. So yeah. Things bugged me, but on the whole I did like it.