Sunday, September 27, 2009

Isn't It Good?

Hard on the heels of a Murakami collection, let's take a look at a Murakami novel!

"Norwegian Wood" is kind of a watershed Murakami book, for a variety of reasons.  It's a return to a more conventional story structure from his earlier books; there are no omniscient sheep, no INKlings, no unicorn skulls.  It was his first major successful book as well, and partly as a result of that success, Murakami lived in self-imposed exile from Japan for many years after.

There is a certain dreamlike quality to the book, but it doesn't follow dream logic in the way that most of his works do.  Rather, because the book is told as a first-person retrospective, it's almost more like a daydream: the narrator remembers particular events from his past, lingers on his actions and feelings, ponders the decisions he made.  It's an interesting story, but it doesn't race ahead at all.


Norwegian Wood is set in the late 1960's, and the tumult of those times lay the backdrop for much of what happens in the book: student radicals, campus protests, sexual liberation, and so on.  However, the backdrop always remains backdrop.  The student protests exist mainly so Watanabe and Midori can talk about how they feel about student activists; they don't directly affect the characters' actions.  There's a similar lack of agency even with the hugely important events that take place, like Kizuki's suicide.  It casts a long shadow on what happens in the book, but at the same time, it's purposely incomprehensible and insensible.  There never seems to be any reason behind it, anything that someone could have done.

One thing that is not unusual about this book is its inclusion of really weird sex scenes.  Those have been missing from the last few Murakami books I've read, and I'd forgotten just how surprising he can be when he goes there.  I guess they're technically more conventional than what you get in his other novels, but at the same time they're a great deal more explicit.  It all fits, though, and doesn't feel superfluous... Watanabe ALWAYS thinks a lot about what he's doing, what it means, and how it affects the other person.  His sexual encounters form major plot developments in ways that the larger political scene does not.

Watanabe is a really fascinating character... I can't think of anyone else quite like him in the Haruki canon.  He is much more assertive than his typical male protagonists... well, still not assertive by conventional American standards, but he does take initiative and pursue things he wants in a way that, say, the narrator of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle does not.  I liked him, and found him growing on me even more the more I read.  He has a particular gift for empathy... he manages to be extremely nice while never seeming boring.

I also enjoyed the inclusion of typical Murakami digressions.  These are almost always delivered in narrative form, and don't directly impact Watanabe's story at all, but instead help flesh out the world and show new dimensions to secondary characters.  Reiko's two-part story about her mental illness, recovery, and subsequent relapse was very moving, especially the chilly climax she experiences with a despicable student.

Oh, and once again I was reminded about the excellent taste Murakami has in music.  The catalog here goes far beyond Norwegian Wood, although The Beatles are very well represented throughout.  In keeping with the times, this book is heavier on the rock references, although jazz and classical still put in solid appearances.


Honestly, I have to say that Norwegian Wood is among my least favorite Murakami novels, but I still really enjoyed it.  It's peaceful, reflective, and almost tender.  (Remind you of anything else?)  It doesn't grab me and pry my brain open and pour strange things inside, but y'know, that's okay.  I can always go back to Kafka on the Shore when I need that to happen again.

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