Review – Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

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Review – Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami (trans. by Jay Rubin)

I read Norwegian Wood for the first time when I was twenty-two, and I enjoyed it then, but the second time around I find myself a little turned off. Similar to Jang Jung-Il’s When Adam Opens His Eyes (see my review of this book here) this book centers on the life of a lonely university student named Toru, and his experimentation with relationships and sex in sixties’ Tokyo. Both books are concerned with reflection of the past and the valuable insight that comes with age, and while I thought this was a believable premise in When Adam Opens His Eyes, Norwegian Wood unfortunately still felt like it was written by a teenager.

A big problem I think is the novel’s length, while When Adam Opens His Eyes is short and sweet — only one hundred and twenty-five pages — Norwegian Wood rambles on with fluffy conversations and pointless tangents for almost four hundred pages. On top of this excess, and I don’t know how much of this can be chalked up to bad translating, or cultural differences, but there were moments where I found the writing downright execrable. A sample from the beginning:

The stewardess came to check on me again. This time she sat next to me and asked if I was alright.
“I’m fine, thanks.” I said with a smile. “Just feeling kind of blue.”
“I know what you mean,” she said. “It happens to me, too, every once in awhile.”
She stood and gave me a lovely smile. “Well, then, have a nice trip. Auf Wiedershen.”
Auf Wiedershen.” (4)

The chapters often end anticlimactically like this. I actually liked the Proustian motif in the beginning: Toru hears the song “Norwegian Wood” by The Beatles and it brings him back to memories of the sixties. However, why do I need to know that the airline stewardess, who is only in this one scene, gets sad from time to time? It seems like Murakami is trying to show and not tell to build his scenes and characters, but often I found myself having to wade through pages of empty dialogue and imagery in order to find the little pockets of substance. There are other weird moments, like when Naoko, Watanabe’s primary love interest, exposes her naked self to Watanabe in the middle of the night, before going back to bed. I still don’t understand the purpose of this scene. Also, there are instances where Reiko, twice, and Midori, once, jokingly accuse Watanabe of wanting to rape them while they are sleeping. This again comes up not just once, but three different times in the book. You kinda have to wonder what Murakami was thinking about while he was writing.

Thus, the characters didn’t strike me as being realistic. Watanabe, as alienated and apathetic about life as he is, still manages to come across as a smooth, witty ladies-man, with no problems getting girls to sleep with him. I don’t think Murakami intended Watanabe to be an unreliable narrator but at times you get the feeling he’s a bit of a narcissist. Nagasawa is also a little larger than life in my opinion, he comes off as a sociopathic, almost-omnipotent womanizer at times, yet in other scenes he serves as a device to keep the plot moving, either to get Watanabe laid, or to carry out some other miscellaneous favor for Watanabe. In the afterword of the book, translator Jay Rubin mentions that the content in the book was an exaggeration of Murakami’s own college years. I think this definitely rings true, but not in a good, believable way.

I’ve also heard people say before that Murakami’s work is less focused on character development and more with creating a comfortable setting, mood, or tone, which explains all the coffee, records, and Western cultural figures alluded to constantly. The shallow, Woodyallenesque namedropping, for lack of a better word, is a little pretentious, and it feels as if Murakami is trying to prove something as a Japanese author, or trying to make up for a lack of authenticity. People like this though, it is accessible to Western readers, while not being too heady, and I think this where Murakami gets a lot of his appeal. Although the book seemed to me like a bunch of raw, unrelated ideas, haphazardly arranged together for the sake of “edginess,” admittedly the effect is surprisingly able to work. For what the book is, it is readable. However, the book still feels unpolished to me, and I really wish Murakami would have taken more time to perfect his ideas. They are definitely original, but not executed as maximally as I think they could be.

I’m still not sure how I feel about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel, but based on this book, I feel that it is also questionable whether or not Murakami, who is a yearly contender for the award, deserves it too. If you are looking for serious literature, skip this book. 

Murakami, Haruki. Norwegian Wood. Vintage, 2011. Print.

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