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Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami

What's this? Inverarity reviewing something that's not SF/Fantasy? Well, yeah, I've been feeling like my reading choices have been rather narrow in recent years. SFF is always going to be my favorite genre, but I used to read more broadly, so I'm trying to sample stuff outside my usual range. And since I've been pretty down on the literary genre, I've been looking for something that actually appeals to me.

So, Haruki Murakami. I chose him almost at random. I'd never actually heard of him until recently, but he's a very Big Name Author in Japan, and he has quite a significant international following as well. So not only did I choose a random book by an author I'm unfamiliar with, but it's a literary novel translated from the original Japanese.

Here is the Goodreads summary:

Toru, a quiet and preternaturally serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before. Toru begins to adapt to campus life and the loneliness and isolation he faces there, but Naoko finds the pressures and responsibilities of life unbearable. As she retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself reaching out to others and drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman.

A poignant story of one college student's romantic coming-of-age, Norwegian Wood takes us to that distant place of a young man's first, hopeless, and heroic love.

Norwegian Wood (the title refers to the Beatles song, which is Naoko's favorite) is a coming-of-age story set in late sixties Japan. It's also a romance, of sorts, with Toru caught in a rather sad love triangle with Naoko and Midori. I think the description of Midori as "fiercely independent and sexually liberated" is misleading; while Midori is certainly a free spirit in her own way, she's actually more chaste and conventional than that description would lead you to believe. Really, she's a lot more Manic Pixie Dream Girl than free lovin' party gal.

Since every MPDG must be inexplicably attracted to a mopey loser, Midori finds herself drawn to Toru, who's not such a bad sort (in fact, for the most part, he's a pretty decent guy), but like most nineteen-year-old college students, he can't help being a self-centered prick at times. Toru is the first-person narrator of the story, and so we're treated to his every thought about everything. Sometimes these thoughts are insightful and profound and/or humorous, but mostly they're about as engaging as any nineteen-year-old's ongoing discovery that life, it does suck at times.

But despite my feeling that Toru needed to stop thinking about his dick, I did like this book more than I expected to. Murakami has a wonderful style, at least one that I enjoyed -- it is literary, but not literary in the tortuous prosey way of Cormac Mccarthy or Annie Proulx. He goes into fine but not overly wordy detail about all the little incidentals of life, and is particularly good with characters. Indeed, while I found Toru boring and in need of a good ass-kicking at times, it was all the other characters -- not just Naoko and Midori, but even the minor characters -- who breathed life into what otherwise would have been a pretty tedious bildungsroman.

Some of Murakami's details are so prosaic they border on banality: I actually enjoyed the lingering description of Toru eating a pickle, sharing it with Midori's father, and dwelling on the crunching sound it made. It's not a pointless detail, because it ties that scene with later reflections, but there were other details, and entire conversations, that did seem pointless to me. There are an awful lot of sex scenes in this book, too, and the very banality with which Murakami portrays Toru's pronging makes it less gratuitous, somehow.

This makes me think (1) Murakami probably is really a genius, and (2) I'm sure there are nuances that were lost in the translation of this novel to English.

So, three-dimensional, quirky characters and a style I liked. But for me, the most important part of a book is the story. Well, the ending of Norwegian Wood is pretty much given to you in the first chapter, so there aren't really any twists and turns in the plot. And bottom line, the book is about a college student trying to get his shit together and grow up. Okay, there's also sex, mental illness, student protests, sex, suicide, sex, and quite a bit of sex. But the story wasn't terribly interesting. I continued reading because I liked Murakami's details, the funny anecdotes, the characters revealing their unique, often fucked-up personalities, not because I cared much what happened next.

I think literary genre lovers will like this book. I've heard Murakami described as being like sushi: he's an acquired taste, and some people never acquire it, while others fall in love.

I like sushi, and I think I could grow to like Murakami quite a lot, but I'd really like to read something that's more... interesting.

Please recommend another Murakami book for me! I liked his style and what I've heard about his other books intrigues me, but I'd like something with a little suspense, a little action. Got any suggestions?


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 13th, 2010 05:02 am (UTC)
I don't think the name of the university Toru is studying at is given, but he says it's not a top-rated one. (In contrast, the girlfriend of one of his friends is said to go to a top women's college, and when she keeps trying to set Toru up on dates, he tells her "those rich girls" would never date someone from his university.)
Jun. 13th, 2010 05:25 am (UTC)
I've read two of his books: Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The latter is much longer, but I liked it a lot better. Norwegian Wood fell quite flat for me, to be honest. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a lot more surreal and bizarre, and I felt like there was an underlying message that I wasn't getting, that I still don't get. Nevertheless, it's still just a plain old good story.
Jun. 13th, 2010 07:38 am (UTC)
So far, i've only read one of his books, After Dark. But i really liked it, not just for the writing but also for reasons that might annoy others who favor more conventional handling of plot & story. There's a lot that goes unexplained, & it seems more like a bit of life in which the characters move in & out of, as opposed to a plot that feels blocked out. If i had to try & explain, i'd say most books may stay within a frame of the story or plot, whereas After Dark moves beyond that frame, as the characters weave in & out of a specific place at a specific time (night). There's also some strange occurrences that go unexplained, & you don't find out everybody's story-- all of which i felt added to the feel of the book & its unorthodox storytelling, but i found a fair amount of people on Amazon who whinged about that. :\
Jun. 13th, 2010 07:57 pm (UTC)
I forgot about After Dark. You're right the book seems surreal in it's plot at times.
Jun. 13th, 2010 07:55 pm (UTC)
I love Murakami but this not one of my favorite books (even though I think it is good). Kafka On The Shore, The Windup Bird, The Wild Sheep Chase & Dance, Dance, Dance are some you might want to check out.
Jun. 15th, 2010 12:50 pm (UTC)
Kafka On The Shore is wonderful, but the book I fell heads over heels in love with is Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Have fun!
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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