Norwegian Wood catapulted humbly-recognised Haruki Murakami to international acclaim with the surrealist’s uniquely Japanese take on university life during the swinging sixties. Set in a world delicately described and rife with symbolism, there is no doubt Murakami’s bildungsroman is a delight for the senses – but its questionable representation of women and tendency to try too hard to hint at wider themes makes certain sections of the novel hard to swallow today.
Throughout Norwegian Wood, Murakami works to evoke the aesthetic of the free love of the 60s, but often this manifests as simply namedropping retro hit songs, and a backdrop of student protests which adds certain suspense to the novel but is never fully developed.
As tacked-on as these references seem, their symbolism is handled somewhat tactfully; the ominous melody and lyrics of The Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ (‘When I awoke I was alone/This bird had flown/So I lit a fire’) makes the song’s name a fitting title for the novel, evoking, among other things, the dark forest described with heavy strokes of foreshadowing at the beginning of the novel.
The omnipresence of American and British pop culture, most notably in protagonist Toru Watanabe’s obsession with The Great Gatsby (which no doubt provided some sort of model for Murakami, though symbolism intended to draw comparisons between the works can be a bit heavy-handed at times) and constant references to Beatles hits, highlights the continuing Westernisation of Japan during the 1960s. Indeed, the tension between traditional culture and modernisation seems to be a secondary theme for Murakami here. Watanabe, like many of his peers, takes advantage of the newly-developed Bullet Train to move to the growing metropolis of Tokyo, a brewing-point of bars, free sex, and the exchange of ideas (and believe me, there’ll be lots more on the sex later). From his university dorm, Watanabe watches the daily rising of the flag with a sort of reverent confusion, and, like his friend Nagasawa, appears to be prepping himself for a life of business abroad, paying particular attention to his German lessons and perusal of English- and French-language novels. Elsewhere the asylum, set deep into the mountains of Kyoto, can be read as a symbol for the isolationism of Japan’s less industrialised cities.
In fact, Westernisation frames the entire novel, which begins (briefly, and with no real consequence to forthcoming events) in Germany. The first bit of dialogue we encounter is ‘in English’, when a ‘German stewardess’ asks our narrator if he is sick (p.1). By the end of the novel, it is clear that Watanabe has become disenchanted with life, and his final musings can be read as a description of Japan as much as it might be seen as a reflection of his life. Always restless to move from place to place, Watanabe wondering ‘Where was I now? I had no idea. No idea at all. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere’ can reasonably be seen as a final judgement on the internationalisation and exponential growth of Tokyo (p.386). Though there are few hints scattered throughout about where the character ended up after the events of the novel, it is clear that he becomes something of an international man, being familiar with ‘Flemish landscape[s]’ and almost lamenting upon landing: ‘So – Germany again’ (p.1).
“The firefly made a faint glow in the bottom of the jar, its light all too weak, its colour all too pale. I hadn’t seen a firefly in years, but the ones in my memory sent a far more intense light into the summer darkness, and that brilliant, burning image was the one that had stayed with me all that time.”
Harkui Murakami, Norwegian Wood, trans. Jay Rubin. Vintage Books: London, 2003, p.58
Socio-political themes aside, Murakami’s main focus here appears to be on capturing the highs and lows of youth in a traditional, albeit boldly dramatized, coming-of-age novel. Unfortunately, sometimes this primary goal leads to unnatural and almost awkwardly contrived situations.
The flight attendant at the start of the novel is one of the only female characters present who doesn’t seem to unwarrantedly decide she wants to have sex with Watanabe, who describes himself as not-too-good-looking (but, as we are told repeatedly, well-hung) and who has all the personality of a piece of paper. While Murakami was probably anticipating Young Adult fiction’s tendency to create mundane protagonists for the reader to project themselves on, the fact that so many women seem to fall at Toru’s feet is scarcely believable, especially when many of these sexual exploitations seems to spring, as it were, out of nowhere, with little naturalistic build-up.
Murakami’s attempt at evoking the free love of the 60s often manifests as misogyny. Watanabe recounts, in excruciating and embarrassing detail (and that’s not because your reviewer is a prude; the smut is just not handled tactfully) sometimes inappropriate sexual encounters with three of the four main female characters in the novel, as well as name-dropping countless other conquests, becoming the man at the party who takes every opportunity to tell you his ‘body count’. Sex isn’t necessarily the problem here, and at least one of the relationship is (almost) believable enough, but these episodes are loaded with the clear signs of pre-empted set-pieces which don’t seem to have any logical narrative grounding – Naoko, Midori, and Reiko all exist, to some degree at least, as sex objects for Watanabe.
Less believable still is Watanabe’s string of one-night-stands. Nagasawa’s attractive gravity may be believable, but his character problematically perpetuates a toxic masculine ‘lad culture’ narrative. The way he treats his girlfriend Hatsumi is repulsive, though at least Murakami and Watanabe seem conscious of the fact.
That is not to say that women characters do not completely exist for the pleasure of men here. Midori in particular is a symbol for the modern Japanese woman, headstrong and determined, a business-owner who is always one step ahead of Watanabe in their relationship – and in many ways is a foil to Hatsumi’s more complacent, traditional characterisation. Unfortunately, her overtly sexual nature can be read as an extension of the objectification of Norwegian Wood’s other women in the wider context of the novel.
“Nagasawa … made it a rule to never touch a book by any author who has not been dead at least 30 years. “That’s the only kind of book I can trust … I don’t want to waste my valuable time reading any book that has not had the baptism of time. Life is too short… If you read only the books everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else thinks.”Murakami, Norwegian Wood, pp. 38-39.
Norwegian Wood is not without its problems, but where it does succeed, it succeeds well. Murakami is a master at evoking a sense of the uncanny and asphyxiation, wisely foreshadowing the novel’s tragedies with foreboding episodes, such as the mysterious (and lamentably under-developed) disappearance of the ‘Storm Trooper’ character – who in many ways represents traditional Japan. Although by the novel’s close there’s a body count (of both kinds) almost as high as an episode of Game of Thrones, with certain characters’ deaths being occasionally as hammed-in as the sex scenes, Murakami effectively evokes the darker side of the entrenched consumer capitalist culture of Japanese society. Japan still has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and Murakami doesn’t shy around this fact.
Part fictionalised autobiography, part bildungsroman, and part gothic horror (…ish), Norwegian Wood is for the most part immensely readable, with enough well-paced mysterious episodes to maintain readers’ interests despite the sometimes contrived plot and dodgy dialogue. While the novel may have been stronger if it was as streamlined as Watanabe’s beloved Gatsby (the fire scene in particular deserved more focus, and the asylum was a missed opportunity to further explore the nuances of mental illness and alienation), Murakami manages to maintain a strong beating heart throughout. Dated as its depiction of women are, even for a book from the 1980s, successfully original women characters such as Midori manage to hold their own apart from their relationships with Watanabe – and as it stands, more page-time for Midori sans Watanabe would have been appreciated.
Norwegian Wood may never reach the status of a true literary classic, but alongside similar works of existential teenage angst (Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Bret Easton Ellis’ American take on university life The Rules of Attraction), it more than manages to hold its own – if you’re willing to put up with cringeworthily hammed-in sexual set-pieces, song references and symbolism, that is.