Murakami’s World in Norwegian Wood

A book, of a student in 80’s Tokyo, on living a soulless, yet warm modern world

Kodansha, 1987

This book review also appears on the January 2021 issue of Duke University’s The Wellian Magazine.

It wasn’t many decades ago when commuters in Tokyo subways would have in their hands, in place of a phone, a similarly small-sized book — a bunko-bon. The tight shelves of alleyway bookstores and large chains likewise were lined with such collections, all of standard size and format, with the occasional customer standing reading, halfway through a book held on a single hand. Murakami Haruki’s Norwegian Wood reached such shelves in the Christmas of ’87, with two delightfully themed scarlet and green volumes.

Around the Christmas of 1987, Tokyo citizens were witnessing the exponential increase in property prices; the Tokyo Tower chromatically defined the scintillating night skyline; Asahi released his popular Super Dry beer; and with two years left in the Shōwa period, an unprecedented decade of prosperity. Nobody knew how to spend their money earned through skyrocketing stocks and salaries, but some spent it on these colorful copies of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, a two-volume set in holiday-themed scarlet and green. They would’ve been unaware of the contrast between the book’s chromatic cover and its hefty story — a contrast not unlike the time’s outward prosperity and inward confusion.

This book still lines the steady seller section in bookstores, where it caught my eye. The last time I read a book from a Japanese author was in high school. Curious about the “Murakami’s World” emphatically sold on the hardcover, I took a copy.

Norwegian Wood follows Toru, a Waseda college student and a pretentious Kafka fan; defining his life story is the suicide of his best friend Kizuki two-years before the story and his hook-up with his highschool sweetheart, Naoko. The modernizing moral ideals of 80’s Japan are yet to catch up with these two lovers; her clinical depression, which only allows a single sexual encounter with Toru before her hospitalization, twists traditional sexual norms, while the clear mutual attraction between him and his classmate, Midori, pushes the boundaries dividing physical and emotional relationships. Our protagonist’s showy references to classic literature, Naoko’s emotional shutdown, and Midori’s overt sexuality, appear one-dimensional but are only first impressions for gradually developing characters within their own inner worlds.

Haruki’s unique style delivers blunt, yet candid descriptions of both these characters and the world that surrounds them. Listening along to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Band in Naoko’s blanketed tatami room on a Christmas birthday, the desperate conversation and cake, and their subsequent, tear-filled sex is an ominous trip through Haruki’s unique style. This ambivalent ambiance — of nostalgia of the gone decade and hope for the coming century — can still be revisited in Tokyo’s landscape. Toru’s encounter with Naoko on a subway passing Yotsuya (reflected in the first and last scenes of Your Name) or his part-time job at a record shop in the Shinjuku district, scattered with the professionalism and alcoholism of skyscrapers and alleyway bars (reflected in Haruki’s own college life), describes the city of a confused people, caught in between two eras.

I climbed a steel ladder in the corner of the roof to the top of the dormitory’s water tank. The tank was still warm with the heat of the sunlight it had absorbed during the day. I sat in the narrow space above the tank, leaning against the handrail and coming face-to-face with an almost full white moon. The lights of Shinjuku glowed to the right, Ikebukuro to the left. Car headlights flowed in brilliant streams from one pool of light to the other. A dull roar of jumbled sounds hung over the city like a cloud.

This dark yet brisk atmosphere and deadpan delivery are iconic of Haruki’s style, allowing for later discussions of death and depression, sexuality and lust — without their usual weight. Kizuki’s death looms over Toru and Naoko, but it doesn’t singularly define their relationship — loss is dealt with reasonably, as in real life. Their hookup isn’t depicted immorally or as some twisted desire — it just happens, as with real people. It’s not a tightly-woven story with clear conflicts; events naturally evolve through coincidence and detours in the plot.

In some ways, Norwegian Wood feels more realist than reality. Our nature is to make stories of our lives, to write memoirs in our minds to make sense of luck and loss, viewing rejections and failures as inevitable consequences of past neglect or incomplete love. Although the book tries to tell such stories, it focuses more on how each character tells them: Midori discusses one common false narrative — the lack of love from her father and its effects on her sexuality — but more interesting is the context of its delivery, of her playing guitar on the veranda, watching the neighbor’s house burn before sharing a kiss with Toru. These contexts — the location, music, the surroundings — challenge the reader to decipher their meanings, though their significance is only a facade, an irony.

Nagasawa (永沢) — Forever rich, full
Naoko (直子) — Direct, Honest
Midori (緑) — Green; Pure, Innocent

Reality isn’t imbued with metaphors, and life isn’t clear-cut fiction unless we apply our own interpretations. We incorporate false (yet valuable) values through these contexts and their interpretations in our stories — and as the steady trudge of time clears our memories, we move on.

“Before long the wind began shifting unpredictably, and white ash flakes fell out of the air around us, but Midori went on sipping and singing.”

Haruki’s prose lies somewhere between insightful and shallow. The sentences are light and descriptions clear, but the overarching intricacy of the plot involving love and death weaves through this simplicity. Midori’s discussion of her impossible expectation of love exemplifies this style:

Like, say I tell you I want to eat strawberry shortbread. And you stop everything you’re doing and run out and buy it for me. And you come back out of breath and get down on your knees and hold this strawberry shortbread out to me. And I say I don’t want it any more and throw it out of the window. That’s what I’m looking for.

The book is unrelenting in shining light on our more morally ambiguous desires, no more obvious than in Nagasawa: a privileged, smart, and sociable upperclassmen who approaches Toru:

“This man says he has read The Great Gatsby three times,” Nagasawa said as if to himself. “Well, any friend of Gatsby is a friend of mine.

Nagasawa revels in using his talents without hesitation, for prestigious positions in ambassadorship or to get laid in a Shinjuku hotel. However, Toru and Nagasawa, seemingly distinct, are similar in a fundamental way:

Watanabe’s practically the same as me. He may be a nice guy, but deep down in his heart he’s incapable of loving anybody. There’s always some part of him somewhere that’s wide awake and detached. He just has that hunger that won’t go away.

In Haruki’s world, love seems to only exist in tandem with yearning. Midori is sexually free, while emotionally wanting; Nagasawa fulfills his “hunger” through work and a fleeting feeling of superiority through sex; Naoko yearns for physical contact with Toru, while Toru increasingly and securely attaches his emotions on her, unable to meet during treatment. There are no stable relationships — just lop-sided feelings and superficial desires, masking itself as love. The Japanese have two words for love — one for genuine, comforting love: “Ai,” and the second for desperate yearning: “Koi.”

Haruki, though, hesitates to pass judgement on any single character. Toru might have taken advantage of Naoko’s loneliness on her birthday; Naoko may have avoided suicide because of this attempt; Midori lacks an understanding of love, but probably only because she’s never gotten it; Nagasawa is superficially bright but emotionally bankrupt, and his girlfriend, Hatsumi, the opposite. She commits suicide, along with Naoko. Toru loses grasp on reality, and Midori cuts contact — but both have their excuses. The deeper we delve into the nuances of each story, the more difficult it is to distribute blame.

So don’t brood over everything in that super-serious way of yours. All of us (by which I mean all of us, both normal and not-so-normal) are imperfect human beings living in an imperfect world. We don’t live with the mechanical precision of a bank account or by measuring all our lines and angles with rulers and protractors. Am I right?

We struggle between principles and emotions. Our feelings are imperfect and, like Haruki’s characters, problematic and toxic — the more we pursue them, the more complicated it gets. We want simple answers and sweeping solutions through principles and concepts like lust, affair, and trauma, and try to encapsulate minute movements of the heart into clear, digestible chunks. In an ideal ethical world, there’s little space for love or desire.

Yet Haruki reminds us that these principles are there because of our unprincipled minds; the desire and love which fails to fulfill us, although muddy and despicable, is what makes us sincere. These desires don’t reason with us about their irrationality. Midori will not overcome her father’s death and the breakup of her family. Nagasawa will continue his desperate insincerity through material achievements. Naoko will not resolve the romantic confusion between Toru and her dead boyfriend, as Toru will be confused about his emotional attachment to Naoko and physical attraction to Midori.

There’s a strange comfort in knowing that these problems are unsolvable. In this godless contemporary world, you are responsible for your own problems — nobody is there to salvage you from the depths, nobody will understand nor comfort you so you better get your shit together soon. As a countermeasure to this self-imposed harshness, though, occasionally we need reminders, that while it may be our responsibility it isn’t our fault — and to attempt to decipher causality is futile. We may have issues, we may discuss them, but we may also do so with the casual attitude of Midori, or the arrogant immaturity of Nagasawa — and little judgement will be passed, because we’re only human.

If you don’t want to spend time in an insane asylum, you have to open up a little more and let yourself go with life’s natural flow. I’m just a powerless and imperfect woman, but still there are times when I think to myself how wonderful life can be.

And we might be lucky that despite all the misfortunes of our lives, the universe is kind enough, its randomness distributed to give us just enough wonders to go on. Closing the hardcovers, its embossed and gilt title reads Norwegian Wood — -an obscure joke in a Beatles song, where McCartney, to avoid censorship, fiddled with the lyrics “She showed me her room / isn’t it good, knowing she would?,” into, “isn’t it good, Norwegian wood.” Unaware listeners debated over its meaning, whether it literally means a Norwegian forest or their high-end furniture, and seemingly uncovered intricate symbolism or understated metaphors. I imagine Haruki observing this debacle — this desperate attempt to imbue meaning into our stories and to make sense of our lives — with his iconic, bitter yet giddy smile.

Murakami, Haruki, Norweigian Wood (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1987).

Korean, in Japan, studying at America. Undergraduate Duke University Student. pyoky.me