Sunday, August 9, 2009

review of murakami's norwegian wood

Norwegian Wood is a very good, but simple, Murakami novel (written in 1987, it is the book which propelled Murakami to fame in Japan, selling over 4 million copies when his previous sales were in the hundred thousands). It has nothing of the surrealism that has become a central theme of some of his later works (such as Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and most recently After Dark), but it is definitively Murakami-style in the development of the main character and in developing how all the other characters relate to the main. That is, murakami's novels are almost always about some boring and directionless 20- or 30-something who encounters very interesting and original characters so that the story is told as much through their actions as through the main character's mind/choices.

I like this aspect of his stories. While it does mean a sometimes boring passage or two in the course of the book's plot, I can appreciate them: just because the character is doing boring things does not mean they're any less sincere, and sincerity counts for me in character. For example, murakami might have a few passages where he's describing the main character reading in his bed on a rainy sunday afternoon and then writing a few letters to a girl he's in love with. It is not exactly a gripping part of the story but you have to credit the sincerity of his actions for something. Some people I know are very inconsistent in their actions at times: they pretend to be in support of some cause or interested in some subject one minute, and the next they're betraying their words by doing something completely opposite or unproductive. This rarely (if ever) occurs in a Murakami main character, and at times it leads to very powerful, personal connections between characters which is an essential part of his stories.

At any rate, as I said it's a simple story simply told, but Murakami does his best to make things interesting when he can. For example, I mentioned above that a lot of his other books are surreal, and while there is no explicit use of that device in Norwegian Wood, there are times when the main character thinks he sees something at night (the beautiful girl he's got a complicated relationship with undressing) but can't be completely sure if it actually happened or if it was a dream. Another excellent example is when he visits the hospital where girl he has a complicated relationship with is staying, the particular chapter in which that scene is conveyed is close to 70 pages long, or roughly a quarter of the book, even though it only encompasses two days in the story. This is done in a "kafkaesque" style, where time is stretched and bent in order to distort reality. In fact, the hospital itself where the girlfriend is staying is completely unorthodox (it's like a mental hospital where the line between patient and doctor is sometimes confused... perhaps these are simply more normal than i know of), elaborating on the surreal feeling the reader has while reading that chapter.

There is not much to complain about in this book. There are two things I suppose I could mention. First, there are two characters that are not very well-developed: Storm Trooper and Hatsumi (Nagasawa's girlfriend). Overall, It's not a big deal since they are minor characters and therefore they enter and exit relatively quickly. But, in a book that thrives on the main character's relationship to various characters in the book, the reader might feel cheated out of something that could have been much better with just a little more effort. This is especially true with regard to Hatsumi, who is presented quickly (and without evidence, really) of really being a shining beacon in the story in terms of her place in that generation of young people (Murakami casts his story between 1968-70).

Second, the "well theme" (the main character and his "complicated" girlfriend are walking in a meadow and she tells him to be careful to not step in the well, so they decide to hold onto each other, etc....) is very intriguing, but it could have tied closer to the plot. In the end, I still saw how it fit both of the characters, but I felt like it could have been done better than it was. Hover, it is possible that my problem here is more due to the fact that I recognized the well from Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, where it plays an absolutely central part of the entire story (it's really interesting -- the main character in that story spends days in the well, trying to connect to other worlds through a purple spot on his cheek), whereas here it does not. Still, I felt like it could have been a more effective concept in the story. It is a common criticism of Murakami novels -- he is notorious for throwing a lot of interesting concepts and imagery into his stories to the point that some are inevitably underdeveloped. (Actually, there is an interesting passage in Kafka on the Shore where Murakami himself seems to be commenting on this aspect of his writing to the reader. In the passage, the details of which I cannot recall, he embraces this aspect of his storytelling on grounds of the aesthetics of incompleteness.)

Overall, I thought it was a very well-written, well-told, and simple love story that may be a very good introduction to his style (although I would still recommend one of the books mentioned above as well before you decide you do/don't like him).

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