Never have I ever [before] read the most famous (ie best-selling) novel by Japan’s most internationally successful novelist: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.
This factlet has surprised many people who saw me reading it over the past few days, and not just because it is (it is) a canonical modern novel, but because it is a canonical modern novel that has all the same kind of literary preoccupations as I do: it contains depression, sexuality, loneliness, nostalgia, suicide, drinking and hand jobs. In fact, a more accurate title would have been “hand jobs and suicides”, as I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with as much self-killing OR people getting wanked off in before and – believe me – I’ve read LOADS of books containing both.
The sad thing is, though, is that Norwegian Wood isn’t at all a great novel. Maybe in the 1980s it might have had more power than it does now, but as someone who has wrestled with both confused sexuality and periods of crushing depression, I didn’t find this book a remotely accurate depiction of either of these states. I have read a lot of Murakami’s novels, a couple I have loved and the rest I enjoyed but found underwhelming. Murakami’s work meets all the requirements that would normally lead to him being described as a “middlebrow” writer, except for the fact that he has a diyuk.
Murakami’s entire oeuvre holds a weighty sense of authorial self importance, it contains central male characters who are distinctly ordinary and his books often eschew emotional heft in exchange for a memorable slash kooky image. This last bit he doesn’t do here: Norwegian Wood is as an attempt at a realist novel from someone who doesn’t ordinarily write them. However, far from being a revelation and a justification for the acclaim his mediocre novels (not all are mediocre, but many are) receive, Norwegian Wood instead lays bare Murakami’s weaknesses and the result is an unsatisfying and actively problematic mess.
In this shitshow of a novel, the protagonist is the least interesting character BY FAR, the (for Murakami) inevitable paedophilic sexual tension is – for once – consummated (with the implication that it’s fine because it’s two homosexual women!?!?!?!??), the plot is incomplete and unresolved, and the character development the lead goes through is minor.
Norwegian Wood is a frustrating read because it has the potential to be better than it is, it has the reputation that it is better than it is and it holds itself like it is better than it is. But, let’s be honest, it should have been obvious to me that this was going to be mediocre/shit because the most popular work of any artist is rarely, rarely, their most artistically successful. (Counter examples: Come On Over, The Old Man and the Sea; examples that prove my point: Sgt Pepper, The Great Gatsby – WHY HAVE NONE OF MY FRIENDS READ TENDER IS THE NIGHT!?!?!!?!)
Malcolm Lowry, one of this blog’s recurring characters (though he hasn’t been for a while – has anyone else noticed that since I stopped hating almost every minute of my life and drinking myself to unconsciousness daily I’ve been reading much fewer books by depressed alcoholic men???), often wrote about the time when he was an undergraduate and a close friend hanged himself in a college bedroom. In some of the pieces about this there was a frisson of homosexuality, in others – notably within the incomplete In Ballast to the White Sea (what a title!) – there is a direct switch to a platonic brotherly relationship, but the image, the friend dead by suicide, is never anything but an impactful one. The reason why I mention this is because the teenage suicide of a close friend is an opening image within Norwegian Wood, however Lowry explores the immediate and the long term impact of this much better than the more modern Murakami. The rest of this post – just to warn you – may well be a list of books that have similarities to – but are better than – Norwegian Wood.
Murakami’s bestseller (yes, I do mean that as a slur) opens with a man in his late 30s landing in a plane in Europe when a cheesy version of The Beatles’ kooky hit ‘Norwegian Wood’ starts piping through the speakers. This, madeleinelike, transports him back to his student days. However, unlike A la recherche du temps perdu, unlike The Neapolitan Novels, unlike My Struggle, there is only one significant, temporary, return to the present during the novel’s narrative, and there is no conclusion at the end, no fastforwarding to justify slash complete the framing device of memory. In addition to this ineffective use of memory, the novel also fails to represent in the memory why ‘Norwegian Wood’ had any particular significance. Though the song does recur in the 1960s-set novel, it is afforded no more importance than about six or seven other songs that the characters also play together more than once. I kept waiting for the time when ‘Norwegian Wood’ would be played in the background of a significant hand-job scene or in the back of a significant suicide scene, but it never is (NB: yes, there are incidental suicide scenes). ‘Norwegian Wood’ is not a particularly special song to the characters in this novel. It’s a song they like, sure, but no more than they like several other Beatles songs, several pieces of classical music and several other old pop songs. The song is used as the title to imbue this novel with an exaggerated and insincere sense of outsider cool. When the Beatles wrote this song they were global superstars; when Murakami wrote this novel he was, at least nationally, a success, and it was this mediocre conventional, depression-mythologising novel that made him into a superstar. How tragic, how sad, how absurd.
Why is Norwegian Wood a memory? It seems perhaps only to justify setting the story in the 1960s. WHY IS A JUSTIFICATION FOR THIS NECESSARY? Memory is not important to the plot, and though music kinda is, no particular song is. Also, was ‘Norwegian Wood’ not played after the 1960s? Yes, of course it was. There is no way the character would not have heard the song within a twenty year interval, and as the present when the memories are being remembered from bears no relation to the plot, there is no reason for the memories to be happening at that point. The setting of the present – in a better novel – would have been significant, would have been used to tie everything together, but here it isn’t. This is a structurally flawed novel, much like 1Q84 is. This doesn’t feel like a deliberate attempt to leave a reader unsatisfied as an aesthetic choice (as it does in the later, longer book, tbf, though it is a decision I don’t respect), but instead it feels like a writer forgetting what the hell he’s doing: Murakami doesn’t bother finishing his book properly, he doesn’t bother making the present day important to the narrative. So why include that opening and the one bit where the narrator uses hindsight? Sloppiness, fucking sloppiness, there’s no other reason. Murakami dialled this one in.
OK: the memory bit doesn’t work, what about the depression bit?
No, not at all.
The protagonist’s best friend at school killed himself; that friend’s then girlfriend (who is also the protagonist’s later lover) kills herself; the girlfriend of his best friend at university (she is also his friend) kills herself; his roommate at university disappears in a way that implies (but doesn’t state) that he killed himself… To lose one close friend to suicide is [insert that Wilde reference], to lose FOUR is [insert the rest]. But our narrator-protagonist doesn’t feel guilt for any of these deaths, and he doesn’t even seem to see himself as a solid connection between all these unhappy people. Instead, he does not seem to know how to respond to depression in others, though he wants to help, kinda, but mainly by making sure he gets his hand-jobs or his meaningless shags. Meaningless for him: for the depressed women he fucks, the sex is always a once-in-a-lifetime ecstasy.
The focus of the novel is in the wrong place: Norwegian Wood is ostensibly about mental illness, about depression, and pretty much everyone bar the main voice has serious psychological problems. However, only very fleetingly – in sections of reported speech or letters – are the characters with mental health issues able to speak for themselves, and when they do, the discussion of their depression is couched in language and imagery of horny male fantasy. The paedophilic lesbian sex scene, the young woman who “never gets wet except when the narrator fucks her” etc. Yeah, it’s that kinda book.
Norwegian Wood sidelines voices that are depressed and it writes about women’s bodies and women’s sexualities in a way that feels like they have been written by a male undergraduate. Maybe Murakami wrote most of this when he was a student, and came back to it when bereft of ideas and a more established writer? If my knowledge of the guy’s biography is accurate – I have not checked on this occasion – the publication of Norwegian Wood may well have occurred during the same stage in his life when he was running a jazz bar, so it perhaps makes sense that this naive, unexplorative text was pulled from an old drawer – rather than written fresh – by a writer with other things on his mind.
So, yeah, what I’m essentially saying is that Norwegian Wood is crap.
If you haven’t read it, don’t. If you’ve read it and you liked it, I hope it was a long time ago as I’m sure that no wise, adult, reader could really handle this novel’s myriad faults. One to avoid.