Norwegian Wood meanders through a gregarious story that keeps us wanting and asking for more. Haruki Murakami’s novel, originally titled as Noruwei no Mori, was published in 1987 and would later be translated and released in the United States by 2000. What makes Murakami’s novel so powerful, so rich and infatuating, comes from a studious eye observant of people, culture, and political activism. He’s an author who writes until he gets it right; he doesn’t miss the mark.
In 1960 Tokyo, students are protesting against governmental institutions and order, aka, “the man,” which is the time period our story occurs. Toru Watanabe recounts his days in college, looking back with a sense of nostalgia and acrimonious feelings. In high school, Toru befriended Kizuki and Naoko, two people that had been together since childhood and were romantically involved. Then one day, Kizuki takes his own life. Toru carries this death with him as does Naoko. Then by strange coincidence, Toru and Naoko find each other again and begin to date. Kizuki’s death still troubles Naoko to where she titters when she laughs and struggles to speak her mind. When the subject of Kizuki is brought up, she’s virtually mute. When Toru and Naoko sleep together, Naoko breaks down and disappears, leaving Toru ambivalent and alone. He later meets the charming and outgoing Midori Kobayashi, a significant contrast to the brooding, laconic Naoko. Feelings start to bud between them. Then Toru learns where Naoko is and what the implications of her mental condition could mean for him.
The formulaic-love-triangle plot gravitates around Toru, Naoko, and Midori. The love-triangle story is one of my least favorite plot devices in literature. I generally try to avoid these types of stories usually because the tropes and conventions are banal and the story is typically filled with a swash bucket of cut-out cardboard characters. The love-triangle plot can also be destructive too. Our media culture has a tendency to sensationalize love-triangles, creating teams and objectifying the two people involved in the entanglement. What is worse is the women who allow themselves to be paraded and exploited, who compete to win a man’s affection and undercut the other woman to do so. They succumb to the the circus, are pitted against each other, and resort to mean-spirited tactics. This only encourages unhealthy, competitive behavior for women. Furthermore the culture perpetuates derogatory labels toward women that are damaging. The other woman. Mistress. Homewrecker. So no, I do not like love-triangles; however, Wood is an exception.
Although it’s technically a love-triangle story, it’s also in many ways not. It’s not easy to define what Wood is since it’s an amalgam of different issues. While the love-triangle aspect is interesting and fundamentally traditional, Murakami does not tell it like we’d expect. Murakami bypasses the tabloid circus. There’s no winning. The relationships are not sensationalized. The women do not pick each other a part like eating chicken off the bone. Not only do the women never meet, Toru doesn’t even talk about one to the other.
The love-triangle is treated obscurely. There are no spoken commitments, just innocuous, no-string-attached equivocal terms. Beyond the love-triangle plot is the real agent devising the novel’s substance. Alienation, sexual burgeoning, isolation, and cultural identity are pertinent and consistent themes found through the scope of the novel. Toru, although interacts and ostensibly loves the young women, he ambles through his college years withdrawn and pensive, astutely aware of the people in his life, even of the random pedestrians. It’s his introversion, complacency, and attentiveness that lends to Wood’s social commentary of Japanese culture, which remain applicable in post-modern Japan.
Although the love triangle isn’t pivotal to the plot, it is significant when discussing these characters. For all that’s good about Toru, there are certain aspects of his character that make it hard to explain his sexual/romantic appeal, the mystical hormone he’s emitting that’s attracting so many women and getting him laid. I’m reminded of K. from Franz Kafka’s The Trial, who also effortlessly had women falling for him. We are to believe that Toru is a catch, an irresistible man, to say the least. Most of his encounters, made mostly up of women no less, lead to some intimate and/or sexual mingling, but we never fully understand what has these women spell-bounded to the allusively attractive Toru Watanabe. I’m not saying Toru is a bad guy; his treatment of women is amicable. Nothing about Toru’s character stands out though. Part of what helps Wood fervently tell this story is having a protagonist that is relatively ordinary and somewhat impassive. Toru’s happenings with these women are fantastical, construed by the way he’s remembering them. It’s not as though Toru is smudging the details because, as we can infer from the mass of sensory details, he’s greatly concerned with remembering it right or capturing what he felt that day. But we suspect that there are exaggerations in these encounters. Toru’s recollection is dreamlike, almost the ideal wet dream for a heterosexual man.
Then there are the women caught in the love triangle: Naoko and Midori. They are respectively the other’s polar opposite, cosmetically and emotionally. While it’s easy to compare the two, there are independent of each other and do not need the other to distinguish themselves. Naoko is emotionally troubled, further than we originally think. Her grief and inexplicable, tumultuous feelings are appreciable; they remind us of the fragility of being human. Naoko’s presence is ghostly at times. When we start to see her, she fades out. Even when she is not present, she haunts Toru in a tantalizing, unnerving way. Midori’s upbeat persona galvanizes the story, providing some levity to the story’s somber tone, which is needed. But she also comes with her own baggage, which she tells remarkably in full-disclosure without being unhinged. In many ways, we can contrast these women; we can study how each one handles their emotional problems, but Murakami writes them so intricately that it’s not really necessary to do so. They’re palpable.
What do I need to say about Murakami’s writing that has not already been said? Writing about what you’re remembering adds to the appeal of the novel. Murakami notes the discrepancies, the lingering effects of the degradation of memory and how it can renew our perception, which plays well with the narration. Wood is a multifaceted piece that turns cracks in a wall into hieroglyphics.
When Wood wraps up, it’s disorientating like we are waking from a dream. The bittersweet and relief we feel is haunting. We think there will be more. We believe Murakami has left us with finality; we even believe he’s being generous when he’s resolved the issues of the love triangle. Instead he ends it, Toru unsure of where he’s at all. A perplexing ending, Wood suggests Toru finds closure in the death of Kizuki, but he’s immediately met by a new loss and emotional turmoil. Toru convinces us that loss is constant, that it teaches us on how we can’t prepare for it or even to handle it. It’s what we have to wake up to.
Rating: 4.4 out of 5