Toru Watanabe is just another kid studying drama at university when he falls for his friend Naoko, who is in a relationship with another of Toru’s friends, Kizuki — until Kizuki commits suicide. Emotionally confused because she feels “split in two and playing tag with myself,” Naoko escapes to a mountain retreat, though not before sleeping with Toru. Watanabe pines for Naoko as he passes time in Tokyo with his friend Nagasawa. Nagasawa likes The Great Gatsby, and he has no trouble finding women to sleep with him — and with Toru, who feels disgusted with himself after these one-night stands. (Nagasawa, by the way, is in a relationship with Hatsumi, who is devoted to Nagasawa even though she seems too nice for him.) In the midst of these split loyalties and the emotional turbulence they cause, Watanabe meets Midori. Though she also has a boyfriend, Midori and Toru hit it off because he talks “like spreading plaster nice and smooth.”
Does this sound like a Haruki Murakami novel? Some readers find it a digression because after A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985), Norwegian Wood (1987) breaks with the mirror worlds and surreal creatures that had begun to seem a defining element of a “Murakami novel.” It is less a departure than it might seem, however, since Norwegian Wood explores a variety of in-between states. Set in the late 1960s, Toru mostly ignores revolutionary angst and theories as he tries to untangle the love he feels for two women, not to mention his feelings for the women he hooks up with in love hotels. In addition to a cast of characters primarily united by their confusing attachments, Murakami further seems to have looked back to this novel later in his career, especially when writing The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-95). At one point, Watanabe describes how he has to wind a spring at the start of every day, and at another point Reiko describes an experience in which she was seduced in spite of herself. Longtime Murakami readers will also nod familiarly as Toru listens to unusual stories told in mountain retreats, in bars, and in hospital rooms. Finally, there’s a cat. Norwegian Wood fits into the oeuvre more than it stands apart.
I didn’t love everything about the novel, though there are some moments I really liked. Midori, who delivers an almost endless supply of memorable, charming, and sometimes strange lines, is perhaps the most engaging part of Norwegian Wood. My favourite Midori moment is an exchange with Toru that ends: “‘Nobody likes being alone that much. I just don’t want to be disappointed.’ You can use that line if you ever write your autobiography.” She’s the sort of character who effortlessly steals every scene she’s in, and I suspect she’ll remain one of my favourite Murakami characters for a long time. There are things I didn’t love about the novel. For starters, I don’t find Toru’s attraction to Naoko convincing, nor do I understand why anyone in the novel is attracted to him. The allusions to the Beatles, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and The Great Gatsby felt a little too heavy, like ornate decorations on a finished cake. (As Beatles songs go, I also felt “Eleanor Rigby” works better with the book than “Norwegian Wood.”) And the middle section of the novel kind of dragged. Nevertheless, by the story’s end, which I won’t spoil, I was not only glad I’d persevered but felt like I should start reading another Murakami novel, maybe even a long one like 1Q84.
I’ve become quite a lazy reader as I’ve gotten older, usually choosing low-investment books that I hope will produce extraordinary ideas in spite of their brevity. The notion that I ought to read a monster like 1Q84 shows that something about Norwegian Wood must be really great. In fact, my only regret is that I didn’t read this novel sooner, ideally while I was in university.