I wouldn’t have picked up Norwegian Wood if it wasn’t by Haruki Murakami. The back cover promises semi-autobiographical recollections of college days. Those narratives makes up a respectable (but not overwhelming) chunk of contemporary literature in western countries and largely don’t fall into my wheelhouse, though at least coming out of a different culture adds another layer of interest on top of the more typical explorations of early-adult ennui.
The novel is still twice removed from the bulk of Murakami’s work–ambling narratives with fantastical elements that combine into a unique sense of atmosphere and isolated, detached moments of beauty. Norwegian Wood has none of the unreality lying at the heart of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Kafka by the Shore; it’s a more straightforward depiction of Tokyo in the late 1960s and the relationships formed by Toru Watanabe with two women as he’s on the cusp of turning 20. Elements of elegy and hints of nostalgia abound.
It was a slow read; I took Norwegian Wood in small doses over a long period of time and feel that matches the structure of the novel, itself unhurried and purposefully aimless. The other Murakami books I’ve read take the same relaxed approach to narrative, and that’s one of the reasons I like him. However, paradoxically, while Norwegian Wood cleaves closest to reality, bereft of the bizarre situations and undercurrents of the author’s other books, I found myself at far more of a distance from the work itself. I could not get a grasp on Watanabe, could not find points of connection with Naoko or Midori or Watanabe’s other friends. Watanabe is not significantly different from Murakami’s other protagonists, but it’s almost as if when those characters are faced with the baffling and strange they tap into a set of universal fears and an emotional space that makes them suddenly relatable. They come to occupy a space where I can feel the same things they do. Watanabe doesn’t face these things, and becomes locked away in his own thought processes, inscrutable to me from the outside.
And still, Norwegian Wood is well-measured, well-written. It remains Murakami’s most successful work financially, perhaps partly because it’s the most overtly erotic of his books. As far as sex scenes go, you could use this book to teach a class on them. That’s by no means the chief reason to read this; now, it appears as a generational marker, bottling up the era in an oddly efficient way. Yet it’s specificity to that era makes it less attractive to me than other Murakami: I’m more drawn to his manner of connecting the deep past and with the present through the timeless myths that run between them.