Or should I say, she once had me?
Through the dark of the new year, the Beamers gathered to enlighten themselves about what, if any, were the speculative elements of Haruki Murakami’s tale of college-age loves and losses, Norwegian Wood. Though we were hard-pressed to uncover any items that pushed the realism into either “magic” or “sur-“, we did find that we could be moved by moments of poetry and scenes of beauty.
Love Means Not Ever Having to Say That You Are Sorry
Murakami is, most often, an author who places his characters into unsettling surroundings where the nature of reality seems to be at risk from forces that threaten the protagonist, either external or internal (or both). With Norwegian Wood, though, he made a strategic choice to break into the mainstream and write a realistic narrative. The book follows Toru Watanabe through his college years, where he struggles to find love, first with the girlfriend of his best friend from high school (a suicide victim), and then with another college student who impresses him with her being “a real, live girl, with real, live blood gushing through her veins”. Against a backdrop of Tokyo in the late 1960s, where students with helmets and iron pipes occasionally race through the dorm buildings, Watanabe struggles with being faithful to a woman recovering fitfully from a mental breakdown, while learning to accept the love of another.
What a Not-too-Long, Not-Terribly Strange Trip It’s Been
For the Beamers, the greatest challenge was the paucity of the speculative. Very few elements in the novel can be given a gloss other than straight-up conventional and realistic. Alan noted the mystery of the bottomless well, mentioned in an early scene with Watanabe and Naoko wandering through a field. Despite its vivid description (“The stones of its collar had been weathered and turned a strange muddy white.”), the well remains off-screen, as no one can actually find it. So, at best, we have a hole in the ground that remains a hole in the book.
What did catch our eyes was located at the other end of the book, the very closing scene with Watanabe at the train station, calling Midori. Here, again, we were transported out of the base reality and into some other realm. But where? Nick thought that it represented an actual psychotic break on the part of Watanabe: “Again and again, I called out for Midori from the dead center of this place that was no place.” is the final sentence in the book.
Kathy, who read and re-read the final scene repeatedly, being moved by the poetry of Watanabe’s emotional anguish, was viewing it a bit more metaphorically, seeing Watanabe as fixated on the metaphysical echoes of Midori’s question (“Where are you now?”) and not on the more likely literally geographic query. I seized on Kathy’s reading to bring up Samuel Delany’s theory on speculative fiction as needing to be understood through metaphors made literal (“Her world exploded” in science fiction terms is to be understood literally, pieces of planet whizzing by), hoping to inject a bit of speculative reading into the book. Most Beamers felt that connection to be thin. Well, I try.
Day After Day, Alone on a Hill
The character of Toru Watanabe was the greatest disappointment for the group. Most Beamers found him to be excessively passive, merely reacting to the various arrivals and departures of others, not taking stands for himself nor trying to blaze his own path. Alan, looking at Watanabe’s attitude and speech patterns, compared him to Holden Caulfield, protagonist of Catcher in the Rye, which is not one of Alan’s favorite books (though, to be fair, Alan likes Salinger’s shorter pieces). Both characters were just messes of alienation, he felt, too detached from their surroundings to arouse any real sympathy from the reader.
Following along that comparison, Liz thought that the book was a coming-of-age story, struck by the passages where Watanabe contemplates his 20th birthday (the age of maturity in Japan, Nick affirmed) and his new responsibilities as an adult. I thought that Watanabe, due to his lack of self-aggrandizement and his tendency to be self-sufficient, was being mistaken for being passive, when he was actually quite active in finding and making a life for himself and in caring for other people.
Kevin would call him disaffected and short on empathy, but I thought that if it were not for Watanabe, we would not have his roommate, Storm Trooper, an oddly amusing social misfit who would have been tossed out by anyone other than Toru. Ed, a long-time Murakami fan, pointed out that alienation is a strong “vibe” in his fiction. Nick noted that it was part of Philip Dick’s work, too, and Ed affirmed being a Dick fan as well.
What Can You Say About a 25-Year-old Girl Who Died?
Some of the social and cultural behaviors in the novel also gave us topics for discussion. In particular, the phenomenon of suicide (4 characters in the book take their own lives) made us pause. Alan dismissed them as plot devices, all designed to push Watanabe further along his pre-destined path. Fran felt that the suicides had a deeper, cultural significance, given the differing religious outlooks that lacked the Judeo-Christian taboo. I added in a recent business report that mentioned the correlation of Japanese economic cycles and suicide outbreaks, and Taylor (our bookstore minder) let us know about a notorious forest where regular patrols were needed due to the numerous suicides by hanging known to take place within. So, we perhaps should not have been shocked by the frequency of suicide in this Norwegian Wood.
[Post-script: Absent Beamer Edward, who has traveled to Japan repeatedly, later identified Taylor’s forest as Aokigahara, the ‘Suicide Forest’ at the base of Mount Fuji, which is alleged to be the 2nd most popular suicide site in the world.]
All About the Girl Who Came to Stay
The other scene that unsettled us was a manipulative sex scene between Reiko, a struggling piano teacher, and her 13-year-old student who initiates the encounter. What was Murakami’s purpose in adding such a transgressive scene? Nick, who found an earlier passage about Reiko’s teaching philosophy of promoting individualism a reason for reading the book, tried to defend the scene by noting that the age of sexual consent in Japan was lower than in the US.
Kathy, who loved the literary qualities of the book, could not find it possible to believe that there were any good grounds to accept the older woman/young girl encounter. And, to be fair, I pointed out that Reiko was forced out of her neighborhood by rumors of sexual abuse, so the encounter was not acceptable within the morality of her society, either. And yet, Reiko is the character who helps Watanabe the most to overcome both his emotional and sexual hang-ups. Well, as a character in another novel I read once observed, roses grow better rooted in manure than in marble.
If You Really Like It, You Can Have the Rights
One additional view of the book came from the movie adaptation, which Chris had viewed. It brought out much of the visual beauty of the book, though it also excised most of the erotic, either through pointing the camera away or by skipping scenes entirely. I was boggled that the filmmakers could think about cutting the ties of physical love from the emotional lives of the characters, as the erotic scenes were some of the most moving in the book. Chris thought that the film was incomplete without the book, despite an interview with the director that promised both book and film could stand alone. Clearly, in every adaptation to different media, choices have to be made, and Norwegian Wood‘s popularity in Japan may have made the cuts invisible to its original audience. But, for us, Chris advised reading before viewing.
Take a Sad Song and Make It Better
To make a short story out of a novel, in the end, we gave a qualified passing grade to Norwegian Wood. Since the book played with our expectations, some of us gave split grades (‘0’ for genre, ‘8’ as fiction from Nick), while others simply went with one or the other side of the split. Kathy, a fan of literary fiction, also posted an ‘8’. Ed, who recommended A Wild Sheep Chase for Murakami newcomers, dipped to ‘6’, a level that attracted some of us (Liz, Chris, me). Alan came up from ‘4’ to ‘5’, based on our discussion, to join Kevin and Fran. So, we may have started out 2015 by wandering away from our comfort zone, but we avoided falling into the bottomless well. For better or for worse.