Becoming Well-Read: Norwegian Wood

AshleyLast month, I went on a two-week trip to Japan, and spent a fair amount of time in bookstores. Wandering the shelves full of books in a language I don’t understand made me feel quite bad, realizing that I can’t recall ever reading a novel by a Japanese author aside from Kazuo Ishiguro (and Ishiguro grew up in Britain, so…).

Like many people in the USA who are intrigued by Japanese culture, my fascination started with anime and manga. I’ve heard that manga makes up almost half the publishing industry in Japan, and walking through the bookstores seemed to corroborate this. Thus, I haven’t really felt too bad about not reading Japanese novels, since I’ve apparently been keeping up with a significant part of Japanese literature.

But everyone always praises this Haruki Murakami guy. During a summer publishing program I attended in 2012, Murakami was mentioned almost as much as Fifty Shades of Grey, and that was mentioned at least 10 times a day. (Hey, I read Fifty Shades! See? I read popular stuff.) Fellow Scribd editors Alex P. and David bond over their love of Murakami. My cousin asked me to buy him a Murakami novel in Japanese (citing Norwegian Wood as his favorite) while I was traveling last month. 

Still, I waffled on his importance. I even debated what classic Christmas novel to do for this column this month instead. 

Of course, an anime connection changed my mind.

This year, an anime movie titled Your Name set Japanese box office records, becoming the second-highest grossing animated movie in Japan of all time, beat out only by Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. I saw Your Name twice during this Japan trip, and if it fails to make the Oscar shortlist, then everything really is rigged. The New York Times recently interviewed the director, Makoto Shinkai, and asked him about his influences. Instead of naming Miyazaki, Shinkai cites the director of Neon Genesis Evangelion and novelist Haruki Murakami as the ones who inspired him.

And since I’m such a weeaboo (defined as Westerners who are overly enthusiastic about Japanese culture, and I’m (hopefully) being sarcastic about myself here), I realized that I must read Murakami’s Norwegian Wood right now.

What I Think It’s About: A young man, an otaku, living in Tokyo, is fed up with his metropolitan life and people making fun of him for liking cartoons. He decides to commune with nature, and instead of just moving to the beautiful Japanese countryside, he goes to Norway and camps out in the woods. There, he falls in love with many, many things, including a girl. (I’ve heard this is one of those coming of age stories, so “wood” is probably euphemistic, no?)

What It’s Actually About: In the words that Toru Watanabe, the protagonist who is indeed a young man (though not an otaku), says often: “Oh boy.” There’s a definitive lack of holiday merriness to be found in Norwegian Wood. Anyway, let’s get to it: As y’all culturally aware people probably know, “Norwegian Wood” is a reference to a Beatles song. (Listen, if it wasn’t on the Across the Universe soundtrack, then I don’t know it.) Honestly, the song, lyrics-wise, pretty much sums up this novel, but is missing all the depression and suicides. (I lost count of the suicides. You’ve been warned.) Even so, the quirky characters and their epic rants are endearing. I maintain that wood is a euphemistic reference given all the sad, funny, and awkward sexual encounters. It’s a novel about living with the memories of the dead and the complications of relationships that seem like they should be so much simpler.

Why You Should Read It Right Now: So you can appreciate the deep irony of the most-liked quote from the book being, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” (Even though this column is about conforming to what society wants you to read so you can be in-the-know, I agree with the quote. Even though it’s said by Watanabe’s disreputable friend, I still agree with the quote.)

More seriously, you should read it because, while the suicide count is certainly high in this book, bordering on absurdity to my mind, Murakami delves into the mental health issues and societal pressures that have led to this very real suicide epidemic in Japan more deeply and forthrightly than many novelists dare. I don’t think it’s farfetched to say that when many Westerners think of Japan, they think of cool gadgets, and awe-inspiring trains, and Pokémon. I mean, Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, closed out the Rio Olympic Games dressed as Mario from the Nintendo franchise as Tokyo gets set to host the 2020 Games. I can only think of one anime I’ve watched that addresses suicide. Japan’s very interested in keeping up appearances. Maybe I gravitate toward praising this surface-level stuff in the novel because I spend a lot of time in young adult literature land, where moral tales and stories tackling Big Issues are still lauded, but it’s also nice for a novel to crack the idealized vision of Japan I have as a Westerner.

Slightly more lightly, Norwegian Wood ponders the function and purpose of memory in a way that challenges my views of nostalgia. Throughout the novel, Naoko, Watanabe’s mentally ill friend-turned-lover, asks him to never forget her. The opening of the novel starts with Watanabe remembering her pleading with him over this. He, of course, promises never to forget her, and takes us through a tour of his memories of her and his other handful of friends (and sometimes lovers) from that tumultuous time. Watanabe claims to have forgotten a lot in the 15-plus years that have gone by, but his story is rendered in great detail. 

The copy of  Norwegian Wood  I bought my cousin in Japan. The covers are Christmas colors so it must be a holiday novel after all!

The copy of Norwegian Wood I bought my cousin in Japan. The covers are Christmas colors so it must be a holiday novel after all!

Recently, I started thinking of nostalgia as being like the experimental music piece “I Am Sitting in a Room” by Alvin Lucier. Lucier recorded himself describing the room he was sitting in, then played that recording back and recorded the recording, then played back the re-recording and so on for 45 minutes, until the track ends up nothing more than pretty and haunting melodic tones. Likewise, re-remembering memories tends to distort them — a misremembering here, a false happiness inserted there — until it’s just a dull aching pleasantness that you can never relive because you never quite lived it in the first place. That’s what I thought, anyway. But is that true for outright traumatic memories? What happens when you promise not to forget specific things? Is Watanabe just a masterful unreliable narrator?

There are essays and essays worth of things to ponder in this book. It will keep your brain asking a million questions a minute, some more worth exploring further than others. I wanted to know what Watanabe thought of Kobe beef, since he and Naoko were from Kobe but ended up going to Tokyo for university. I wanted to know more about Kizuki, Watanabe and Naoko’s friend from childhood who commits suicide, forever altering Watanabe and Naoko’s lives. But I also appreciated not knowing much at all and feeling lost, just like Watanabe and Naoko, at Kizuki’s unexplainable death. I wondered what has changed from the late 60s in Japan to now regarding sex. Watanabe sure got around, but these days, Japan has extremely low birth rates because, as The Japan Times reports, “A biennial survey conducted last September [2014] by the Japan Family Planning Association found that 49.3 percent of all respondents said they had not indulged in bedroom gymnastics in the past month.” And most of all, I marveled at the beauty of the language, the raw emotions of vulnerability and grief that each sentence elicits.

Norwegian Wood may not be a festive novel, but it sure beats the Japanese tradition of eating a bucket of KFC “Christmas Chicken.” Unless KFC is your jam, in which case, Murakami’s novel is totally as awesome as a bucket of KFC Christmas Chicken.

My traveling companions and me with Colonel Santa Sanders in Hiroshima. Happy holidays!

My traveling companions and me with Colonel Santa Sanders in Hiroshima. Happy holidays!

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