Harvill Press (2000) (first published 1987) | 494 pages
Where do I even begin?
All I knew about this novel prior to reading it was its startlingly positive reputation. It seemed to be a classic – one of those books that supposedly everyone has, or should have, read. Needless to say, I had high hopes. And when my mother gave me this lovely copy – two small volumes within a book-shaped box – I found myself leaving it alone, stunned and intimidated by it.
The intimidation still hasn’t passed, even though I’ve now finished it. This isn’t so much a novel as an exploration: of ambition, of obsession, of Japan and its culture, and of mental illness and society’s attitudes towards it. It deals with some pretty heavy topics, portraying graphic and carefree sex and with lots of descriptions of depression and suicide. And yet, Murakami makes it a very pretty book: lots of dream-like sequences embellish what is essentially a nostalgia trip for the main character.
The novel follows Toru Watanabe as he is transported back to his youth with the playing of “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles on his flight. Within the narrative, he recalls his life at university, and his relationships with long-term friend Naoko and new spark Midori. We get to watch as Toru lives two parallel lives: visiting Naoko in her retreat up in the mountains; sitting on a roof and getting drunk with Midori. Those two girls enter and leave his life more than you can keep track of, but there he remains – loyal and engrossed, addicted to the two of them simultaneously. It’s a very interesting concept, and although I was reading through a translator, I can’t help but admit that the way the (slightly disturbing) relationships within this book are written is actually very good.
But, I have to be honest, I wasn’t particularly enthralled by the book as a whole. It was very engrossing in itself, but I found myself hoping for something to happen each time I turned the page. Instead, all I was greeted with was sentimentality. All of the characters are dependant on each other to the point that it became uncomfortable to read. Every time Midori stopped talking to Toru, the world began to crumble away pathetically. And the passages upon passages of Toru writing to Naoko, mostly to no reply, got very sad, very quickly. And I must admit, the amount of graphic and somewhat unnecessary sex startled me. It felt like on every other page I was reading about the grabbing of this thing, the rubbing of that. I’m not averse to sex in literature at all, but I like it to have purpose. And while it did, some of the time – Toru’s first time with Naoko is very significant, thankfully – a lot of the time it just felt like we could have done without reading it again and again.
Don’t get me wrong, that wasn’t my only problem with the book. There was just something about it – something overly negative, something dull and pessimistic. I didn’t get on with Toru at all. He tried to act as though he was entirely independent by moving out on his own, by having his evening job and dismissing everyday friends. But the impression he gave me was that, in fact, he was entirely dependent on other people and completely submissive to the wants and needs of others. The other characters didn’t particularly interest me either. Reiko I found to be equally as obsessive and needy, Naoko snide and with no redeeming, likeable features. Midori seemed to be the only character with something going for her, but even she annoyed me after a while.
A lot of people say that this is the worst Murakami book to start with. Unfortunately, I have yet to read another. And if I had gone by this book alone without doing my research, I would probably never touch Murakami again with an extremely long pole. But as it stands, I saw potential in these pages. The explored themes did affect me and make me think more than I had previously, I just can’t say I appreciated the execution. But then again, this book had me gripped from the first page to the last. I have a feeling a second reading – if it were to ever happen – would make up for the negative feelings I had after the first.