Norwegian Wood is a slow book with only a little story, but I did not want it to be faster and I did not want there to be more. Someone once said that being a writer is like being a paleontologist digging up a dinosaur skeleton – and praying you don’t break anything as you transfer it from idea to paper. This book constitutes perfect paleontology. Few books are as precise and well realised.
However, parts of the Norwegian Wood skeleton are still underground. Even at the end there questions unanswered, and reasons and whyfors unexplained. Murakami must have decided that they were better off as secrets in the earth. What’s left is an understated but moving story of a young man courting a young woman in 1960s Japan. It’s a fiction book, but one feels justified in thinking that Murakami is transcribing some of his own experiences – he was a college student in Tokyo through this period.
Norwegian Wood has lots of exciting and dramatic and funny moments, all of them written in Murakami’s trademark understated style. Some writers leap and cavort for your attention. Murakami assumes he already has it. Some parts of the book feel real enough to make you uncomfortable. At his best moments, Murakami connects with the reader and makes him feel like he’s actually experiencing a love story, not just reading one.
The characters seem simultaneously realistic and exaggerated, from the disturbed Naoko to the charismatic Nagasawa to the friendly but unknowable Kizuki, whose death is the catalyst for most of the events in the book. They come across as types, but also as people. Main character Toru Watanabe is rudderless and confused, as many young people are, but he’s not uncaring. In fact, he cares too much. Away at college, away from his troubled girlfriend, he starts to feel attraction for another girl. This love triangle forces to make a choice, but that choice merely deepens problems and adds more responsibility to this young man. But that’s the way of things. Choices multiply into more choices, until eventually you’re middle aged and wondering what happened.
Norwegian Wood is a love story, but Murakami sublets narrative space to lots of other ideas. He gets in some shots at student activists, who want to overthrow the system until they graduate and need the system to supply them with a job. He gives Toru a funny roommate who is so likeable that I was saddened when he disappeared from the story. Music is often a prominent feature of this writer’s books, and you could put together a pretty comprehensive 60s compilation album from songs mentioned in Norwegian Wood.
Ultimately, you could view Norwegian story as a symbolic tale of a man facing two paths…and two girls. One is his past, the other his future. The ending is cruel for everyone involved, especially the reader, as he is cut out of one crucial piece of information about what happens to Toru.
But again, that follows from life. We can roll the dice and make decisions…and never know whether we chose correctly or not. I like Norwegian Wood a lot, maybe because it feels like I’m reading about myself.