REVIEW: Norwegian Wood

Guys! I finally found him. I have dreamed about this all my life. And finally finally discovering him felt absolutely surreal. Zeebee’s mind was totally blown, I tell you! I finally (finally!) found…………my favorite author!

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Hey…..You were all fooled there for a second, weren’t’cha?? (Although the title did say review…) I recently picked up a book by Haruki Murakami at a nearby book fair. Since one of my reader friends waxes poetic about him, so I thought well, why not? And thus, I will be forever be thankful to UJ for her great advice. It was the book, Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. Go read it, guys!

Here are just a few reasons why Haruki Murakami is so great:

(warning: spoilers)

1. Natsukashii – master of nostalgia

Japanese writers are masters of nostalgia. I don’t know why or how this originated but we can see that nostalgia is a core part of Japanese culture. One of the most common Japanese words, one that you will hear every day in Japan, is Natsukashii or 懐かしい and it means (loosely translated) nostalgic.

Hear a song on the radio that reminds you of your childhood? Natsukashii.

Taste a brand of sake that reminds you of your long-lost father? Natsukashii.

Read a great book that stirs up something intangible inside you? Natsukashii.

While Japanese writers are masters of this emotion, Murakami reigns supreme as one of the best. I can only imagine how stressful writing Norwegian Wood must have been, having to tug on his own heart strings every day for months on end, because every page is heavy with the feeling of love and loss.

Every single page of Norwegian Wood demonstrates Murakami’s adeptness at summoning nostalgia. The scenes feel much more real because they are given room to develop on its own. This space allows natsukashii, and intense and painful longing, to develop.

2. Juxtaposition – a tapestry more beautiful than life

I say tapestry because novels resemble tapestries more than an actual snapshot of life. Norwegian Wood lends itself well to having slices from different times fixed side-by-side because of the nature of the narrative itself: an older man looking back on his past.

There’s also the fact that many times in this book, there have been two successive scenes that are basically polar opposites and are very jarring and unusual being put close together. One is about death, the other about life. One about love and loss, the other about love and gain. One is massive, the other is minuscule. Minutiae side-by-side with a life-altering event.

3. Furnishing gaps with jewels

Murakami’s writing style in Norwegian Wood is very sparse, minimalist, and heavily reliant on the reader filling in their own meaning, reading, and picture of the scenes and characters. Nothing is overwrought. Everything is understated. So much so that many readers could easily glide over the pages and miss the meaning.

These gaps are tremendous for creating the kind of narrative that slowly slips under your skin and into your soul, rather than one that batters at the door and is refused entry. It’s like a smack addiction. You don’t know you’re hooked until you are too deep to doing anything about it.

These gaps are also great because every now and then he introduces a couple of concrete details that glimmer like jewels in the narrative. They stand out and are all the more poignant because these details have clearly being chosen specifically to stand out. They have broken free from the mire of subtlety and understatement and they pierce you to the core.

One such moment in which Murakami introduces rare concrete details is after Kizuki’s suicide, when Toru goes to university for the first time. We’ve just been told that Kizuki fed a gas pipe into his N-360 car and taped the window shut. After that, the scene is swept over, as though the thought is too difficult to bear. But some details escape free. Details that make chills run over your arms. Details like this:

“There was only one thing for me to do when I started my new life in the dorm: stop taking everything so seriously; establish a proper distance between myself and everything else. Forget about green baize pool tables and red N-360s and white flowers on school desks; about smoke rising from tall crematorium chimneys, and chunky paperweights in police interrogation rooms. “

We see the pool tables as vividly as Toru. We see the N-360 as vividly too. But we already knew these details and their significance. Then, completing the rule-of-three, Murakami offers another image, that of the white flowers on school desks. We are not told how the school handled the tragedy of Kizuki’s death. But we don’t need to be told. That image speaks volumes. Then we have more images with the smoke from the crematorium chimney and the paperweights in police interrogation rooms. Again, we are not told anything about these instances but we see a very clear progression with very little being said. We feel what the narrator wishes he could forget. And we feel it intimately.

4. Use of humour in tragedy

Something that always fascinated me about studying Shakespeare’s plays was that the tragedies were funnier than the comedies and the comedies were more tragic than the tragedies (right up until the final act that is). We actually see this in all great literature. Tragedies that are filled with doom and gloom from start to finish end up feeling farcical. We reject the tragic experience. It means nothing to us. Likewise, comedies need to have a lot of shit going wrong. In fact, a lot of sitcoms would work well as tragedies if it weren’t for their inane laughter tracks.

Murakami uses humour extremely well. He uses it to make the tragic more tragic and the poignant more poignant. Humour is also a very effective fastening rod for combining many of a work’s themes together. Take this one scene of dialogue for example between Toru and Midori that effectively combines comedy, tragedy, love, sex, poignant juxtaposition, nostalgia, and gaps for meaning to arise:

““Tell me, Watanabe,” Midori said, looking up at the dorm buildings, “do all the guys in here wank – rub-a-dub-dub?”

“Probably,” I said.

“Do guys think about girls when they do that?”

“I suppose so. I kind of doubt that anyone thinks about the stock market or verb conjugations or the Suez Canal when they wank. Nope, I’m pretty sure just about everybody thinks about girls.”

“The Suez Canal?”

“For example.”

“So I suppose they think about particular girls, right?”

“Shouldn’t you be asking your boyfriend about that?” I said. “Why should I have to explain stuff like this to you on a Sunday morning?”

“I was just curious,” she said. “Besides, he’d get angry if I asked him about stuff like that. He’d say girls aren’t supposed to ask all those questions.”

“A perfectly normal point of view, I’d say.”

Murakami has many such scenes like this to break up some of the angst and heartache that riddles the book. It’s interesting to note that he compartmentalises his comedic and tragic aspects. For example, when he wants to make you laugh, he’ll bring out Midori or he’ll let Toru tell an anecdote about his geeky roommate, dubbed Storm Trooper. This is a great technique to learn how to write humour effectively: anchor comedic moments to specific characters and symbols.

5. Sensuality – erotica writers take note!

I’m not the only one that finds most of the erotica books cringe-inducing. Just scroll through the reviews of some of the top sellers (most of which will disappear into oblivion within a fortnight) and you’ll see a common round of complaints: too much detail, too wooden characters, not enough build-up, and not enough believability.

Well, excuse my language but writing good sex is not like following a DIY instruction panel. Insert rod A into fixture B and screw until you hear a moist popping sound = GROSS.

Erotica readers do not just want a play-by-play of every minute detail. If they wanted that, they could find tons of that shit on the internet (seriously, open up a tab right now… I’ll wait) rather than fork over hard-earned money on a book. When it comes to writing effective erotica….What’s unsaid is more important than what is said. It’s the same in horror where you don’t see the bad guy until the end. Let the reader’s imagination take over. Everyone’s fantasy is different.

You need characters that have real emotions. It can be love. It can be hate. It can be jealousy, possessiveness, fear, boredom, disgust. But it can’t just be sex.

You need to have a build-up that is believable. Seriously, female protagonists shouldn’t go from straight-laced Christian girls to nymphomaniacs overnight. That’s a dirty deus ex-machina that serves only to heap up a big serving of forgettable and creepy description.

But Murakami’s Norwegian Wood totally handles these difficult themes of sensuality, love, and sex well. Murakami doesn’t ruin those by just throwing them down on the page without paying careful attention to atmosphere and character first. He does this by focusing on character. He focuses on real issues that real people deal with every day. Then when the scene comes, he introduces it and steps back.

7. Musical refrains

Study how Murakami consciously uses music as a refrain throughout Norwegian Wood. He continuously comes back to The Beatles, among many other musicians evocative of the time period, and he does this consciously in order to create a unity, a harmony, among the disparate memories told by the backwards-looking narrator, whilst also increasing the sense of nostalgia and longing.

Music, particularly The Beatles, stands as an important motif throughout the book with characters continuously paying to hear one another play ‘Norwegian Wood’, as though they’re also trying to return to a past or lose themselves in a symbol of hope.

8. Keeps the reader guessing

Throughout the entire book, the reader is left guessing as to which character Toru will eventually end up with: Naoko or Midori?

Murakami crafts this guessing game so expertly because, once again in the vein of ensuring that nothing is overwrought, it doesn’t even seem like a guessing game. It doesn’t even seem relevant to the story. This feels more like a side thought that we, the reader, are simply preoccupying ourselves with as we fly over the memories of Toru’s past.

It looks equally impossible that Toru will end up with either of these women. And for wildly different reasons. And yet he does.

Each reader will have a character that they are rooting for. The whole way through the book, I was rooting for Midori to be the one that Toru ends up with. It struck me about halfway through the book that a story without a character or cause to root for is not much of a story at all. And Murakami instils this emotion perfectly.

It is important to realise that Norwegian Wood was Murakami’s experimental novel. Even though it is the one that seems the most “normal” out of his oeuvre, this was the challenge Murakami issued himself. He wanted to write a straight novel and a bestseller just to prove to everyone else that he could. And did. The book is a worldwide bestseller. And the reason that although its the only book by him I have read, I have chosen Murakami as my favorite author.

Those are just a few reasons why Haruki Murakami is so great. Have you all heard of him? If yes, then what are your opinions? Which one of his books is your favorite? Comment down below and I would love to get some feedback about this!

Your friendly neighborhood bookworm,

ZEEBEE.

P.S. Don’t forget to press that Like button if you wish to see more such content! I dont often do long reviews but this one made me go on and on…..lol

 

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