The Reality of Intelligence | Norwegian Wood Book Review (Spoiler-free)

This review contains no major spoilers. It follows the main plot arch and concepts built through the main character.



Haruki Murakami is known for his twisted words and aloof, unique gaze. His writing strikes an amazing balance between Western cult favourites and the Japanese condition, having "internalised the rebellious attitudes of novelists like Fitzgerald" in an interesting point in Japanese cultural development (New York Times). Murakami departs from the cultural binary in Japanese literature being traditionally tragic and serious or light and unrealistic; opting for a more casual, often humorous approach to his writing.


His writing style in Norwegian Wood, being notoriously different from his other works, seems to switch effortlessly between several layers of depth and motif, to blunt shallowness giving details that may seem insignificant or dull. I immediately fixated on two reoccurrences in style, his continuous flow between timelines and breaking the third wall, and his ending paragraphs with fragmented sentences. Most of my encounters with this kind of timeline hopping had distinctive chapters for each break in the plot, but not Norwegian wood. He seamlessly jumps 20 years ahead in a single paragraph without confusing the story at all. The fragmented sentences hit me strongly several times, and at first, I wasn't sure why. The end bit was the most underwhelming of the scene, yet it drew me in and made me feel something. In the simple words, "And he paid for us both" (page 56), a hollowness zapped through me, and I had to take a deep breath. After being subjected to these kinds of abrupt endings in seemingly frivolous ways throughout the book, what was happening started to sink in. Murakami was making me more aware of the main character's, Watanabe Toru's, perspective. He was bringing me deeper into his mindset, into his perspective. He was allowing me to understand him, the character, and read into his experiences without affecting Watanabe's own ignorance of his condition. It was something I recognised from another personal favourite, The Catcher in the Rye, which is also mentioned in the text; linked to Watanabe's strange direct way of speaking.



What makes this aspect of Norwegian Wood extra special is the ties of the character Watanabe Toru to Murakami's personal experiences and youth. Though he has explicitly said this book is not autobiographical, even his translator in the note at the back of the book mentions the undeniable similarities between Murakami's life and Watanabe. One of the most profound things I felt about Watanabe's character is his attraction to broken and dark things despite feeling himself to be such an "ordinary guy". His relationship with the young couple before it became complicated shows his natural tendency to feel comfortable around those who are different. Later on in the book, the plot seems to point this character trait to a single traumatic event in his high school days involving some of the other characters, but I believe it was innate in his character, from before the accident. Watanabe is naturally drawn towards complication, imperfection- the beauty in the rough.



"'Nobody likes being alone. I just hate to be disappointed' You can use that line if you ever write your autobiography." (page 52).


Something I noticed was that we didn't learn much about the main character's personal background and how he became the kind of guy who drifts outside the norm and entertains the broken, as Murakami describes the majority of the other characters Watanabe interacts with. We learn about Naoko and Kizuki's childhood, and how they were always a bit off in other people's eyes. We learn about Midori, and her parents and her dysfunctions, we even have a good strong set of pages on Reiko and her journey to discovering her dysfunctions, but we never learn about Watanabe's childhood and journey separate and apart from being an accomplice to other people's mental weaknesses.


Later, having read a few articles about Murakami and his personal history, I came across a quote he said in an interview,



When he was three he managed somehow to walk out the front door of his house all by himself. He tottered across the road, then fell into a creek. The water swept him downstream toward a dark and terrible tunnel. Just as he was about to enter it, however, his mother reached down and saved him. “I remember it very clearly,” he said. “The coldness of the water and the darkness of the tunnel — the shape of that darkness. It’s scary. I think that’s why I’m attracted to darkness.”


After seeing this quote, I came to understand why Watanabe surrounded himself with the broken. He was simply "attracted to darkness". This was also why we don't learn about Watanabe's background and personal turmoil because there was none. As fictional as the other characters were, I believe they symbolise something direct and deep in Murakami's personal life, in his journey through life. Therefore, it wouldn't have done the story justice if Watanabe had his own turmoil to work through. Instead, we follow a boy attracted to the complication of life, to the deeply faulted sides of people and their honesty. We follow a boy who is intelligent and intuitively bored with the surface-level facade (omote) that is a strong theme in Japanese culture. I couldn't help but feel that Watanabe was an exceptionally brilliant boy who never saw himself for what he truly was, because he didn't have the concept to bring it into words. Nagasawa saw it in him, and although Watanabe resented seeing himself in Nagasawa, for me as the reader, it was clear that Nagasawa was a parallel in place to compare Watanabe to.


"'You're the weirdest guy I've ever met,'
'You're the straightest guy I've ever met,'
And then he paid the bill."

Watanabe strived to be the ordinary guy when in fact he was the least bit ordinary, floating through this plot without any roots. This is what leads us to the abrupt and jolting ending of Norwegian Wood, where we are rudely reminded of the reality of Watanabe's character and of his own humanity. Up until the end, we live inside his head continuously avoiding his own reality and contextualisation in favour of Naoko's. It's not until Naoko's story is quieted, do we realise, we no longer know where we are, and what we've been through to get here.



 

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