Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Norwegian Wood Read-Along Week 1: Death and despair, ahoy!

Greetings from the pit of angst and depression into which Norwegian Wood has tossed me.


What is UP with these kids? As far as I can tell, none of them were beaten or trapped in the cellar as children. And they couldn't have been forced to read Twilight because it didn't exist yet (ah, the good old days). And they're in COLLEGE. High school is for brooding; college is for self-discovery and sowing your wild oats.

Toru is pretty progressive. He's doing loner hipster at a time when everyone else was doing peace-loving hippy. He reads American authors no one else in Japan is reading. His favorite book is The Great Gatsby, which wouldn't be so surprising if this were set in America, but I imagine it's a bit more unusual in '60s Japan. That book is the reason he becomes friends with Nagasawa, "the one person in my world who had read Gatsby" (p. 30) and a shameless womanizer with a pretty awesome girlfriend whom he doesn't even remotely deserve. He's probably also drawn to Nagasawa because of his similarities to Kizuki, the best friend who inexplicably killed himself when Toru was in high school (more puzzling on that later) and the seeming cause of Toru's gloomy outlook on life (and death).

Toru says he went to college in Tokyo to get away from his hometown and "begin a life where I didn't know a soul" (p. 24). Maybe it worked for him for a little while, but where we come into the story, so does Naoko. She embodies all his memories of Kobe and Kizuki, and he starts spending time with her regularly. What a strange relationship they have. She and Toru should know each other well since she dated Kizuki for years.
"The three of us spent a lot of time together, but whenever Kizuki left the room, Naoko and I had trouble talking to each other. We never knew what to talk about. And in fact there was no topic of conversation that we held in common." (p. 23)
When they meet again in Tokyo, they still don't talk. They just walk . . . and walk and walk and walk. And for a long time, she doesn't even let him walk beside her. He just stares at her barrette and her ear and follows her wordlessly around the city.

On her birthday, after they've been walking all over Tokyo for a year, she finally talks . . . and talks and talks and talks, nonstop for 4 hours. But she avoids any mention of Kizuki. After she cries and they share a really awkward sexual experience, in which Toru/Murakami calls Naoko's vagina "her opening" (her OPENING?!), she shuts him out. And then she moves away without telling him. She hits it and quits it, and Toru is left to pine and write letters begging for an explanation. It's an interesting gender role reversal, but Naoko has a typical female reason for leaving: the delicate state of her mental health.

When he meets Midori (the Japanese man sitting next to me on the plane yesterday informed me that this is a common name in Japan; not just a bright green liqueur, folks!), she provides a stark contrast to Naoko. For one thing, she is afflicted with verbal diarrhea. Where Naoko was quiet and withdrawn around Toru, Midori is more than willing to share her life story AND talk about sanitary napkins. Her age shows in some of the overdramatic statements she makes ("I had a perm this summer and it was just awful. I was ready to kill myself," p. 50), but she is fairly perceptive. She has Toru figured out from the beginning and repeats some of his more ridiculous statements back to him.
"'Nobody likes being alone. I just hate to be disappointed.' You can use that line if you ever write your autobiography." (p. 51)
Also quite perceptive on her part: "You make it obvious you don't care whether people like you or not. That makes some people mad" (p. 70). (Psst, it's because he's a Japanese hipster.)

Sailor Moon: The OTHER Japanese hipster.
I hope you weren't getting your hopes up about Midori being a regular, vibrant freshman girl, because she is just as much of a broken doll as EVERY SINGLE OTHER CHARACTER. For the most part, her problems seem trivial. She's bitter about having been the only middle-class student at her all-girl, richie-rich high school. Yeah, that would be annoying, but at least her parents cared enough about her to scrape together the money for a good education. She complains that her family's bookstore isn't cool enough, which is also a nonproblem. Her mom died of cancer, which is not trivial. But she says she wasn't sad when her mom died, so I don't think that's what screwed her up. Her dad said he wished she and her sister had died instead of their mother . . . and then moved to Uruguay. See, THIS is an actual problem. Many a psychologist would say her daddy issues are the cause of her warped view of love. And what IS love according to Midori?
"I'm looking for selfishness. Perfect selfishness. Like, say I tell you I want to eat strawberry shortcake. And you stop everything you're doing and run out and buy it for me. And you come back out of breath and get down on your knees and hold this strawberry shortcake out to me. And I say I don't want it anymore and throw it out the window. That's what I'm looking for." (p. 76)

But one last thing. WHY did Kizuki kill himself? People generally have a reason for doing such a permanent thing, even if it's a dumb reason justified by hormones and acne. I mean, one minute, Toru and Kizuki are playing billiards "in a mood of total friendship," and the next, his parents are finding him dead in the garage. He "had left no suicide note, and had no motive that anyone could think of" (p. 24). But Naoko seems to have a lot of guilt associated with his death, which weighs so heavily on her when she is around Toru that she has to quit school and enter a sanatorium. Mystery! Intrigue!

Look there, on the horizon. I think I see GIANT THUNDERCLOUDS OF EMOTIONAL AGONY coming our way.


  1. I think...I want to marry your blog. Which might be an issue for some of the more conservative states, but I DO NOT CARE.

    Basically, yes to everything you said. And I can't believe you and your fortunateness in sitting next to a genuine Japanese person. Huzzah! I never meet them in my line of work (receptionist at a WASPy company). That somehow felt racist saying that. Moving on.

    They better reveal why Kizuki killed himself. But I'm more into The Random Adventures of Toru. I want him to just wander around and meet people, because I enjoy when he does that, and NOT when he does anything else, like brood about the flag or brood about the phone not ringing or brood about EVERYTHING ELSE. Midori saying he talks like Humphrey Bogart was, perhaps, my favorite part thus far. Because, accurate. DO NOT TAKE HIM SERIOUSLY, MIDORI; KEEP MAKING FUN OF HIM.

  2. I heart Midori, even when she says ridiculous stuff like her total selfishness love thing.
    At least she does something. Toru is just so passive. And Naoko so depressing.

    I want to know more about Japanese culture and suicide. I remember reading in another book (Tokyo Vice) how one of the most popular books sold in Japan is about ways to kill yourself.

    To end this on a lighter note, I always pictured Midori in green cos of her name.

  3. I ALREADY married your blog. Did it not tell you? Well...this is awkward.

    I was very fortunate to have a Japanese plane companion while reading my first Japanese novel. He was most helpful...he even helped me buckle my seat belt.

    YES! Humphrey Bogart. I thought that was a brilliant comparison for Midori to whip out...because it's MOSTLY a compliment but just a little bit of an insult. Multiple layers to that one.

  4. When Midori was talking about cake, I kept picturing Marie Antoinette...randomly.

    I do know ONE thing about Japanese culture and suicide. The samurai had a particular technique for ritual suicide, called seppuku. It involved plunging a short sword into one's own stomach and ripping it across the abdomen...self-disembowelment. Those crazy samurai.

  5. I don't necessarily need to know why Kizuku killed himself, I think what's more important is all the emotional turmoil and troubles he left behind him- although you could be right and it could totes be Naoko's fault, which would be interesting! I agree with Red on wanting to know more about the whole Japanese/High suicide rate thing- I know that there's a totally repressed culture and emotion and stuff is discouraged sooo.. seems like a climate for suicide if you ask me!

    And Midori is craaaazy with her whole love issues (I think what she's talking about is sociopathy, not love!) but I guess it's because her mum and dad didn't love her enough? I don't know, whatever, I'm in love with her and I want to bring her shortcake or whatever because she's awesome and life-filled. 

    And Toru=ultimate Japanese hipster. Fo sho. I'm pretty sure the subtitle of this book is 'Teenage angst, Tokyo Style.' Maybe.

  6. You're so right about not needing to know why Kizuki killed himself. The story will have the same meaning and depth even if we never find out...I just really like to know everything about everything. Give me the answers, book! Thinking is hard.

    BUT, even if Kizuki killed himself because of Naoko, it isn't really her fault. It's no one's fault but Kizuki's. That's what makes suicide so devastating. and it's generally an incredibly selfish and cowardly act...no matter the circumstances leading up to it (unless you're a samurai).

  7. As the Crowe Flies and ReadsJanuary 10, 2012 at 5:06 PM

    Oh, I've so enjoyed reading your response!  I only got through chapter 2 (hangs head) so I need to know more about this Midori person (popular name in Japan? Who knew?).  At the point when Kizuki killed himself I actually couldn't bring myself to care why, but now that I'm distanced from it (by about 12 hours) I'm more curious.  Is it terrible that I thought immediately of Yukio Mishima when I read about the suicide?  I guess it's shining a pathetic light on how little I know about Japanese culture/lit when I (momentarily at least) equate actual suicide of Japanese writer with suicide of Japanese character. 

  8. I really hope that they finally freakin' explain the whole suicide thing.  Seriously.  Cuz sometimes I sorta forget that someone has DIED already.  Even though that tragedy obvs has caused detrimental issues with Nagasawa and Toru. 

  9. When you mentioned Twilight I immediately realized what the Norwegian Wood weird meadow scenes reminded me of -- I think Meyer's been reading Murakami!  DUN DUN DUN.

    And YES Toru is such a little hipster.  He's also kind of a creeper... he goes to movie theaters alone in the middle of the night.  And then finds a crying girl to bring back to a hotel...

    Honestly, I'm hoping Murakami does a 180 and has Storm Trooper narrate the rest of the book.  Where is he?!?

  10. It's definitely MORE terrible that I have no idea who Yukio Mishima is. *looking it up to amend gaping hole in literary knowledge*

  11. Oh oh oh! He committed seppuku, and I was JUST talking about that earlier. I love when that happens. That sounded morbid...but you know what I mean. I hope.

  12. If only there were a mythical well in the Twilight meadow and Bella FELL IN IT.

    Storm Trooper narration? YES! If that doesn't happen, I think you should write your own version from his perspective.