‘Norwegian Wood’ and Murakami’s Legacy for Angsty 20-Somethings

originally published on notmad.us

When there’s speculation that an author will be nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, you know he doesn’t play. Such is the case with Haruki Murakami. Before Norwegian Wood, which is nearly 30 years old, I had read After the Quake (also excellent). As a result, I expected the same magical-realism trippy shit that is so typical of Murakami’s style. What I got was something very different. Norwegian Wood is one of Murakami’s most popular novels, earning him national recognition and celebrity status in Japan after it was published in 1987. Murakami, by the way, was not into the fame; he’s spent much of his life living abroad. He and the Japanese literature scene aren’t super into each other. So why did a novel noticeably distinct from the rest resonate so loudly with Murakami’s readership, and with me? I think this novel was, and is, so successful because Murakami portrays so well the angst of being 20. A novel published 30 years ago, set in the 60’s with a male Japanese protagonist still reaches audiences of all ages, genders and nationalities because no one forgets the discomfort of leaving childhood behind.

The novel follows a young man, Toru, through his college years in the mid 60’s in Tokyo. The heated political activism of his generation is muted by the suicide of his “best (and only) friend,” Kizuki, the year before. While attending university in Tokyo, Toru reconnects with Naoko, Kizuki’s former girlfriend. The three of them spent a lot of time together in high school but haven’t seen each other since Kizuki’s death. Toru describes his place in the trio of Kizuki, Naoko and himself as an outcome of Kizuki and Naoko’s history: “as with most couples who have been together since childhood, there was a casual openness about the relationship between Kizuki and Naoko and little sense they wanted to be alone together”.

As they finish their first year of college, Toru and Naoko spend more and more time together. You get the sense that they’re leaning on each other in mourning Kizuki’s death, although Murakami never explicitly says it. Instead of allowing us all the way in, Murakami creates a plot that is symptomatic of a dark landscape of emotion and conflict lying just beneath the surface. This lower layer is flayed open the night of Naoko’s 20th birthday. Naoko has been talking desperately for hours until suddenly she collapses on the floor and begins sobbing “with the force of a person vomiting on all fours.” The next morning, Naoko is unresponsive to Toru’s attempts to speak with her, and he leaves. These moments of totally fucked emotional breakdowns flash and die with no explanation. They are stupid affective. I gasped, I cried, I swore. Murakami does not play when it comes to pivotal moments.

What I loved (and what was sort of painful) about the novel was Murakami’s ability to, somehow, make these gut wrenching moments relatable. Toru’s struggle to remain invested in his studies because of his troubled relationship with Naoko and Kizuki’s recent death is articulated in such a way that a burnt out white girl whining about her junior year at a liberal arts school can relate. Toru (the novel is written in first person) describes his 3rd year much like I might:

“Thinking back on the year 1969, all that comes to mind for me is a swamp — a deep, sticky bog that feels as if it’s going to suck my shoe off each time I take a step. I walk through the mud, exhausted. In front of me, behind me, I can see nothing but an endless swampy darkness.”

Feels, Toru, feels. Murakami’s writing transcends boundaries of race, class, culture, gender and language. Especially for 20-somethings, the feeling of freefalling, trying to figure life out is so palpable. In retrospect, does it seem ludicrous for me to relate to the experience of this character who loses his best friend to suicide? Absolutely, but that’s how it happened, and I think Murakami wanted it to.

Am I done raving about this novel being really powerful? No. The close of the book is one of the best examples of Murakami delivering piercing emotion at the novel’s most pivotal moments (no spoilers, promise).

“Gripping the receiver, I raised my head and turned to see what lay beyond the telephone booth. Where was I now? I had no idea. No idea at all. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere. Again and again, I called out for Midori from the dead center of this place that was no place.”

Murakami doesn’t resolve. He doesn’t leave us with a pleasant conclusion to a dark and difficult story. Instead he sears into our minds the image of Toru desperately gripping the receiver in panic about his future. He is just as lost and without a center as ever. Toru struggles to cling to any one thing as his world is uprooted by the death of his childhood friend. A metaphor for the death of childhood and the often painful growth into adulthood? Probs. In many ways, this novel reads sort of like the darkest coming of age tale of all time. Perhaps one of the most important lessons we learn in coming of age is to experience loss and to learn to move on. As the song goes, “And when I awoke I was alone, this bird had flown/So I lit a fire, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?”