A Book Review of “Norwegian Wood” – Way Too Sad

Some of my favorite books I’ve ever read are some of the saddest ones out there. Brideshead Revisited, Franny & Zooey, The Great Gatsby. They give you a hero or narrator who is struggling through life without really understanding why things are so tough. They’re just trying desperately to find meaning in existence, to find their own personal brand of happiness. For some people that can be the real challenge. But through these books, through watching the protagonist struggle, the reader is eventually able to realize some universal truth about human existence. The best works of literature are the ones that take an unabashed look at the tragic nature of life but turn it into something beautiful by showing us how to survive. It’s humanity’s capacity to fight, succeed, learn, and better ourselves that give us meaning, that make life great. When that’s the ultimate message of a novel, even if it’s a sad one, it’s still uplifting in a humanistic kind of way. That’s real life. There’s Joy in that!

But what do you get when you take the somber depressive tone of a J. D. Salinger novel and put a mature and perversely poetic Japanese twist on it? Well, you get Norwegian Wood (1987) by Haruki Murakami, of course!

There is so much depth and insight in this book that it will truly astound you. It really is brilliant, but it comes with a price: Norwegian Wood is absolutely devastating. No book will take more of an emotional toll from you than this one. Rather than have the uplifting, hopeful optimism of the western novels that I mentioned before, Norwegian Wood is just plain sad. Catcher In the Rye is depressing enough to make anyone a bit mopey for a day or two, but then you hang out with some friends, and with a quick laugh, you remember how great life is. Norwegian Wood is in a league of its own. It’s delicate and beautiful but it will depress the living daylights out of you, I promise you that!

Our story opens when Toru Watanabe is thirty-seven and randomly hears the Beatles song “Norwegian Wood”, a song that drags him back through his painful memories. The tale that he tells is full of nostalgia and set in Tokyo of the late 1960s. Toru is looking back on a youth full of pain and loss. He once loved a quiet and hauntingly beautiful girl named Naoko, but their would-be relationship was always marred by their mutual loss of Kizuki, Toru’s best friend and Naoko’s boyfriend in high school. Kizuki killed himself on his seventeenth birthday. And no one saw it coming. (So it goes, Vonnegut might say.)

Each lonely and broken in their own way, Naoko and Toru can barely manage to keep up with the stresses of their lives as college students as they retreat from real life and into their broken minds. Toru goes through the motions of attending classes and living in a dorm, but he isolates himself into a wallowing pit of loneliness. Naoko can hardly function, drifting through life as the shell of a person. They are so desperate to connect with anything that they wind up connecting with one another. With Kizuki’s memory consuming them both, they have no one left to turn to. They have this twisted sense of longing for one another, but what are they really looking for and finding there? Is it love? Is it comfort? Whatever it is, they become so rigidly attached to one another that it’s unclear whether or not they could ever have a semblance of a healthy relationship.

As Naoko retreats further and further into her own mind, Toru eventually drifts to the spunky and quirky Midori, whose outgoing personality is the complete opposite of the contemplative Naoko. Midori is the kind of lively person that Naoko needs to bring him out of his tormented mind to enjoy the real world, but he is so utterly devoted to Naoko that the guilt and inner conflict tears him apart. The mess of Toru’s life and the assortment of characters that drift in and out paint a picture that is painful, heroic, erotic enough to get banned from high school reading lists, and so cynical, defeatist, fatalistic, pessimistic, and all of those really awful modes of thinking that nobody should ever succumb to. There’s the desperate, crippling longing that comes with our first love. There’s the enormous dreams and expectations that we have in our youth. And of course, there’s the devastating realization of our naivete in the face of reality. Anyone who has loved and lost can empathize with what Toru goes through. He’s lonely and loses so much in his life, BUT he never makes any real attempt to get over his problems or better himself. He lets his troubles consume him. Art shouldn’t just remind us of how hard life is, it should show us a new way to view the world so that we might find happiness.

I’ll save you the emotional turmoil and spoil a bit of Norwegian Wood for you so I can complain some more: it all ends with Toru on the brink of a psychological break and absolute uncertainty as he cries out for help. Throughout the story, the message of every chapter is basically, “man life really sucks!” and you’re always hoping that by the end something might change, that Toru might learn something to make his life better. But if he has any epiphany it is just that he let his life waste away by being sad, isolating himself from humanity, wallowing in self-pity over the tragedies in his youth, and obsessing over a toxic relationship that was never genuine to begin with. It all piles up until Toru is buried under a mountain of what I might call “some seriously heavy shit”. And he snaps into what I have to assume is a complete mental breakdown. End Curtain. WTF!? I shouted something obscene when the book ended. Granted, Toru is narrating this story when he’s 37, so we can assume that must “get better” in some sense but just listen to this voice here:

“I do need that time, though, for Naoko’s face to appear. And as the years have passed, the time has grown longer. The sad truth is that what I could recall in five seconds all too needed ten, then thirty, then a full minute-like shadows lengthening at dusk. Someday, I suppose, the shadows will be swallowed up in darkness. There is no way around it: my memory is growing ever more distant from the spot where Naoko used to stand-ever more distant from the spot where my old self used to stand. And nothing but scenery, that view of the meadow in October, returns again and again to me like a symbolic scene in a movie. Each time is appears, it delivers a kick to some part of my mind. “Wake up,” it says. “I’m still here. Wake up and think about it. Think about why I’m still here.” The kicking never hurts me. There’s no pain at all. Just a hollow sound that echoes with each kick. And even that is bound to fade one day. At the Hamburg airport, though, the kicks were longer and harder than usual. Which is why I am writing this book. To think. To understand. It just happens to be the way I’m made. I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them.”

What IS that!? He’s some hollow shell of a human being. His clear view of his life is devoid of all joy, of any emotion really. Toru has some really deep psychological issues that make Holden Cauffield look like a whiny chump. It makes me sort of hate the book in a way because I want to be inspired by art! I want a story that reassures me instead of devastates me. But when you stop and think about it, the painful truth is that there are very real people out there with psychological issues akin to Toru and Naoko. If you’re into the whole “devastating tragic beauty in art” thing, then by all means, read “Norwegian Wood”, but you might want to buy one of those deluxe multi-packs of Kleenex first, and be prepared to deal with some really messed up stuff, including more than one suicide in the mix.

If I had to capture the poetic impression that this novel had on me using a dream-like image that I just came up with, it would be this:

You’re sitting alone in a quiet park in Japan around sunset, hearing all those delicate sounds of nature. There is a stream trickling nearby, probably with a few koi fish. It’s warm, and there’s a delicate breeze ruffling through the trees and humming in your ears. You can smell the flowers, the earth, Mother Nature herself. You can feel all the tenacity and vivacity of youth and beauty all around you. Then you look to a brilliant cherry blossom tree and it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. In a moment you feel like you’re getting this transcendent glimpse of Beauty herself. But then you just watch as each soft petal on the tree falls off one-by-one, twisting and drifting down, down, down like little pink feathers until the branches are completely bare. Night falls, and all you’re left to do is stare at the puddle of petals lying on the ground and think about the beauty that’s forever gone while it grows cold and dark all around you.

See what I mean by sad and beautiful!? That’s how this book made me feel, so if that image disturbed you in any way (as it should) then do not read this book. It reels you in with some of the best prose I’ve ever seen – almost as stunning as the first time I read Nabokov’s “Lolita” – but that power is used to tell the saddest story ever told.

I’ll never read Norwegian Wood again, but I am glad that I did just the once, if only to learn the lesson of Toru: if all we do is dwell on the miserable aspects of our lives, then our lives will forever be miserable. That which you manifest is before you (yes, Enzo the dog’s insights into human life are more important than a Japanese emo kid).

Finding happiness truly is as simple as being happy.

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