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Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood (1987) is a novel by Haruki Murakami. The first-person narrator, Toru Watanabe, takes a long and very detailed look back on his college years when he was between the ages of 18 and 20 or so. At first I thought the novel was boring, but then the characters started to grow on me, and Murakami's prose becomes hypnotic in a sense, and I often felt like a fly on the wall for the pages of seemingly endless but incredibly natural dialogue. Parts of the story take place in Yotsuya, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Myogadani, Kichijoji, Otsuka and Ebisu, all places I've lived or worked or both, and reading fiction set in real places that I'm familiar with always makes things more interesting.

There is lots of banal dialogue with sudden erotic turns as well. Sex, or talk of sex, just kind of pops up now and then, like in the following exchange between Watanabe and his friend Midori:

“I wonder what ants do on rainy days?” Midori asked.

“No idea,” I said. “They’re hard workers, so they probably spend the day cleaning house or taking inventory.”

“If they work so hard, how come they don’t evolve? They’ve been the same forever.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe their body structure isn’t suited to evolving—compared with monkeys, say.”

“Hey, Watanabe, there’s a lot of stuff you don’t know. I thought you knew everything.”

“It’s a big world out there,” I said.

“High mountains, deep oceans,” Midori said. She put her hand inside my bathrobe and took hold of my...

Suicide, or giving up on this world, is a big theme too, and three characters off themselves, changing the lives of those (three) who remain to push forward. We're also given the philosophy: “Death is not the opposite of life but an innate part of life.” And, “By living our lives, we nurture death.” The book also reflects the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, and for all these elements it's a little sad in places.

What's also interesting is we're given a sense that Watanabe is recounting his college years perhaps a decade or two later. We don't know what his life is like in the present, but at least we know he made it, through the cynicism, depression, meaninglessness, and mental problems of friends, and by the end of the novel, his making it is in some ways good enough.


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