Review: The Subtle Surrealism of "Norwegian Wood"

Madeline Poage ’17/ Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
In 1965, The Beatles captured the novelty of undeniable attraction afflicted by discomfort and unease in their well-loved song, “Norwegian Wood”. In 1987, more than twenty years later, Haruki Murakami’s novel of the same name became an instant classic, ascribing the emotion developed in the brief tune to complex characters in a complicated situation.
Published by Kodansha, the book is a testament to the power of a simple story. With a small cast of characters, a relatively simple set up, and limited exposition, it’s the intense emotions and delicate relationships that really let it fly. The story follows Toru Watanabe, a Tokyo college student who is simply existing without much purpose or direction following the unexpected suicide of his best friend, Kizuki, when they were still in high school. It’s a few years later and Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko, and Toru find themselves unable to shake the bond they share from Kizuki’s death. What ensues is a strange romance beset by debilitating depression and the persistent memories and personal traumas that plague almost every character.

“Norwegian Wood” Cover. Source: Vintage International
What follows is an intense, heartfelt look into grief and mental illness, attempting to answer the ultimate question: How will they get through this? Complete with engaging prose and earnestly profound insights, Murakami returns to the time the titular song was first released. Student rebellions, political presence, and sexual exploration of the 60s create the backdrop of a metropolis that is the heart of a country challenging itself, not unlike the characters forced to challenge their own internal demons. Both Toru and Naoko can seem almost zombie-like— Toru’s depression leaving him uncertain and indifferent, Naoko institutionalized and paralyzed by her own struggles. It’s only when Midori, a classmate of Toru with a confidently honest personality and baggage of her own, springs into the picture that Toru’s journey enters a new dimension. She shocks Toru out of his torpidity with her fantastically explosive and charming energy, remaining snappy, to the point, and standing in stark contrast to the somber tone of the others, a tone which seems so different from Murakami’s traditionally more whimsical writing.
In response to what advice he would give aspiring writers, Haruki Murakami said, “Every time you write, ask yourself: Could this scene take place in a hot-air balloon? If the answer is yes, then it probably should.” And while Norwegian Wood may not take place in the dreamlike absurdity of Murakami’s standard subdued insanity, the book’s surrealism emerges in far more subtle ways. The death and tragedy that Toru perceives as inevitable, the blanket of wintry snow that seems endless, the lack of a real home for any of the characters in much of the novel. All reside in psychiatric rehabs, book shops, college dormitories—businesses and institutions that lack heart, which the characters are compelled to supply themselves. An explorative tale of how growing up might mean letting go, it could be argued that Norwegian Wood does, in fact, take place in a hot-air balloon. Rising higher and higher, loosening tethers and ties, Toru’s story remains, ultimately, hopeful.

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