Watanabe Toru is a college student at the end of the ‘60s, disaffected from the student riots not out of political apathy so much as from a perception that those involved aren’t as radical and dedicated as Watanabe wants them to be. They’re not going to go far enough.
In high school in Kobe, Watanabe was part of a kind of three-way friendship/romance: there was Watanabe, his best (only) friend Kizuki, and Kizuki’s girlfriend Naoko. It was kind of a hermetically sealed minisociety: the three of them against the world. Then, at seventeen, Kizuki killed himself. Now Watanabe has fled to college in Tokyo, where he unexpectedly runs into Naoko on the train. They had never talked much before – always through Kizuki – but now they start taking long Sunday walks through the city, getting to know each other. Sort of dating, sort of not; mutual healing, or gestures toward it. Then one rainy night – it’s Naoko’s 20th birthday – she finally starts talking about the past, then she can’t stop – it’s kind of a manic episode – at the end of it they sleep together – Watanabe’s shocked to find that she’s a virgin – he asks her why she and Kizuki never did it – she cries – he can’t get another word out of her. Leaves. Later finds that she’s left, no forwarding address. A shock.
He writes letters to her, confessional, devoted letters – he’s falling in love with her. Finally he hears from her: she’s in a kind of alpine retreat/mental hospital north of Kyoto. He rushes to visit her. It’s a sanatorium that feels like a summer camp: very Candide kind of tend-your-garden-and-heal-yourself place. He meets her 30-ish roommate Reiko. Naoko is doing better, is opening up to Watanabe. Watanabe is entranced.
He visits twice in all, and sends lots of letters. In the process he learns that Naoko’s problems go deeper than he’d known: when she was in junior high her older sister had killed herself, and Naoko had found the body. She’s been surrounded by death, and meanwhile had never been able to have sex with Kizuki. Only orally or manually – nothing else worked. Which also had been a trauma to her – and left almost unspoken is that she feels that, by responding sexually to Watanabe, she was somehow betraying Kizuki. Now, in his visits to Ami Lodge, she doesn’t sleep with Watanabe again – just hand and mouth.
Meanwhile, back in Tokyo, Watanabe has met another girl, a classmate named Midori. Midori is the opposite of Naoko in every way: boyish to Naoko’s girlishness, strong to Naoko’s waifishness, healthy to Naoko’s frailty, life to Naoko’s deathliness, sexual to Naoko’s reticence, brash to Naoko’s shyness, etc. And Midori takes an interest in Watanabe, and Watanabe takes an interest in her. First he visits her family bookshop in Ōtsuka, a rundown shitamachi kind of place, where they have lunch together and watch a fire in the neighborhood while singing folk songs. Later he accompanies her on a visit to her dying father in the hospital – actually makes a connection with the old man, eating cucumbers with soy sauce and nori.
He and Midori don’t sleep together, but the sexual tension between them crackles like lightning. Watanabe can’t admit to himself that he’s falling for Midori, and can’t believe she really likes him, but gradually she becomes his best friend. And, ultimately, more than that. As Naoko’s condition gets worse, and she’s transferred to a more intensive-care mental hospital, she gets more and more remote from Watanabe – she can’t write back, and he can’t visit her, and he begins to suspect, without admitting it to himself, that they’ll never be able to have a life together. Meanwhile, his feelings for Midori get stronger and stronger – he realizes that he loves her, and that all the strength and commitment to life that he’s been cultivating in himself for Naoko’s sake is pulling him, really, toward Midori.
He’s all but made his choice when Naoko kills herself. This throws Watanabe into a tailspin: for a month he wanders the country on an epic bender, sleeping on beaches in a delirium of grief. Finally he returns to Tokyo. Reiko visits him and tells him of Naoko’s last decline, and advises him to be happy. In the last scene of the book he finally calls Midori, prepared to tell her everything and accept her once and for all. She asks him where he is. He doesn’t know.
Along the way we get two of the most fully-realized secondary characters in all of Murakami’s fiction. Reiko is one: in addition to acting as a knowing older-sister character to Naoko and, in the end, Watanabe, she gets a long scene where she tells her story. The pressure of studying to be a concert pianist had sprung a spring in her head, and the last straw was, as a young mother, when an adolescent female piano student of hers seduced her, then spread rumors about her. Reiko gets her own healing arc, culminating with her leaving the Lodge, determined to make a go of it in the world outside; on the way out she sleeps with Watanabe. A little sexual healing.
The other is Nagasawa, an older guy in Watanabe’s dorm. They fall in together out of a mutual love of The Great Gatsby, and Nagasawa turns out to be kind of Watanabe’s evil twin. Watanabe has all the emotional guardedness and disdain for social norms of any of Murakami’s Is, and we know that, just as in the case of the Rat books’ I, these qualities come from deep emotional damage. Nagasawa has these qualities, but they stem from nothing but ego, and they result in a pure and evil nihilism. Nagasawa is on an elite track, destined for a career in the Foreign Ministry, and he thinks everybody else except Watanabe is an inferior being, worthy of being trampled on, because he has the Will to dominate, and they don’t.
This book is at the same time a culmination of things Murakami had been doing in his fiction for nearly ten years now and something utterly new for him.
What’s old is plain from the summary above. Watanabe Toru is another typical, utterly typical, Murakami boku: a fierce individualist, disaffected from/by student politics, nursing wounded ideals and emotions, cool taste in books and music, sexually potent in a kind of desultory way. He could easily be the I from the Rat stories, and this could easily be the true story of that I’s dead girlfriend, the one we never get many details about but whose shadow colors Hear the Wind and Pinball so deeply. Naoko, and Watanabe’s love for her, and his past with her, are a kind of realistic correlative to the surrealistic End of the World subconscious of that book: here, too, he’s faced with the choice of surrendering to that private world or somehow making it in the real world. Many other motifs and ideas from Murakami’s previous work find their way into this one, ranging from the thorough reworking of the “Firefly” story to the use of the images of the hidden well (from Pinball) and the healthy mountain retreat (from Sheep Chase) and the secondary character telling her own story (Reiko here, and before that all of the Dead Heat stories).
What’s new is that all of this is happening in a novel that, outwardly, is utterly conventional. Everybody has names. Nothing surreal happens. More broadly, the names and dates and specific details are so evocative of a time and a place and a personality that the book feels autobiographical, even if it isn’t. It feels like a conventional Japanese novel of a particular type: the seishun novel, the coming-of-age novel. He even uses some imagery (cherry blossoms, for example) that every other novelist in Japan would also have used (although he puts a different twist on them). It’s a romance – a not-so-simple, but very classic, love story. Despite (and because of) Watanabe’s reticence as a narrator, we get swept up in the emotional turmoil of the love triangle. We feel Naoko’s ethereal beauty, we feel Midori’s pulsing vitality, and we feel every bit of Watanabe’s broken love for both of them.
As a love story, as a coming-of-age story, it’s brilliantly successful. The characters are, as I say, vividly enough rendered that the reader is easily moved by their love affairs. And they’re imbued with enough symbolic resonance that the reader looking for that can easily feel that something important is at stake here. It’s life versus death: Watanabe has to choose between remaining in a beautiful but dead fantasy world constructed of memory and longing, or stepping into the messy but lively world of the here-and-now. It’s self versus other: Watanabe’s love for Naoko is at least partly about seeking his own healing, and Naoko herself is so damaged that she can hardly take care of herself, much less give to others, while Watanabe’s love for Midori is about discovering this being utterly separate from himself, with her own concerns and history, and Midori herself is somebody who has devoted her life to taking care of others, and now just wants a little for herself. It’s past versus future, too, of course; romance versus reality; spirit versus flesh; and about a dozen other dichotomies. Given that, what’s most amazing about the novel is perhaps the fact that the characters aren’t crushed beneath all this symbolic weight: Naoko is always Naoko, first and foremost, and Midori is Midori, an individual, a three-dimensional person.
As a commentary on Murakami’s favorite themes to this point, it’s also pretty rich. The Nagasawa character is breathtaking – he’s what some critics have always accused Murakami’s narrators of being, a complete nihilist, and his presence here demonstrates that the Is have never been true nihilists. But his closeness to Watanabe – they share girls, even – amounts to an admission that the I’s cool is dangerously close to nihilism. One wrong move and this is how Watanabe ends up, and he knows it.
Meanwhile, the dichotomy between Naoko and Midori can be read, as I’ve suggested, as a rewriting of the subconscious/conscious duality of Hard-Boiled Wonderland. In this reading, the Shangri-La of Ami Lodge becomes pivotal: it’s held up as a kind of ideal society, with everybody engaging in both physical labor and mental/emotional play in a communal fashion in a pristine natural setting. Little distinction between staff and patient, little distinction between treatment and living. This is the only setting where Naoko has a chance of thriving, but even Watanabe feels the allure: like the Town in the previous novel, the retreat presents a kind of surrender to unreality that is pretty tempting anyway. Why not surrender to it, if it makes you happy? Because it’s an illusion: in the end it can’t heal Naoko, and even Reiko decides she needs to leave. So what does Watanabe do instead? Sets about – and we have to believe he can succeed – making a scaled-down version of this world in his relationship with Midori. Together, it’s suggested, they can make a safe space for each other: that’s what love is. But they have to both commit to it. Maybe, just maybe, the I can escape the Town if he wants to.
In short, it’s eminently satisfying both as an extension of Murakami’s own fictional world and as a “straight” novel. As the latter, in fact, I can’t praise it enough: the plotting, the characterizations, the descriptions, the mise-en-scene, the dialogue, the sly humor, are all perfectly handled here. It shows better than anything else Murakami’s craft as a writer, as a story-constructor, as a novelist. Plus, it has great sex scenes.
Does it have any flaws? Well, he’s trying his best to create believable, autonomous female characters here. And he succeeds far beyond anything he’d done before. But it’s still an extremely male-centered novel. I do maintain that Naoko and Midori are depicted as individuals, but of course they’re not complete strangers to some persistent stereotypes of girlishness. And Watanabe’s sex life is nothing short of male wish-fulfillment: not only do Naoko and Midori want him desperately, but wise old Reiko also turns out to be craving the young male phallus. I think this all works thematically – Watanabe needs them as much as they need him, and sex is held up as the ultimate in meaningful intimacy (especially with Reiko), while meaningless sex is, really for the first time in Murakami, questioned. But at the same time it’s a faintly pathetic male fantasy of sexual potency.
Then there’s Reiko’s story, her harrowing account of being seduced by the sociopathic thirteen-year-old girl. This is the one episode in the novel that most marks it as Murakami Haruki’s work, I think: it’s so out-of-left-field, so bizarre and yet so deadpan. Structurally it throws a monkey-wrench into the machinery of the plot – but in a good way. It introduces a note of weirdness, of nonfunctional randomness, that throws the purposefulness of the rest of the book into clear relief. Plus it’s brilliantly written and staged: it’s like a dramatic monologue in a play that rivets you to your seat. But, the thinking about sexuality here, the pathologizing of homosexuality, do make the modern (Western?) reader cringe a little. He’d come around – The Sputnik Sweetheart is Murakami trying to join the 21st century on the issue of homosexuality – but not yet.
So, okay, this is still my favorite Murakami novel. It’s the one I’ve read more than any other – maybe more times than any novel, period – and it never fails to move me. To move me – my reaction to it has always been primarily emotional, having felt some of the same emotional/spiritual choices confronting me at 19 (without all the death, of course). This is the first time I’ve read it with the specific intent of engaging with it intellectually. And it still moved me – but I was gratified to find that it was rewarding on other levels, too.
Postscript: Rubin’s reading of the ending is the opposite of mine. He notes that having Reiko show up wearing Naoko’s clothes, and having Watanabe sleep with her as part of their wake for Naoko, means that Watanabe is in fact choosing Naoko, and living with his memories of her, over Midori and life and the future. As further evidence, Rubin notes that the two present-day scenes in the book – the opening arrival in Hamburg and the brief flash-forward to Santa Fe – contain no suggestion that Watanabe did in fact make a successful relationship with Midori. I agree with most of this: clearly Reiko is a surrogate for Naoko, and sleeping with her is in a sense consummating his relationship with Naoko. But it’s also sleeping with Reiko herself – who is a fully realized individual, even if she’s a comic figure. And I think it’s possible to read this as goodbye sex – putting the ghosts of the past to rest – rather than as a sign that Watanabe’s never going to be able to let go. Similarly, since he hasn’t actually embarked on a relationship with Midori yet, sex with Reiko could be seen, not as a delaying action or a betrayal, but rather as preparation – sexual healing for himself before he’s ready to give himself to Midori. As for the present-day scenes: yes, I agree they’re almost maddeningly vague. They don’t give us any indication that he’s happily married to Midori – but neither do they provide evidence that he’s not. All they show is that, years later, his old war wound can still give him pain sometimes. Well, that’s life, isn’t it? Married or not. In other words, Rubin reads the end of the novel as: he tries to choose Midori, but his heart is still with Naoko, and so he spends his life miserable and alone. I read the end of the novel as: he chooses Midori, full stop, but we don’t know if she accepts him, and so we don’t know if he spends his life alone and miserable or married with occasional nostalgia. Could go either way.
Another postscript: I've only ever read this, in English, in Birnbaum's translation. It was what I encountered first - and it was, in fact, the first Murakami I ever read - and I've lost count of how many times I've gone back to it over the years. Even after Rubin's translation appeared in the West, I've never been able to bring myself to read it. When I feel like going back to Norwegian Wood in English, it's Birnbaum's - those words - that I want to go back to. It had nothing to do with accuracy. It's about having encountered it at a particular time in my life and finding it deeply moving and meaningful to me then, and having that reading experience still live inside me ever since as a part of my memory of that time in my life. I've always feared that by switching translations I was going to fuck that up. Well, we'll see - I'm slated to read the Rubin translation in a few months.