I’d be very curious to hear a die-hard Murakami fan’s reaction to Norwegian Wood. This was my first Murakami, and possibly it was a mistake to read it first. I believe it’s quite different from his other work. I tried reading Dance, Dance, Dance once a few years ago but gave up after a few chapters because I was just too confused. I think, however, that confusion is part of the aesthetic Murakami would like his readers to experience and I just wasn’t prepared for that at the time.

Norwegian Wood, however, isn’t confusing in the least. It is a fairly conventional love story about a young student, Toru, and two women, Naoko and Midori. Toru and Naoko have known each other for a long time because of Naoko’s former boyfriend and Toru’s longtime best friend Kizuki, who committed suicide before the novel opens, while Toru and Midori get together after meeting at a class at university.

The story basically follows Toru to school, on walks with Naoko, on dates with Midori, on escapades into Tokyo with his friend Nagasawa. Loosely, it is about the deterioration of his relationship with Naoko and the development of his relationship with Midori. But I think Norwegian Wood is more interesting when broken down into its themes.

First, the book takes place in the late sixties, at the height of the sexual revolution, although I think we could debate whether that sexual revolution included Japan in the same way as the Western world. In any case, the novel is about how Toru conflates sexual experience and emotional growth and then how he ultimately distinguishes and balances the two.

Second, Norwegian Wood takes a frank look at suicide, a troubling aspect of Japanese culture. Murakami’s discussion of suicide is interesting in and of itself, but it also prompts a related discussion on whether a person has obligations to the past, to the people they have left behind. Much of Toru’s growth is bound up in the idea of his being able to step forward into the future or bound to elements of his past.

Yes, I enjoyed and appreciated these aspects of the book.

But I feel pretty underwhelmed about the novel as a whole. This is perhaps a bit nitpicky of me, but I even found the opening introduction awkward…why bother opening the novel with 38 year-old Toru sitting on a plane in Germany if we’re never going to go back there? Or if that frame is never going to inform the rest of the story? I like narrative texture when it’s meaningful…and I suppose you could argue there is a small commentary on the power of memory in those opening paragraphs…but I’m not convinced it was necessary.

I won’t go into a laundry list of the other things that distracted me from fully enjoying this novel. But I would like to know where I should go next…The Wind-up Bird Chronicle? Kafka on the Shore?