Monday, November 4, 2013

Book Review: Norwegian Wood

NORWEGIAN WOOD: The proof that random details can be a good thing

The story is narrated by Toru Watanabe, as he looks back on his days as a college student living in Tokyo. He remembers how he has been drawn to two different women -- the emotionally troubled Naoko, and the outgoing Midori.

The first thing that catches my attention is Murakami’s writing style in this particular book. The voice is very informal and often times humorous. I’m not sure whether this is just in the translation or the book is really written this way in the original Japanese text. But one thing is for sure: it is highly entertaining because it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Aside from that, the storytelling is also very direct -- a total opposite of the author’s style in his other books. But what makes the storytelling interesting -- or disengaging, depending on how you look at it -- is its tendency to dwell on random plot elements, which juxtaposes the direct storytelling. This tendency is good because the exploitation of random plot elements makes the foundation of Murakami’s story even more solid. The readers are being opened to random stories from the characters’ past. But what makes this tendency bad is the fact that it may seem to appear that the story has no clear direction; that it is just a bunch of random scenes and sequences stitched together.

This is actually true; Norwegian Wood has no clear direction. But it doesn’t mean that the random stories contained in it serve no purpose. In fact, these stories are the juice of the book. Having no apparent goal, like ‘I have to save the princess,’ or ‘I need to accomplish this or that,’ the force that drives the story is the random sequencing. This book is more of ‘It’s the journey, not the destination,’ since there really is no clear destination.

But I admit that the randomness tend to be ineffective sometimes, especially when it comes to particular details. Murakami tends to over-describe a scene. I mean, I don’t care about the little girl buying hotdogs at the hotdog stand at the corner of the park. Just tell me the story, no matter how random that story might be. A random story is much more entertaining than a random detail.

As for the characters, I find them to be well made, even though they are based on stereotypes. Toru Watanabe is your usual aloof guy, but the reader will realize that there’s something more to him further in the book. Midori Kobayashi is your usual lively chic, but she possesses a strangely magical charisma that will get the reader thirsting for more of her. Naoko is the least I liked in the main characters. She has a boring personality. But this is nothing technical; it is just an opinion. The supporting cast also has interesting characterization. Reiko, Nagasawa, Hatsumi, and ‘Storm Trooper’ have distinct personalities.

            Overall, Norwegian Wood is a very entertaining read. Its entertainment value is not in the story’s goal, but in the seemingly random exposition and details that make the story. What make these details even more entertaining are the effective use of dialogue and the incorporation of humour. I could even cite a thousand golden quotes by Midori alone.

No matter how weird it sounds, Norwegian Wood is actually my favourite Murakami book, even though it is not highly praised by others because of its seemingly random yet direct storytelling. The ending, even though it seems anticlimactic, is actually very subtle and appropriate. It is just too bad that it isn’t communicated more directly to be easily deciphered. But hey, we’re talking about Haruki Murakami here, so those kinds of endings are to be expected.

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