When I first read Murakami's Norwegian Wood, it was right when I graduated from high school. I finished it in the span of a day. One thing about Murakami's books is that they flow well. It's less because they're gloriously gripping and all, and more that they're easy to read, and the narrative style somehow holds you. At the time I was dealing with depression, so it was only natural I connected to the melancholy so intrinsic to this book.
I read it again, a couple of months ago, five years after the first read, and I didn't like it. I don't mind the fact that the book takes almost forever to start, but the characters are bland and absolutely unrealistic, and the sex is so unhealthy and weird and awkward, the dialogues are painful, and the plot threadbare. I think Murakami owes much of his popularity to the strong narrative voice he has developed; and consider me a fan since I've read more than half of his work. Surprisingly though, I found it a wee bit irritating this time around — the voice. It might be because I've read too much of Murakami, and it all seems predictable now. I recently read Killing Commendatore and didn't like it half as much as I expected to because of the same reason. (On the other hand: I've heard Murakami deals with depression much more insightfully in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. When I met Manju Kapur, she told me Chronicle is his best work. I look forward to reading it.)
Having read so much of his work, and so much around it, I realize it is Murakami's style to present a lot of truisms. Though in novels like Kafka and Commendatore, they are portrayed with a sense of surrealism, so it doesn't matter if they are senseless generalisations or mere cheesy lines. It's not hard to ignore them when they come from dreamlike layers echoing the absurd and the interior monologue of the character, like in Dance Dance Dance. In Norwegian Wood, though, they are cheeky and appear to be amateuristic. Although the Salinger influence isn't lost on me, sentences like these sound fine only coming from the mouth of an adolescent, not some thirty-year-old person.
Coming to the characters in Norwegian Wood — they are all loathsome. Toru Watanabe, the protagonist, is a self-pitying man and also comes off as rather pretentious. I recently read What I talk about when I talk about Running, which is Murakami's memoir, and I didn't like his personality. He seems to have sort of a loser's personality, and the fact that he accepts it makes him think he's better off — I, for one, am not sure. That kind of personality is reflected in almost all of his narrator-protagonists.
The major issue — apart from the romanticizing of mental illness — is the fact that every single female character in Norwegian Wood is weak and dependent. This is yet another pattern I've observed in all of his novels. I haven't seen a single truly strong female character anywhere in the Murakamian oeuvre. I expected it to be different in his recent epic novel, but alas! Anyway, the girls in this book were all needy, dysfunctional, emotional or detached but somehow forced to be sexy — is that the best Murakami can think of to spice things up?
I personally like Murakami's obsession with classical music and literature because I share both these obsessions, but from an objective point of view, I don't find it intelligent to have so many specific references. And in Norwegian Wood, most of the references given are not intrinsic to the story and come off as name-dropping; it is rather off-putting.
The fact that he is known for Norwegian Wood, of all his books, baffles me. Murakami, in an interview, himself said that he was puzzled by its popularity and it really isn't what he wants to be known for. It makes me feel better about Murakami, because he is (soon to be was?) one of my top five favorite authors. Kafka on the Shore is his best work in my opinion. And both Dance Dance Dance and Sputnik Sweetheart, once again in my humble opinion, are better than Norwegian Wood.
To summarise, if you're hooked on Murakami — like I see many people are as it's easy to be hypnotized by that voice — you should probably experiment with your reading a little bit.
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