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Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami

I am from Miami. I fully appreciate the feeling of unadulterated terror associated with being subjected to the outside world during the months of December, January, and February. And that is why I was in Miami when the North Pole decided to cyclone its way down the entire Atlantic seaboard and plains of the midwest, shitting inches upon inches of ice along the way.

But even including the arrival of a windchill that sent almost every thermometer in North America to at least -10 degrees, your life probably is not as bad as 18-year-old college freshman Toru Watanabe’s. Because aside from the fact that his last name is oddly reminiscent of the word “wasabi,” it appears as though everybody in his life that he cares about is hell-bent on committing suicide.

Before we delve into particulars, though, let’s look at our main cast of characters:

  • Toru Watanabe is the morally questionable friend we all have that doesn’t really have an opinion on much: he’s the epitome of that god-awful Katy Perry plastic bag metaphor that aimlessly drifts (mostly to seedy bars and/or untraveled paths in forests). He does, however, have oddly specific interests–Toru really, really likes to be around sadness, grope catatonic girls and read Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, begging the question: is there anybody past puberty who enjoys Gatsby?
  • Naoko is the ethereal, mentally unstable Japanese version of Rapunzel without the capable hands of a dashing acquaintance to save her, and with a lot more emotional baggage. Toru seems to care about her but mostly just wants in her pants because of his aforementioned sadness fetish.
  • Reiko really isn’t crazy but still wants to live with Naoko, who actually is crazy. She’s 37 and weirdly domestic for someone who spent 3/4 of her life perfecting Bach, or whatever, on the piano. Oh, and she was also accused of molesting a cunning 12-year old psychopath who just did it for the laughs.
  • Midori has a boyfriend, but is more than willing to throw him away for Toru. Her favorite activities include lying about the international whereabouts of her father, spending obscene amounts of money on cookware, and watching neighbors’ houses burn down while not doing a damn thing to stop it.
  • Nagasawa. Oh, Nagasawa. I dedicate the following haiku to you:
    You are a big douche
    But refreshingly honest
    And so good looking
  • Storm Trooper is meek and mild and kitten-like, but will slap the shit out of you if you dare to touch his maps.

YOU ALREADY FORGOT ABOUT THE POLAR VORTEX, DIDN’T YOU?

This book is not your average sampling of modern Japanese fiction.

Murakami sets his tale in Tokyo during the ideological unrest of the late 1960s, but it’s the prose itself, not the plot, that waxes revolutionary: the novel ends (spoiler alert!) with Midori posing an existential question that gets Watanabe mulling over his physical and spiritual location in life. Point deduction for sounding like typical, trite nonsense, but it reads well. And as a supreme example of Toru’s self-absorption, he is literally more concerned about whether or not to sleep with Midori than about the fact that his college might or might not shut down due to the student body’s sudden eruption into riots. But I digress.

There are a lot of solemn walks through the various forests outside of Tokyo (who knew there were so many forests in Japan aside from that infamous suicide one?), episodes of binge drinking sake, empty train tracks (the metaphors abound), dalliances with highly inappropriate people, and covers of American folk songs on the guitar.

Basically this book is weird and oddly evocative of a personal psychotherapy session. There is also a very good chance that it will make you retrospective and contemplative. But at least you’re sympathizing with some poor bastard who just cannot, for the life of him, figure out this thing called life, instead of thinking about how cold you’re going to be the next time you feel brave enough to crawl out of your apartment.

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