Sunday, December 31, 2006

Norwegian Wood

While reading Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood (1987) a few weeks ago, I wrote:
For all that Murakami's books get discussed as weird pageants of contemporary life, icons of postmodernism, the ones I've read have all featured narrators driven by loss, alienated from their past or from the world by people they can't have back, decisions they can't unmake, times they can't recapture. There is a similarity in tone between Murakami and Berry, or Murakami and Anthony Powell, or Proust, that I would never have guessed when I first opened him.

Having finished the novel and spent a few weeks idly thinking about it, I still agree with what I wrote, but I think it gives an inappropriate sense of the book, making it sound melancholy rather than wistful. Instead, I think it's probably more important to focus on the loving attention to the material stuff of the world (and, thus, of memory) that lies at Norwegian Wood's core—and that fundamentally ties it to Murakami's other works, however different they may seem at first glance.

Take this description, for example:
Sunday morning I got up at nine, shaved, did my laundry, and hung the clothes on the roof. It was a beautiful day. The first smell of autumn was in the air. Red dragonflies were flitting around the quadrangle, chased by neighborhood kids swinging nets. With no wind, the Rising Sun hung limp on its pole. I put on a freshly ironed shirt and walked from the dorm to the streetcar stop. A student neighborhood on a Sunday morning: the streets were dead, virtually empty, most stores closed. What few sounds there were echoed with special clarity. A girl wearing sabots clip-clopped across the asphalt roadway, and next to the streetcar barn four or five kids were throwing rocks at at a line of empty cans. A flower store was open, so I went in and bought some daffodils. Daffodils in the autumn: that was strange. But I had always liked that particular flower.
It's simple, straightforward writing, relating an inconsequential morning in the young narrator's life. But the concrete details of this scene, joined to the host of other elements of everyday, non-noteworthy life that accrue throughout Norwegian Wood, form a backdrop of consequence, a sense of a real, lived life moving forward day by day, laundry load by laundry load. The elements of everyday life may not seem worthy of notice, but Murakami's attention to them reminds us that they're all we have—that in a very real sense, our attention to the world around us is us. By taking notice of the seemingly inconsequential, we both sharpen our ability to attend to what is truly consequential—human lives and emotions—and we simultaneously invest the everyday, material world with consequence. We thus impregnate the world with a numinous quality that, in its best moments, reflects back to us with increased weight and potency. The following passage, in which the older narrator recalls the powerful emotions evoked by a friend's ill-treated girlfriend, demonstrates some of what I'm talking about:
It finally hit me some dozen or so years later. I had come to Santa Fe to interview a painter and was sitting in a local pizza parlor, drinking beer and eating pizza and watching a miraculously beautiful sunset. Everything was soaked in brilliant red—my hand, the plate, the table, the world—as if some special kind of fruit juice had splashed down on everything. In the midst of this overwhelming sunset, the image of Hatsumi flashed into my mind, and in that moment I understood what that tremor of the heart had been. It was a kind of childhood longing that had always remained—and would forever remain—unfulfilled. I had forgotten the existence of such innocent, all-but-seared-in longing: forgotten for years to remember that such feelings had ever existed inside me. What Hatsumi had stirred in me was a part of my very self that had long lain dormant. And when the realization struck me, it aroused such sorrow I almost burst into tears. She had been an absolutely special woman. Someone should have done something—anything—to save her.
The physical and inconsequential stores, amplifies, and reflects the emotional and consequential, either directly, as when Proust tells of the madeleine, or obliquely, as when Murakami's narrator is overcome by the sunset. Attention to the world, however minor its manifestations, is repaid with moments of knowledge, clarity, beauty, insight, transcendence. That sense of the importance—the necessity, even—of the everyday is, for me, the strongest connection between the straightforward love story of Norwegian Wood and the superficially very different Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In those novels, the details are, in their strangeness, more immediately arresting. But the care that Murakami lavishes on the physical things of this world is similar and so is its effect, both grounding and arguing for the importance of even the most mundane events of the novel.

I wrote back in July about the near-mythological ordeals that the narrators of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle endure. There's no comparable ordeal in Norwegian Wood, but I think the novel nevertheless mounts a strong argument for the value of simply carrying on. Norwegian Wood is crowded with suicides, nearly all by teenagers. [When we were discussing this book the other day, by the way, Stacey reminded me of the historical place of suicide in Japanese culture and how very different it is from our conception of the act. I'm choosing to avoid that complexity by arguing that the aggressively Western and modern orientation of Murakami's fiction limits the role of traditional interpretations—but I know I might be on shaky ground in doing so.] Some of the kids have fairly clear reasons, while others are essentially inexplicable, but the overall sense is that , faced with the quotidian difficulties of life, they decided they were unable to continue. In the face of so much death, there is a real sense of hard-won victory, of tangible achievement in the simple fact that the narrator is still alive twenty years later, able to vividly recall and tell us this story of his youth. His life has included great loss, disappointment, and sorrow, but he has kept going. Like the narrator in Hard-Boiled Wonderland swimming across the subterranean lake in the dark, he has chosen to muddle along despite having no idea of what's to come:
I looked back over my shoulder as I swam. I saw the Professor's light retreating into the distance, but my hand had yet to touch solid rock. How could it be so far? Decent of him to keep us guessing.

There are hints of the grudging optimism of Beckett in this vision of life: "I can't go on, I'll go on." We keep going, dealing with things as they come up, be they as straightforward as a fragile-souled lover or as complicated as unseen subterranean flesh-eaters. Effort itself is success, and it's decent of the future to keep us guessing. A reasonable note, it seems to me, on which to enter, blind as usual, a new year.

No comments:

Post a Comment