Bookclub!

A personal note; I have been married for a dozen years. I was married once before, to a woman I am still connected to through our son. These women are the poles my adult life has circled around and in the course of my having known them I have been told many a tale. Crappy days, complete heartbreak, wondrous memories and wry smiles. In return I have told them my own stories, but they are not the stories that I tell my male friends, many of whom I have known far longer. And as a child, I always enjoyed listening to the women talk when my folks were at some sort of social gathering.

I was privy to another world.

Weaving in and out of the narrative, we are told many stories by the characters that Toru meets in course of the novel. Midori, the girl from the restaurant whom has a mildly sad story about an absent parent, Reiko a story of sexual longing and clinical depression. Neither woman is the point of the novel but the story cannot be told without them. They are sharing stories of “being” and “non-being.”  Midori’s tale is of her father leaving her for Uraguay after her mother’s death, Reiko’s the loss of the central facet of her life, piano, and the girl she tried to teach. This concept of being/non-being has been essential to Murakami’s writing up until this point, being very heavily explored in Hardboiled Wonderland, but also a strong part of such earlier works as Pinball, 1973 and Hear the Wind Sing. The concept refers to a character being “between this world and another, interior world of death and memory.”1

How do these stories relate to Naoko and Toru? What has happened to Stormtrooper? The novel mentions music constantly, has characters sing, Toru works in a record shop. Does this add to the novel, help it ground itself in the period?

If everyone is OK with it, let’s read chapters seven, eight and nine this week. If that is moving too fast for anyone, again, please let me know in the comments.

 Notes:

  1. Jay Rubin, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words. Pg 156. []

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A fourth generation Californian, befuddled.

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6 thoughts on “Bookclub!

  1. A letter from Burt Likko:

    Hey there, this is the point where I’m at in the novel, and I’ll be in the mountains all day tomorrow. If you could post it as a comment, it might help the discussion.

    Stormtrooper, I think, is tied up tightly with the notion of “pride.” He resides somewhere beyond what Toru thinks is the right level of self-esteem, in the realm of arrogance, but Toru himself clearly is below the threshold of what it takes to be a fully functional adult.

    If Toru had self-esteem, he would pursue Noriko as a girlfriend, rather than long for her from afar and be unmoved by her beauty when she reveals herself to him in the evening, clearly wanting him sexually in a way she never wanted her dead boyfriend. Toru, however, is strangely passive with her. He can summon up enough energy to chase really easy girls but seems to need the inspiration of his more libidinous college friend for that.

    The thing about Toru that really resonates with me up to this point is his fascination with Western culture. He likes the Beatles and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but does not seem to care much at all for Japanese culture. Stormtrooper’s patriotism is something he mocks with his friends for laughs. He has contempt for the student activists and is fascinated with Midori’s father’s story of moving to Uruguay and gradually bringing the rest of this family with him. He is also deeply fascinated with Reiko’s story about the deceptive girl, though I wonder about how reliable a narrator Reiko actually is.

    It’s as though Toru is intentionally cutting himself off from everything he came from. He rejects Japanese culture. He never seems to communicate with his parents and mentions them in his narration only very briefly and distantly. Even the western cultural juggernauts he admires most — The Magic Mountain, The Great Gatsby, and his selection of Western music to sing — are (to my own Western sensibilities) about loneliness, disconnectedness, hiding from one’s own true self because the true self is something imperfect and shameful.

    I think that must be why he doesn’t “rise to the occasion” when Noriko offers herself. He gave in to his true nature that one time that they did sleep together. It wasn’t a base impulse; they came together sexually as an expression of shared sorrow and shared love. Noru is afraid of this, or ashamed of it. We wonder why that should be the case — to be young and in love is a wonderful thing, and I’m frustrated with him for not just going for it and telling Noriko how he feels about her.

    He would benefit from practicing the sanitarium’s methods at least as much as the actual patients.

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  2. I don’t think Reiko is that reliable a narrator but there is also nothing to doubt her veracity. Does the sanatorium work as a metaphor like it did in The Magic Mountain? Is Murakami exploring “sickness” in Japan like Mann explored the “sickness” in Western Europe after WWI. There are parallels with how long the residents stay. Reiko mentions being there for 7 years and practically being staff.

    I also wonder how accurate v. anachronistic the Western references are. Would Margaritas be known in 1960s Japan?

    These chapters have an idealized portrait of university life in many ways. Our narrator has few responsibilities, enough money, and time. He goes to classes, reads a lot, he has a cool job, and a cute girl is interested in him. There is a lot of lovely idle time in the book. Slow hours spent chatting.

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    • Yeah, another thing I notice about Stormtrooper is that he’s identified as explicitly right-wing, during a time that being right-wing and nationalistic and patriotic in Japan was surely unfashionable.

      Toru thinks the displays of patriotism are silly and he’s downright patronizing about them. Noru also demonstrates great affinity for Western culture, particularly British and American books and music. It may be that we early twenty-first century Americans have no real ability to relate to the experience of having been conquered by a nation from so different a culture as Japan was when she lost her empire to the United States. The U.S. (effectively) lost a war to Vietnam, but we were not conquered by the Vietnamese, only repelled from projecting our power there.

      How, then, to recover one’s national pride after having been conquered? We Americans have never had to confront that issue in our entire history. Debatably, Southerners had to do that after the Civil War, but I’d take the “not” side of that debate because I see a great deal more continuity than change, much more comparison than contrast, between North and South both during and after the war. Japan had a very different experience: Douglas MacArthur was installed as its military governor for years after the Japanese saw their Emperor surrender his divinity in the wake of two of their major industrial cities being vaporized.

      Stormtrooper in that sense suggests the nation in microcosm trying to regain its national pride, seeking its ability to assert itself and exhibit some kind of strength. It seems silly because there are so many other nations, that are so much stronger, and maybe the way forward isn’t the way taken in the past. But Stormtrooper cries out for respect and insists that the old ways are still the best. To a more typical specimen of the new generation like Toru, this is quaint at best and revanchist at worst, and Noru’s resolution of confronting the past is to mock it.

      At the same time, Toru mocks the leftist student activists. He’s irritated by their interruption of classes that he’s already only half-interested in; while he goes through the motions of going to classes during normal times, when there is student unrest he avoids the university entirely and meanders about the city seeking the idle pleasure of intended-to-be- emporary, more-sexual-than-romantic liasions.

      Toru simply hasn’t grown up yet. The closest thing he has to a role model is a charismatic older boy who teaches him how to seduce easy girls. The closest thing he has to a relationship is with a woman he can’t coalesce his feelings around. Noru is aimless, adrift in life.

      And yes, I think that’s a metaphor for where Murakami thinks he was at that time — not just himself emotionally, but his country as a whole.

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      • In Murakamis later works, not just novels but non-fiction as well, this sense of being adrift as a country is made more explicit. The Windup Bird Chronicle is a look at Japans actions in Manchuria during the war, contrasted with the current society. Underground deals with the sarin attacks perpetrated by Aum Shinrikyo. This all speaks to a sense of lingering affects on society from losing the war and the loss of respect that it entails. Murakami, at least to my knowledge, has never talked or written about the nuclear bombs, and may not see that in the same light. This touches on something I was thinking about in relation to the next post in the series I will be putting up in Sunday.

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  3. Another way to look at the sanitarium and unreliable narrators would be in comparison to that other great sanitarium novel, Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier. I think Burt is on to something with Stormtrooper and I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it like Burt does.

    One of the things that is striking to me, despite how generally passive Toru is, when it comes to the failures of the student rebellion he acts out, even if in so mildly a manner. This act is what puts the actions with Midori in motion though.

    is right about the slow, idealized time, great for actually having conversations.

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    • This also raises the question of if Reiko is an unreliable narrator is Keiko an unreliable narrator. I always thought that the Sanitorium aspect and Keiko’s story were the weakest parts of Norwegian Wood. However they are also very visually evocative.

      My favorite aspects of the book is the relationship between Watanabe and Midori. I think university students do operate in an idealized and slower time pace often enough. This existed for me up to graduate school. My favorite memories of my college and grad school years are of slow days and activities.

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