I had this all written this morning, (some of my best work,) and when I went to insert the picture I lost the whole post. (Ain’t technology grand?) I’m still not sure I have the heart to start over. But here goes.
Still taking a break from The Street Sweeper, although I plan on finishing it. Instead, though, I just read Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. Supposedly his readership went into the millions with the publication of this book, but I can’t really figure out how, unless it was high schoolers looking for the sex scenes.
Toru is a “preternaturally serious” student. In case we miss this by the fact that he has very few friends, and spends all of his time going to class, doing his homework, and working at his job at a “lame” record store (is there a geekier job than working at a “lame” record store?), the few friends he does interact with can’t seem to stop telling him how “strange” he is, or how “strange” he talks, even when what he says seems perfectly normal.
In this way, Murakami seems to demonstrate very little faith in his readers. Another example: Toru travels to visit the young woman he truly loves, Naoko, who has secluded herself in the mountains of northern Japan at an idyllic
mental institution retreat recovering from the emotional trauma of first her older sister’s, then her long-term boyfriend’s, suicides. (There is a lot of suicide in this book; it seems to be the solution of choice in Murakami’s Japan; and surprisingly, many of those who commit suicide in this story don’t seem to have demonstrated any signs of emotional or psychological instability beforehand.) The line between patient and doctor is particularly blurry — when Toru first meets Naoko’s roommate, she is introduced as “Dr.” because she teaches music to some of the patients; a fellow patient wears a white coat and makes his “rounds” from table to table at mealtimes expounding on arcane topics. The “patients” live calm, idyllic lives, eating prepared meals, living in austere yet comfortable houses, performing “meaningful” menial tasks. Many patients stay for years. In case the insidiousness of this is lost on us, Toru just happens to have a copy of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain in his backpack. “How could you bring a book like that to a place like this?” Reiko asks him. How indeed?
And then there’s the sex.
Murakami is clearly trying to write the way the teenagers/twenty-somethings talk about, think about, sex. But I don’t think he’s very good at it. It’s too self-aware, too self-conscious, too proper. And that’s not the worst part. Besides the fact that, except for Toru, none of the men treat their girlfriends very well, the women themselves seem to have no sexual desire, no needs, no agency, of their own. (Update: Actually, this isn’t true, I somehow forgot one twist to the story. There is one “woman” with sexual desire and agency, she just happens to be a “pathologically lying” 13-year old girl who tries to seduce Reiko during one of the girl’s piano lessons. An event so traumatic it triggers Reiko’s latest psychological break. And, as far as I can tell from the story, the only lie the girl has told is after her seduction fails, and she reports that Reiko tried to seduce her. Apparently the idea of a 13 year old girl being sexually assertive and/or curious, or that she would spitefully lie about it later, is too bizarre for Murakami to consider.)
But back to the rest of them:
Naoko is a virgin when her long-term boyfriend commits suicide; apparently she was unable to, well, open herself to him. Naoko and Toru have one apparently mutually-satisfying sexual encounter, immediately after which she disappears and checks herself into the rehabilitation center. (There’s a ringing endorsement.) When Toru visits, Naoko services him in various ways, (Ugh), but waves off his offers of reciprocity.
Toru’s one male friend at university sleeps with dozens of women, despite having a beautiful, accomplished, intelligent young woman as a girlfriend. This girlfriend apparently knows about his philanderings, but tolerates them, claiming that she loves him and this is just what he must do. Reportedly she, too, will commit suicide, around four years after the end of this particular story.
While Toru waits patiently for Naoko to decide she can return to society, he is befriend by Midori, a “sexually liberated” young woman in one of his drama classes. They are physically attracted to each other, but are unwilling to consummate the relationship because she is “trying” to be faithful to her boyfriend (this is Murakami’s version of “sexually liberated”? That a twenty-something young woman has sex with her boyfriend?), despite the fact that the boyfriend criticizes the way she talks, the way she dresses.
And then there’s Reiko. Reiko is in her 30s, and, perhaps as an outward symbol of her long-term struggle with mental illness, is apparently extremely wrinkled. Reiko comes to visit Toru in Tokyo after (spoiler alert) Naoko’s suicide (see?), finally leaving the “center” after 8 years, on her way to teach music lessons in yet another secluded location. They cook together, and then make love, four times, in one evening. The first two are strictly for Toru, iykwim*; but afterwards, she lies in bed, eyes dewy, and declares: “I never have to do this again, for the rest of my life.”
The next day, Reiko departs, and Toru calls Midori, telling her that “all [he] wants in the world is [her].”
Funny way of showing it, but whatever.
*if you know what I mean