A personal critique of Haruki Murakami. Among other things.

Last weekend, at the time of writing the below haiku

Saturday a.m.
Bask in warm-bodied sleep, cars rush past;
We have nowhere to go

I was, as you can probably tell from the entry dealing with its sentimental context, very – I am loath to add ‘blissfully’ – happy. A good morning, after a week at work, I wake up on a Saturday morning. The sun is shining through the too-thin curtains, the only other person in the house is asleep next to me, and the day is stretching ahead with the future promise of raspberry brioche, homemade chocolates and shared showers. A bloody good morning. I had spent the week reading blog posts and tweets detailing Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer‘s new marriage, and that morning was reading Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier so I felt kind of swept away in a stream of heavy adjectives and sentimental bliss. It was a dreamy kind of a morning, and all those adjectives and emotions made me want to write poetry. Or at least attempt to.

So how different could this weekend have been? Dreary weather, traipsing about in the rain in search of a snooker hall that doesn’t exist, revision (of all things! And I was supposed to have finished university already…) and just generally being quite miserable. Wonderful.

I blame Haruki Murakami.

The book I am currently reading (alongside the aforementioned Rebecca, is Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. I read one of the sex scenes in a massive bookshop some time ago, put it down and realised that the stark black and white cover and bleak physical descriptions would one day make me upset. I wasn’t wrong.

This time around I picked up the book on Friday before leaving work. It seemed like the kind of thing I should read, having finished and loved Kafka on the Shore some months previously (and being a little sick of Rebecca‘s naive narrator). Since then I have been keeping up a steady stream of  Japanese novels, as I think the blunt style and absolutely unique phrasing is something I could learn from regarding my own writing. (Although I could clearly do with reading a few more haiku…)

This book, however, is killing me. In lieu of typing up the blurb, and for those of you who don’t know, here’s a basic summary stolen from Wikipedia: “The novel is a nostalgic story of loss and sexuality. The story’s protagonist and narrator is Toru Watanabe, who looks back on his days as a freshman university student living in Tokyo. Through Toru’s reminiscences we see him develop relationships with two very different women — the beautiful yet emotionally troubled Naoko, and the outgoing, lively Midori.

A colleague described this book as being similar to ‘your dad remeniscing about his youth’ and stated that he would care about as much. And this was on the basis of the blurb. Now, about 210 pages in, I find myself agreeing. There are 100 pages left of this book and while I’m going to keep reading it, I can’t say that I’m going to enjoy it. Nothing has happened yet that I didn’t expect, and no-one has said anything that myself as an emotional 15 year-old would not have also claimed. I find Toru Watanabe weak-willed and too full of his capacity to sleep with any woman he likes to actually bother relating to them. Midori is the caricature of the spontaneous woman; liking to buy people lunch, playing the guitar on a roof drunk while neighbours burn below and missing dates – she is the obvious antidote to Naoko, whose self-pitying monologue intersperses the novel without taking part in it.

I must here acknowledge that I am currently resenting the book for its affect on my weekend. And here explain two more points.

1. The novel’s attitude to sex.
2. My inability to not be influenced by what I read.

1. Sex in Murakami appears to have no meaning. This annoys me. I have an attitude to sex which does not compute. Sex in Norwegian Wood seems to be in place of the most basic interaction. When at a loss for something to do, Watanabe kisses a girl, or goes out to a bar and takes one to a hotel, or takes the virginity of a weeping, clearly emotionally wounded girl. Naoko herself claims to have the most detached view to sex that I have read for some time: “If he wanted to play with my breasts or pussy, I didn’t mind at all, or if he had cum he wanted to get rid of, I didn’t mind helping him with that either.”* Yet she cries her eyes out when remembering sex with Watanabe, then offers to jerk him off lying in a field.

Colour me confused. But I think that’s a more personal thing than Murakami’s use of sex as a whole. While he states in this novel that it means nothing, nothing but the ‘rubbing together of two imperfect parts’ (I’ll find the quotation again someday), the naked body and the act of sex seem always to mean so much more. Physical nakedness is emotional nakedness, Watanabe is made aware of Naoko’s maturity in the changes in her physical body. How they can then pretend that they are sharing nothing when they kiss or touch one another, I do not understand.

Also, in the scene where Reiki tells Watanabe about her almost-rape at the hands of a 13 year-old girl, I struggle to see what the sex was for. I knew it was coming for most of the chapter, but it didn’t make sense. It revealed nothing about Reiki other than her vulnerability in the face of superior talent and her own feelings of weakness socially. But I knew that. And it doesn’t endear me to her to hear how bitter she is at this girl’s apparent skill when really it was her own weakness.

So, sex = nothing. But in Kafka on the Shore sex is everything. It is the means by which Kafka comes to learn about himself, he doesn’t realise who his mother is until he has had sex with her, and she is not ready to die until she has acknowledged her son by lying with him. It’s a spiritual search for identity which culminates in sex. This scared me, but was something I could understand. On the other hand, Norwegian Wood‘s use of sex seems to be as an addition and afterthought; sex for sex’s sake and both parties gain nothing from the experience. Yet, the plot seems to stem from sex. This is an oxymoron I cannot accept. (Although having typed it I can perhaps see why it’s all happening, we’ll see if I forgive it next time I open the book.)

2. And this brings me back to the opening paragraph of this extremely long entry. Sometimes I can be incredibly impressionable and what I read can affect my mood for days. It happened when I read Kafka on the Shore, but in a good way: I started writing again for the first time since graduating. It happened when I read Neil Gaiman’s blog posts: I felt sentimental and wanted to spend time with my own loved one sleeping beside me. It happened when I read Rebecca and I wanted to be swept away in romance, stop time and savour moments like the one on Saturday morning. And it has happened many times previously. I don’t think I’ll work out how to stop doing it in future

And so, Norwegian Wood  is bad for me. It’s all the feelings I used to have when I was 15 (or before graduation – depends how you look at it) – being damaged, only being able to hurt people, wanting to cry and hide all the time etc etc ad. bloody nauseum. And Murakami’s writing is so persuasive that it makes me want to write or cry depending on the protagonist. I am incapable of detaching myself from this kind of writing, which is an excellent testament to Murakami’s skill as a writer, but  pain in the arse for me and the person I spent time with this weekend.

I am aware that I’m not really inflicting myself upon you, and the rest of the world, instead that we all have bad days and nightmares can worry the best of us when we wake up. However, coupled with transplanted emotions courtesy of a torn romance and warped physical longing that turns into sanatorium visits and too many tears… I become a useless person to spend time with. Oops.

Just to prove it, Friday evening before I had read the majority of the weepy parts of the novel, I wrote this in my head and on my phone curled up on the sofa by the mirror:

Skin on skin. Everything shivers.
I want to press my hand .flat.
against your stomach
And lap at your collarbones.

And if that’s not optimism, I don’t know what is.
So thank you, Murakami, for making my weekend slightly less interesting than it could have been, but thank you also for being able to write like that: maybe one day I’ll be able to make people miserable with my writing too…?

*Murakami, Haruki, Norwegian Wood, trans. Jay Rubin, (London: Vintage, 2003),  p. 168

3 thoughts on “A personal critique of Haruki Murakami. Among other things.

  1. As a possibly inter-connected interesting comment:
    “Fictions so often seem to overemphasize the importance of sex – like sex is the only thing people look for – the only thing worth looking for. Sex plots, love plots, plots about getting married get tacked on to so many projects in lazy ways because there is a lack of breadth in scope on the human experience – because the writers, editors or producers assume people are just that simple. Well, people are not.

    Adding sex to a story in a lazy or contemptuous way more often than not leads to adding sexism, as the contempt for the subject matter translates into contempt for women and progressive gender identity in general.”

    -taken from

    Consider the implications of this for Murakami. Is this true?

  2. Pingback: A 100% Perfect Love Story:On seeing the 100% perfect girl one beautiful April morning by Haruki Murakami « Ritu’s Weblog

  3. Pingback: Top Ten Posts « Post-grad Panopticon

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