This is a romance novel for dudes, which is to say that it’s sensitive-dude pornography. Having read by now six Murakami novels, I’m realizing that this is something of a staple for him. By about 1/3 of the way through Norwegian Wood, I realized that this was going to be another Murakami novel in which the narrator receives a handjob for no good reason at all. In fact the reason for Unmotivated Norwegian Wood Handjob Number 1 is about the same as the reason for Unmotivated Kafka On The Shore Handjob Number 1 (I have a classification scheme set up for easy referencing later on): our narrator is acting all pent-up, and the endlessly accommodating woman asks him if he’d like a little consequence-free release, no questions asked. He says sure, and returns to bed without feeling any obligation to reciprocate, engage in future sexual activity, or be emotionally committed to his momentary partner. As Kurt Vonnegut put it in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: pornography contains “fantasies of an impossibly hospitable world.” So does Norwegian Wood.
Indeed, the main thread in Norwegian Wood features our laconic narrator, Toru, hanging out at a university in Tokyo while an incredibly cute, sexually adventurous girl with delicious legs who wears short skirts, named Midori, constantly propositions him with one utterly depraved sexual fantasy after another. But our narrator can’t commit to Midori, because he’s deeply in love with a very unstable woman named Naoko who spends the book in a sanatorium. He holds off on having sex with Midori because of his commitment to Naoko. The narrator and Midori literally sleep together, and perform various sex acts with one another, but never the One True Act; somehow this makes it all okay. It is all okay because, again, this is dude pornography. Periodically our narrator heads into the mountains to visit Naoko. One night, for reasons that are never made clear, Naoko visits our narrator at his bedside, removes her clothes, demonstrates her Platonically perfect body (described by Murakami in really wonderful detail) to him, wraps back up and heads to sleep. Was she sleepwalking? Was it deliberate? No one knows. This is one of Murakami’s trademarks: little mysterious things that add spice to the story but don’t really further it. It just happens that this bit of spice also adds sex, or a bit of a tease.
Naoko’s roommate in the sanatorium is an older lady named Reiko who has the hots for Toru, and says so to Naoko and to Toru quite openly. Since this is a work of literary pornography, Naoko never seems to become jealous over this. (Indeed, I’m half-convinced that Murakami made Naoko mentally unstable so that you wouldn’t question her utter lack of standard human emotions, such as jealousy.) It’s also a work of what you might call the “pornography of self-control,” another Murakami hallmark: Toru can visit these two attractive ladies, and can spend his days with the freewheeling Midori, without once being overtaken by desire. He has lots of sex with lots of women — sometimes in the company of his handsome college dormmate, who takes Toru with him out on the town — but those nerves of his are made of steel.
When he’s not ambling about with Midori, who describes all the naughty things she wants him to do to her, he’s drinking himself into oblivion over the mentally unstable Naoko. The man does a lot of drinking. Sometimes he’s so distraught that he becomes a hobo, wandering from town to town with a sleeping bag on his back, periodically getting booted out by the townspeople and other times getting treated to a hot meal by a friendly stranger. This is where dude porn meets Tom Waits.
But it’s sensitive-dude porn, mind you, so it can’t just be aimless sex. Toru’s dormmate, Nagasawa, is dating a spectacularly interesting, self-sacrificing woman named Hatsumi, whom our narrator loves chatting with, but whom Nagasawa takes every opportunity to cheat on. Hatsumi knows all this, and somehow manages to not be completely distraught; she intends to spend her life with Nagasawa. Hatsumi turns to Toru to help her figure out what to do; Toru counsels her to dump Nagasawa’s philandering ass. Toru is, after all, a sensitive dude.
Over the past couple years, I’ve noticed just how many novels by male authors contain large elements of the same sort of sex fantasy. At points these novels even veer into rape fantasies; Norwegian Wood has a good bit of that, as does Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal. Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence contains a thread about two beautiful women who can’t keep their hands off each other and seem open to inviting — eager to invite, even — a man into their bed; in Norwegian Wood, the reader is constantly in a similar state of erotic expectation whenever Toru is in the same room with Naoko and Reiko. It’s fundamental to the literary-dude-porn genre that women be a) mildly lesbian, or at least bi-curious; b) absolutely forward about their intentions (perhaps appealing to the books’ consumers, whom the authors assume to be quiet, shy types); c) endlessly complimentary about the size of their male partners’ members; d) liberated as to sexual technique; e) able to keep emotion and sex entirely separate. Sex, in the literary-dude-porn genre, then becomes something extracurricular and consequence-free. Our narrator can have sex and mere moments later walk off to make a sandwich; his ladies remain where they were, perhaps casually making out with one another. He may fall in love with them — in The Dying Animal, our narrator loses all control in his twilight years — but the sex can be put in its own box.
If it’s not clear, I actually found Norwegian Wood an enjoyable read. But realize what it is before you get into it. It’s sensitive-dude porn. With a few more sex scenes, just a bit less emotion, and a bit more of the classic Murakami strangeness, you’d end up with something like Nicholson Baker’s Fermata (in which our hero finds a way to freeze time for everyone but himself, and uses this newfound power to do unspeakable things to women’s immobile bodies).
Norwegian Wood is a rather large departure for Murakami. Other novels of his, particularly The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka On The Shore, are entrancingly weird — so weird that they often get casually slapped with the label ‘metaphysical.’ Norwegian Wood isn’t weird; apart from a high number of suicides and more sex than the world we’re used to, it’s a fairly common story. If you want to know who Murakami is, I’d recommend starting with Wind-Up Bird or Kafka. If you’re a sensitive literary dude and want some sensitive-literary-dude porn, give Norwegian Wood a try.