With all due respect to Toni Morrison, Ian McEwan, Beverly Cleary, Muriel Spark, Günter Grass, J.D. Salinger, Stephen Dixon, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley, Gore Vidal, Gabriel García Márquez, Rachel Ingalls, Tom Drury, Thomas Pynchon, Eudora Welty, J.P. Donleavy, Milan Kundera, Philip Roth, Naguib Mahfouz, David Foster Wallace, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Don DeLillo, some people my editor cut, Alice Munro, Dale Peck, José Saramago, Edmund White, E.L. Konigsburg, John Updike, W.G. Sebald, Russell Banks, Stephen Millhauser, Kazuo Ishiguro, Amy Bloom, Robert Cormier, Kenzaburo Oe, Francesca Lia Block, Rick Moody, Donald Antrim, Amos Oz, Paul Auster, Cynthia Ozick, Harry Crews, Denis Johnson, Gary Indiana, Howard Norman, Anne Tyler, Jonathan Lethem, J.G. Ballard, Dorothy Allison, Mary Gaitskill, and—of course—me, Haruki Murakami is our greatest living practitioner of fiction. The ways he has found to inhabit narrative are without precedent, and perhaps more importantly, without gimmick. The stories he tells are new but not particularly newfangled. He tweaks tradition and gives equal air time to both the tradition and the tweak. Murakami’s best work is as deep and decorative as those Easter Island heads, but he doesn’t make a big deal out of it. The novels aren’t afraid to pull tricks usually banned from serious fiction: They are suspenseful, corny, spooky, and hilarious; they’re airplane reading, but when you’re through you spend the rest of the flight, the rest of the month, rethinking life. I really like his writing a whole lot.
After the bemused critical respect for the off-center promise of novels like Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was widely regarded in this country as an unusual blending of Eastern and Western cultures and one of the best novels of 1997. They got it wrong again. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is about one hundred and thirty-eight times better than that, a contribution to the culture up there with Madame Bovary and Guernica and White Light/White Heat. If you haven’t read it, you should do so right now. Go on; it’s usually in bookstores. Call in sick if you have to. The rest of us will wait here. . . .
So now you know, you’ve read this cohesive and boundless consideration of the weight of the world, the evil of battle, and what happens when your spouse suddenly leaves you, and you’ve seen how this book—and while you’re at it, why don’t you read the other ones you can find—is the evolved accumulation of Murakami’s talent. So you join Murakami cognoscenti in their frustration over the sporadic publication of his work in English. The Holy Grail’s always been Norwegian Wood. Published in 1987 to enormous acclaim, it’s since been inexplicably impossible to find in the States, even though it’s the book that first catapulted Murakami to international attention.
Well, I hereby decree that anyone even remotely connected to Vintage International gets free cocktails for life, because the Grail’s in stores now, and guess what? Worth the wait. It’s actually fitting, in a ramshackle way, to receive this early novel in the wake of the author’s later coups. For American readers the book is as much a novel as it is a glimpse of his other novels, since the threads Murakami takes up in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle first unravel here.
Not that the book doesn’t stand alone. Norwegian Wood is probably Murakami’s most accessible work, although the plot is both something we’ve heard a million times before and, well, something we haven’t. Boy meets girl; girl goes away; boy can’t decide whether to pine or move on. Or, to put it less abstractly, Watanabe meets Naoko when she begins dating his best friend in high school. The friend commits suicide suddenly, and the two shattered survivors of the trio are left alone together. One night it happens. In the morning, Naoko has a breakdown and retreats to a strange, communal sanitarium, finding solace with an older woman. Watanabe goes to college, where he is cheered by a skirt-chasing friend with an alluring, long-suffering girlfriend, only to meet Midori, a girl who brings with her sexual freedom, an ailing father, and an overall less melodramatic opportunity for romance.
Like your first big love, Norwegian Wood feels bigger than it is. The novel’s ’60s setting—leftist student protests are gurgling in the background—tempts one to place a political credo over our hero’s maturation, but the book is less about a revolution than our temptation to find one in a novel set in the ’60s. The story eludes the grasp of traditional meaning, which is really what makes it ring true: You cannot find a grand interpretative arc here, any more than you can in your own stumblings. In Norwegian Wood, Murakami warns us that falling into the arms of a longtime friend is not something you can clearly define as the awakening of a long-dormant passion or the vicarious revisit of lost innocence. An older woman is not necessarily a mother figure, any more than a man dying in the hospital is a fading God, or a new romance a cosmic refutation of a previous one. Despite their antimetaphoric value, however—or, perhaps, because of it—the orbitals of the novel make up a surprising and organic world. “Before you knew it,” Watanabe says, “story A had turned into story B contained in A, and then came C from something in B.”
OK, so that part’s a little heavy-handed. Murakami’s style is still developing in Norwegian Wood, and some of the risks he takes don’t pay off for a couple of books or so. Murakami’s penchant for Western pop culture references, for example, is in full force here, and it’s not quite clear why a writer would merely list names—Mancini, Capote, Bogart, and Jim Morrison are among the name-drops—for any other purpose besides looking hip. The Beatles song is a similar shrug: Watanabe hears the Beatles tune as airplane Muzak, making him remember his promise to Naoko that he’d never forget her. “Even so,” he admits, “my memory has already grown increasingly distant, and I have already forgotten any number of things.” By Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he’s remembered them. In the meantime, Norwegian Wood is a story in flux, from a novelist whose voice was then just emerging. Reading it now is a delirium of cross-fades, a sensational sensation that’s tough to pin down and impossible to forget.