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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Norwegian Wood, Postmodern Love, and Generation X

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 11/07/06 at 03:49 AM

I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now. I can’t go to the bar because I’ve already looked back on it in my memory… and I didn’t have a good time. -Max (Chris Eigeman), Kicking and Screaming

I’ve just finished Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, which was recommended to us in this recent post by John Holbo.

I agree that it’s a brilliant novel, and it’s also the kind of novel that doesn’t lose its luster in the subway or on the beach. Two things about it that particularly struck me. First, the characters indulge in a hyperreal sort of dialogue, unusual enough to warrant a closer look. Second, the main character’s friendships and love affairs are based on a strangely passive aestheticism that may, finally, be of concern to Murakami.

1. The Way We Do The Balcony Scene Now

Here is how Toru and his lady friend Midori speak to each other:

”Say something nicer.”
”I really like you, Midori. A lot.”
“How much is a lot?”
“Like a spring bear,” I said.
“A spring bear?” Midori looked up again. “What’s that all about? A spring bear.”
“You’re walking through a field all by yourself one day in spring, and this sweet little bear cub with velvet fur and shiny little eyes comes walking along. And he says to you, ‘Hi, there, little lady. Want to tumble with me?’ So you and the bear cub spend the whole day in each other’s arms, tumbling down this clover-covered hill. Nice, huh?” (231)

I’m interested in this because it seems to echo a pattern found in all sorts of modern, New Romantic stories (for example, any novel by Douglas Coupland, or the film Garden State). The pattern is basically one of imaginative verbal excess, in which two motionless people absent themselves from the world through a regressive, semi-mythic fantasy. In fact, the characters provoke each other to produce these fantasies. In Norwegian Wood, Midori prompts Toru to “say something nicer,” and in Coupland’s Generation X, the woman Elvissa says, “I might even tell you a special story in a few minutes. Remind me. But it depends. I want you to tell me something first: after you’re dead and buried and floating around whatever place we go to, what’s going to be your best memory of earth?” (91).

The twists on the standard courtship-by-declaration are crucial. First of all, the storyteller has to invent a shared past for which both people can become nostalgic. Second, the invocation of nostalgia opens the door for extremes of sentimentality (a bear cub with velvety fur) that open a portal to the more vital world of childhood, when animals could talk, and the world was knee-deep in clover. Finally, the nature of these stories allows them to sidestep a basic problem, which is that the speaker doesn’t know much about the other person. There is a tacit admission that anybody could be Toru’s spring bear. Elvissa in Generation X is going even further by asking about the irrevocable isolation of memory after death.

I leave it to you to consider whether this sort of dialogue is an ultimately triumphant appropriation of kitsch, or not. After all, Toru is obviously borrowing from things like Bambi, and even from advertisements. To me, it feels like we’re only a short step away from the psychotic investment in fantasy that makes darker fables, like David Lynch’s film Mulholland Drive, so creepy.

2. Magical Friendships: Or the evening redness in the west

Murakami borrows from authors like Hermann Hesse (whom he references in the novel) a fascination with seeing other people as objects of aesthetic splendor. They are actually possessed of what might be called realistic superpowers. Toru’s friend Kizuki

...had a rare talent for finding the interesting parts of someone’s generally uninteresting comments so that, when speaking to him, you felt that you were an exceptionally interesting person with an exceptionally interesting life. (23)

His friend Nagasawa

...had a certain inborn quality that drew people to him and made them follow him [...] Above his head hung an aura that revealed his powers like an angel’s halo, the mere sight of which would inspire awe in people for this superior being. (31)

The women are no different; Toru meets a woman named Reiko who has the exceptional ability to relax and comfort others, and he meets Nagasawa’s girlfriend Hatsumi, who he describes as follows:

Hatsumi had some quality that could send a tremor through your heart. It was something forceful. The power she exerted was a subtle thing, but it called forth deep resonances. [...] It finally hit some dozen or so years later. I had come to Santa Fe to interview a painter and was sitting in a local pizza parlor [...] and watching a miraculously beautiful sunset. Everything was soaked in brilliant red – my hand, the plate, the table, the world – as if some special kind of fruit juice had splashed down on everything. In the midst of this overwhelming sunset, the image of Hatsumi flashed into my mind. (211)

Eventually, we come to realize (there’s really no help for it), that the special powers of these people have to do with the way they appear to Toru. He sees them as capable of magic, through the perfection of different sorts of genius. This is again a regressive stance (at least in an age so well acquainted with Freud). Furthermore, it creates nothing but difficulties when two of these suns are in Toru’s sky at the same time. There is a very realistic scene, preceding the lyrical evaluation of Hatsumi, where Hatsumi and Nagasawa are both lobbying Toru for his support. Nagasawa is defending his own rakish behavior, while Hatsumi is scolding Toru for spending sordid evenings with Nagasawa, and scolding her boyfriend for being self-centered.

Toru has nothing he can say in response to these claims. He doesn’t want to defend his behavior to Hatsumi, nor does he want to be as callous as his friend. It is much easier for him when Hatsumi has asked him to escort her home in Nagasawa’s place. Only then, with Nagasawa gone, can he relax into praising her rapturously.

This brings to mind all kinds of Modernist experiments with character; in addition to accomodating Hans Castorp (Toru is reading The Magic Mountain for long stretches of the novel), one thinks of Rupert Birkin’s attempt, in D.H. Lawrence’s Women In Love, to befriend the “cold” and “Northern” man Gerald Crich. All of these roads lead back to Friedrich Nietzsche, who was an influence on Hesse, Lawrence, and Mann. The extravagant, scrupulous behavior of Zarathustra towards those who are different from himself is a major source for Nietzsche’s perspectivism.

Toru tests the limits of this sort of Nietzschean generosity, and finds it leaves him in a difficult position. He is unable to save anybody from themselves; incredibly, four people commit suicide in Norwegian Wood. He falls in love with two women simultaneously, and tries to have a relationship with both, and fails. He ends up without a self to call his own. The novel’s wrenching final lines are, “I called out for Midori from the dead center of this place that was no place” (293).

Murakami thus leaves us in the grips of a dilemma, caught between the demands of generosity, and the pressure other people bring to bear on one’s own integrity (in both senses of that word). As Anne Carson has written, “contact is crisis.” Toru resolves that crisis through a sympathetic passivity that ultimately returns him to isolation. We ourselves live in a world even more mediated than his world of letters, and telephone calls, and departures by train. Who has not felt, reading weblogs, the sensation of being stained like Toru with one personality after another? Characters in Norwegian Wood, and in Generation X as well, bask in each other. Coupland writes, “Tobias leans over to allow Elvissa to put a hand around his jaw and extract information from his eyes, the blue color of Dutch souvenir plates” (91). But this blueness, like the redness of Toru’s Santa Fe sunset, is not quite the other person. It is a souvenir of them, and because of it they are lost to us.


I haven’t read the novel, but the spring bear quote and associated description is quite evocative.  Evocative, that is, of the kind of thing that I feel distaste for, without the distaste being even strong enough for some kind of demonstrative reaction.

But Murakami is no Gen Xer, he was born in 1949.  I wonder whether part of this can be linked to the deep freeze that Japanese politics has been in since the post-war-generation?

If you watch any Japanese anime (pretty much unavoidable for any SF geek) you’ll come to recognize a stock figure, The Pacifist.  The Pacifist is always a woman, and always voices awful platitudes as the alien invasion or civil war proceeds.  (The level of political rhetoric in anime is absolutely vapid, despite seemingly being intended for adolescents.  Maybe part of it is problems in translation.) In the end, The Pacifist triumphs because of her cuteness.  She’s the aliens’ spring bear.

I’m not intending to imply that actual pacifism isn’t admirable, just that of course it’s very hard work.  The anime scenes are (perhaps unsurprisingly) politics as kitsch, just as the spring bear scene is courtship as kitsch.  Wikipedia says that when _Norwegian Wood_ was released, “One book had a green cover, the other a red one. Some hardcore fans of the book wore clothing of one colour to show their preference for that part.” I’m reminded of Gibbon’s description of the Byzantine chariot-racing teams that eventually became political parties.

By on 11/07/06 at 09:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Thanks Joseph, I don’t have time to comment more tonight but I’m glad you enjoyed the book. Now you should read “Wild Sheep Chase” and “Dance, Dance, Dance”.

By John Holbo on 11/07/06 at 10:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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