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The Sunday EssayMay 4, 2024

The Sunday Essay: The books that electrify and consume you


I didn’t know books could open you back up; that there were books that stayed with you, where reading was like a chemical event. I knew nothing.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Not too long ago, I was listening to the American writer Bud Smith on a podcast. It was dusk, late summer. I was driving through the countryside, only half listening, when he had this burst of eloquence. He said the reason he reads and writes is because it’s the most active form of art; the author and reader are in collaboration. They have to work together to find meaning. The reader swims upstream, the author swims downstream and at some point they meet.

I’d never thought about the relationship like this before. To be honest, I’d never really thought of it as a relationship. I thought the writer did the work and the reader simply showed up to take it in, to gulp it down. But I liked his way of looking at it. I liked it so much that when I got home, I told my wife to get in the car and I played it for her again. “See, this is why,” I wanted to say. “This explains everything.” Except, of course, it didn’t explain anything.

The idea was still lingering a few months later when I decided to reread Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. A few weeks before starting, I was in a bookstore in Mount Eden killing time when I heard three young guys discussing it. They were raving. They couldn’t get enough of it. They pressed it onto their one friend who hadn’t read it yet, telling him he had to. He absolutely had to. They didn’t look like readers, but maybe that was the point.

I was 19 years old when Dad handed me his copy. I knew nothing about “good” books. I didn’t know who Murakami was. Until then, other than school texts, I’d read fantasy. I read to escape my life. I read about wizards and dragons and half-elves. I read without taste or focus, racing through for plot alone. At some point, I got over it. In my last year of school, I stopped reading altogether. I was too busy counting excuses. I didn’t know books could open you back up; that there were books that stayed with you, where reading was like a chemical event. I didn’t know that you don’t get to choose which books, or when it happens, or how. I knew nothing.

For me, this kind of chemical reading event has only happened three times. Norwegian Wood was the first. It was a dreary weekend in Auckland circa 2009, and I was still living at home. I took the book pressed upon me on a Saturday morning, flopped down on a couch by the window, and as far as I can recall, didn’t move again until Sunday night.

When I started reading the book, it was raining. When I closed it, the skies had cleared. I felt different: “changed” might be putting it too heavily, but something had gone on under the skin. At that point, as I stepped into the back garden, into the fresh air and oddly bright evening, I was floating, almost in a state of shock. I grieved for the characters, for myself, that it was over. It was a feeling I had, until then, reserved for music and TV and movies, a feeling I thought had to be manipulated out of me. Except this time it felt authentic.

Over the next two years, I would read Norwegian Wood another four or five more times. I would recommend it to everyone I knew. My friends and I actually discussed it at parties. One time, I caught a girl stealing my only copy. She had slipped into a mesh backpack so I could see she was taking it. She wanted me to see it, I realised later. 

When the 2010 movie came out, I watched bitterly, wondering why they had butchered it. Later, I wondered if it was because the movie begins with suicide; if it showed me something I didn’t want to see: that the book was darker and colder than I had accounted for; that I had missed something; that I loved it for the wrong reasons. I loved it for simple reasons: for its accessibility, beauty, and perhaps most importantly, because it wasn’t cheesy. By setting it in Tokyo during the 1960s student protests, and by constantly referring to books, records, coffee and whisky, he made love and heartache seem cool. He used nostalgia like a weapon and I lapped it up. I was the perfect age: I was one year older than Watanabe, the hardboiled narrator, when the book began.

Some of the ideas laced through the book were addictive to me, like when he talks about how Naoko, one of the girls he loves, would be turning 20 and didn’t want to:

I felt as if the only thing that made sense, whether for Naoko or for me, was to keep going back and forth between 18 and 19. After 18 would come 19 and after 19, 18 of course.

Later I realised this perennial cycling between the last years of teenagehood was just another form of purgatory, but back then I knew exactly what he meant. The sentiment stayed with me. As each birthday approached and I had once again failed to achieve all that I wanted to achieve, I considered ricocheting back and forth, never getting older. I wished that was how it worked. 

I tried to see myself in Watanabe. Just as he made few friends and kept to himself, preferring books and music to people, I steered clear of groups. I was quiet and withdrawn, but by embracing the book I was able to make it feel like it was my choice.

Nobody likes to be alone that much. I don’t go out of my way to make friends, that’s all. It just leads to disappointment.

By repeating Watanabe’s explanations over and over, they became my own. I spent hungover Sundays walking across Auckland. I dismissed my peers’ ambition as ego. I thought Watanabe’s way of living was better than any I had encountered. I didn’t know how much Murakami drew on the work of Dostoevsky and Chandler. I thought Watanabe was more human than he was. True, he suffers heartache and loss, but I never focused on his suffering. I never really got it. I’m not sure if I was oblivious or if it was easier just to breeze over those parts.

I loved the book so much that I went as far as internalising the dialogue and making certain character’s declarations into credos. Rereading it, I felt a prickling when the callous Nagasawa says to Watanabe, by way of farewell, resist self-pity.

Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Only arseholes do that.

This was one of my mantras. Something to live by. Something I had lived by. I might as well have tattooed it across my forearm. And yet somehow I forgot where I picked it up.

This prickling happened again when I re-read Nagasawa telling Watanabe about his reading habits; about his reluctance to read contemporary work.

If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.

For years, I only let myself read strange books by long-dead authors. Once, I triumphantly told my classmates how my favourite author was a semi-obscure Hungarian writer who doesn’t believe in paragraph breaks or full stops. In fact, just a few years after first reading Norwegian Wood, I began dismissing Murakami himself, since he was one of the most famous writers in the world, someone everyone else was reading.

I was thinking about Norwegian Wood  because my wife asked me to write a love story. She does this every now and then. Usually, I tell her it’s not going to happen and leave it at that. I don’t like talking about writing. Someone once said if you discuss the idea before you do the work you risk losing the magic. I still believe this, but my reluctance was something else. The truth is, writing a good love story must be about the hardest thing there is to do. The truth is I would be terrified.

Even so, she thinks our story is worth writing about. It goes down well at parties, and whenever she tells it (and she always tells it, she’s better at it than I am) whoever’s listening usually agrees. I won’t go into the finer details, but we were together, then she went away and we weren’t. Six years later we met again in New York. We met for dinner on a cold night two days into the new year. I got lost, and when I finally found the restaurant where she was waiting, I was too nervous to eat.

It didn’t matter. Our dinner lasted a week, then two more. The night before I was meant to fly home to Auckland, she told me to move to the US. Normally I would have laughed at the idea, but I didn’t. I wanted to be with her, and I actually could be, too. I had just finished my degree and it was pretty much the only time in my life I could get a visa; pretty much the only time in my life I could throw everything out the window and move across the world for a woman. So I did. After six years of complete silence and three weeks of drinking in deserted jazz clubs in the middle of winter (Murakami would be proud), I packed up my life and moved to America to be with her. And this, she believes, is the story I should write.

Sincce I was thinking about love, I decided to reread the first book that broke my heart. This time, I felt its loneliness more than anything. I remember that loneliness. I don’t know if it’s unique. I think it has something to do with finishing school, having had so much going on, having so many people around you every day, to suddenly being out there, on your own, with no one. You have to make an effort to reach people. I never did. I cut out a whole swathe of people and I couldn’t tell you why. I wanted things to be different. I wanted to be different. Most of my friends had moved cities and made new friends, created new lives. From where I was standing, they were all moving forward while I stayed put.

At times, I was disappointed with the simple prose. Pages go by that are completely reported. The plot rolls on. Months are breezed over. It wasn’t always compelling. Not much happens; it’s a melancholic ride through a man’s early 20s marred by suicide. He doesn’t wallow, though, and I admired the restraint. I was less impressed with other parts. I kept groaning when Watanabe talked. He’s so wooden. I know it’s not meant to be subtle – most of the characters comment on the way he talks – but it still grated. It felt artificial and unnecessary.

The whole time, I wondered most about Naoko, about who she really is. She never really becomes clear. You never get close. You know she’s going to die and you wait for it. It’s bleak, but somehow never feels too heavy. It’s always at a slight remove, always somehow slightly unreal. I don’t know how Murakami manages it. Perhaps it’s the remote, almost fairy-tale-like mountain where Naoko moves to, the strange sanatorium setting, or the fact she’s never really with Watanabe. She never lets him in. I still don’t know.

Strangely enough, it wasn’t until I was halfway through re-reading Norwegian Wood, that I realised I couldn’t remember how Naoko died or how Watanabe found out. I could remember so much about the book – the soft autumnal rain, the firefly on the roof, drinking beers on a balcony with a girl watching a building burn – but when it came to the dark heart of the novel, the reason why 38-year-old Watanabe is reflecting on his life, I drew a blank. It was an absence, a black hole. 

When I got to her death, I understood. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that her suicide isn’t dwelled upon. It is remote and matter-of-fact, once again simply reported; it’s a single line, a chapter opening that, had you been skimming, you might breeze over. 

On a Tuesday night more than a decade after I first read it, I finished the book again. I couldn’t tell you what number re-read this was, but it must be close to ten. This time, I was living in an apartment in New York, without a backyard or tin roof. I didn’t know if it was raining. I never did. I was working a remote job and often wouldn’t go down onto the street until the early evening. I’d step out for the first time that day to find it had been pouring for hours and I’d had no idea.

After finishing Norwegian Wood, I sat there trying to find the will to go outside, to see what was going on. When my wife saw I had finished the book  she asked how it held up. I didn’t answer. Right then, I wasn’t thinking about the book but its impact on my life. I was thinking, if not for this book, I never would have spent hours searching the library for more Japanese novels; I never would have found Kenzaburo Oe, another Japanese writer who I ended up loving more than Murakami, who sent me down the long line of past Nobel Prize winners; and if not for Oe, I never would have moved on to South American writers and Northern European writers; and if not for them, I never would have read Karl Ove Knausgard on his miserable year studying writing, and if I’d never read Knausgard’s book then I never would have applied for my own masters; meaning I never could have moved to America; meaning I never would have got back together with the woman who is now my wife. So there was that.

But when she asked me a second time, I still wasn’t sure what to tell her. If she had asked me the same question before I’d re-read it, I could have listed a half dozen reasons why it was so damn good. Now I just felt depleted. I felt like an idiot. In one way the novel had led to her. But it had done so much else too. It had changed everything. I had picked it up and carried it forth like a cheerleader. For years I made myself into someone else because of it.

If I removed myself from the equation, I would say Murakami captured the agonising magic of your early 20s better than any book I’ve read. He did it beautifully. He made love cool again. And that’s fine, but I wasn’t thinking about the writer. I was thinking about the reader. One reader in particular. I was wondering how things would have gone, how my 20s might have been, if I’d thought about reading the way Bud Smith described it: a collaboration by two parties swimming towards each other, meeting somewhere in the middle. I was wondering what my life might have been like if I’d thought about reading like that. Who knows? All I know is, I held nothing back that first time I sat down on a rainy Saturday and opened its pages. And then? Well, then I swam too eagerly towards the book, and in doing so, I think I swam too far.

Keep going!