You Can’t Read That!

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.

Today is the first day of Banned Books Week, which runs from September 24 to October 1.  In honor of BBW, rather than link to the standard lists of books under fire from parents, religious fundamentalists, and political activists, I’ll just link to this swell letter from a Chinese immigrant to Canada, titled Why My Library Matters to Me.

Earlier this year I saw a letter on a Yahoo! forum that was simply too good to be true.  It was titled “Is it OK to run an illegal library from my locker at school?”  It looked phony to me and I said so.  Now it’s back.  Book bloggers everywhere are linking to it … and falling for it as well.  No, sorry, it’s still phony, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Mark Twain’s Eve’s Diary was once banned by the trustees of a small-town Massachusetts library.  A librarian there recently discovered the ban had never been rescinded.  Thanks to him it’s back on the shelf.

A Mississippi school has banned Nobody Does It Better, one of the series of Gossip Girls books for young adults.  The f-word, don’t you know.  God forbid they ever find out about The Catcher in the Rye!  It’s not the banning so much that catches my attention, though, as it is the incredibly small-minded local news article about it.  Read it and weep for America.

And while you’re weeping for America, be sure to shed a tear or two for my natal state, Missouri, which continues to distinguish itself as a haven for mouth-breathers and know-nothings.

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You Can’t Read That! banned book review (in which I reveal my own tendencies toward small-mindedness, mouth breathing, and know-nothingism):

Norwegian Wood
Haruki Murakami

A New Jersey high school recently took Norwegian Wood off a recommended reading list for 15- and 16-year-old students. That news prompted me, naturally, to grab a copy and read it. I loved the other two Murakami novels I’ve read, The Windup Bird Chronicle and Sputnik Sweetheart, so I opened this one with pleasure and anticipation, and (with one reservation) feel richly rewarded for having read it.

I gather this is the novel that put Haruki Murakami on the map. Norwegian Wood garnered so much media attention, in fact, that Murakami left Japan and went into self-imposed exile. Somewhat uncharacteristically for Murakami, there’s not a trace of surrealism in this novel, a straight tale of growing up, love, and mental illness.

The action takes place in Tokyo at the end of the 1960s. A 19-year-old college freshman, Toru Watanabe, falls in love with Naoko, who was once the girlfriend of Toru’s best friend from high school, who killed himself a year or so before the novel begins. She is, quite understandably, adrift. So is Toru, and he and Naoko fall in together — he in love with her, she probably with him, but unsure about what she really wants. They attend different colleges but get together when they can, and on Naoko’s 20th birthday they make love. Afterward, Naoko drops out of college and enters a sanatorium to straighten out her mind. There, she rooms with Reiko, an older woman with issues of her own. Meanwhile, Toru goes to classes, works part time in a record shop, goes out drinking and womanizing with a raffish college friend, and travels to the country to visit Naoko in the sanatorium, where he strengthens his relationship with her … and develops another one with Reiko. But all the time he’s pursuing Naoko, he is also falling into a relationship with Midori, a classmate at his college in Tokyo.

Toru, the narrator, tries to pass himself off as a passive, confused young man. I will note for the record, however, that he is far less passive than he pretends, and sexually active to a fault. Not to mince words, Toru is a dog. I’m sure the conflict between Toru’s self-perception and that of the reader is intentional on Murakami’s part, though since I can’t read the original in Japanese I have to trust the translator to convey this. Yes, Toru loves Naoko. He also loves Midori. And Reiko. And most of the girls he takes to bed for one-night stands. I had no idea college students in Tokyo in the 1960s were so sexually active!

That brings me to my reservation with this novel: as fascinating as they are, Toru and his girlfriends are not quite believable. Toru and Naoko (and Toru and Midori, and Toru and Reiko … OMG especially Toru and Reiko) have long, intimate, clinically frank discussions about sex, sexuality, and their own bodies, conversations that simply do not in my experience occur between men and women of any culture, at any time, in any place. After the third or fourth such conversation, I felt manipulated. We may have these thoughts, but we don’t express them to others.

And that, in turn, brings me back to the removal of Norwegian Wood, after complaints from parents, from a reading list for 15- and 16-year-old students. The news article (linked at the start of this review) says the primary parental complaint is a lesbian scene. The “scene” is actually Reiko telling Toru, in protracted and graphic detail, about a lesbian encounter she had with a former piano student. That passage is, not to mince words, pornographic.  It is sexually arousing, and obviously meant to be so.

Here I must confess a certain small-mindedness, because I think the concerned parents have a point. It’s not just the lesbian passage … other sexual conversations between Toru and his girlfriends approach the same level of steaminess, and Murakami’s descriptions of actual sex between the characters are equally graphic. There’s an awful lot of explicit sex in this novel, so much so that I too would hesitate to give a copy to 15- or 16-year-old.

A parent might also be concerned with other themes of this novel, which include depression and suicide. But while Norwegian Wood is dark, it is also brilliantly written, and you will fall in love with all the characters, even the messed up ones like Toru and Naoko. If you’re like me, though, you’ll fall most in love with Midori, who has all the problems everyone else has but who manages to keep her head while everyone around her is going crazy.

Damn, say what you will about Haruki Murakami, you never forget his novels.

© 2011, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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