Murakami’s Norwegian Wood features a 20-year-old protagonist, Toru Watanabe. Toru comes across as a likeable, ‘average guy’. He’s detached and cynical, sees things from a different point of view to most people. He’s attracted by certainty, and is himself seeking something tangible. The problem is that he lacks any conviction in his life.
As a drama student, for example, he lacks any real passion for the subject. He is attracted to two girls, but unable to choose between them. One of the women is present in his real life, while the other is a dysfunctional ghostly spectre from his past, and hankering after her symbolically represents his immature desires – fantasies that can never become real.
The other striking thing about Norwegian Wood is that it’s a novel written by a Japanese author in Japanese. It’s impossible for an English reader to understand the original text. What we experience is already an interpretation. The translation is everything. I read the Jay Rubin translation first, and for me this is the real Norwegian Wood. Alfred Birmbaum’s translation feels like a different novel. It’s all in the voice. Jay Rubin captures Toru’s voice, while Birmbaum’s version feels quite technical. The suggestion of vitality and resonance comes from the choice of words that suggest physicality, and the sentence construction has a certain musicality. The lesson for writers is that the small details contribute to the overall impression.
Rubin’s version achieves a satisfying balance between painting a realistic picture (through observed details), and making the important plot point about the music. The reader is waltzed from sentence to sentence with ‘soft music’ flowing from speakers, and ‘sweet orchestra’. The excessive detail in Birmbaum’s second paragraph overwhelms the plot point, plus Toru’s reaction seems overplayed in comparison. Rubin offers the physicality of ‘shudder’ and downplays the emotional landscape with ‘hit me harder than ever’ (an understatement) versus Birmbaum’s overblown, ‘No, this time it’s worse than ever before. I get it real bad. I swear my head is going to burst.’ This tells us what Toru feels instead of letting us work it out for ourselves. The tone feels a little overblown, sounding like an irritable 15-year-old, more along the lines of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, rather than a 37-year-old. There’s no right or wrong here, but, for me at least, Rubin’s tone and voice seems both more appealing and authentic.
There’s a critical lesson here for writers – the difference between delightful storytelling and something prosaic is slimmer than we might imagine. While precise language is crucial to good storytelling, overly technical descriptions of environments and internal worlds can bog down the flow and remove the reader’s fun of ‘filling-in’ the gaps.
In Lawnmower Man (1992) Dr. Lawrence Angelo, a scientist at Virtual Space Industries, uses his research to increase Jobe Smith’s intelligence. Jobe, a simpleton who mows lawns, experiences behaviour changes as his intelligence grows, and Angelo conducts further research on him using virtual reality. A mysterious organisation (assumed to be the military), switches Jobe’s medication to a previous formulae that boosts aggressive behaviour. Suffering from side effects, Jobe loses control and goes on the rampage. He then decides that his destiny is to transcend humanity and to merge his mind with the research lab’s computer mainframe – and become an omnipresent force.
Jobe goes through a kind of rebirth, turning from the town loser, who everyone looks down on and takes advantage of, into a superhuman genius. Through virtual reality Jobe merges himself with a mainframe computer, jettisoning his human body to become a purely energy-based life-force: existing only as a form of ‘digital-consciousness’. This transformation from human into ‘software’ is often handled as a kind of magical transubstantiation, a form of alchemy, man becoming deity: the next stage in human evolution.
Lawnmower Man ends with Jobe successfully transcending his own limitations, and then the ‘limitations’ of the human body, merging himself into the world of software, becoming ‘pure energy’. He signals his success by ringing every phone in the world, but the implication of his metamorphosis is deliberately vague. Dr Lawrence Angelo goes on the run with his new love interest, and her son. He appears to have gained a sense of deeper perspective from the experience, but still retains a belief in technology as a force for good.