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Haruki Murakami is hugely popular in his native Japan, and has been a favorite of American book critics for years. Many of his books have been translated and published here, including The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and The Elephant Vanishes. But until now, Norwegian Wood, Murakami's second novel and his breakout book when first published in Japan in 1987, has been unavailable.

With his later works, Murakami's books have established him as a master of the post-modern Japanese novel, surreal and starkly humorous stories about alienation, treading territory as much Don DeLillo as Kenzaburo Oe. Compared with Murakami's later books, Norwegian Wood is downright gentle and playful; picture David Mamet on Valium. Though dialogue heavy, the book also features some breath-stopping description.

Enigmatic and navel-gazing, this leisurely novel is a first-person narrative of Toru Watanabe's coming of age. The book's title could simply be borrowed from the title of the Beatles song, a strong cultural reference contemporary with much of the story. Or it could be a literal evocation of the song's mysteriously moody story: "I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me." Or, in this case, at least three girls, Naoko, Midori and Reiko, all of them mysterious, alluring and somewhat dangerous.

At 37, Toru, is looking back on a time when he was in college, in Tokyo, and chanced upon these three females, all who became, in turn as well as overlapping, something more and less than girlfriends. Naoko and Toru's relationship's springboard was the suicide of a mutual childhood friend. Naoko is a lovely and tortured soul whose depth is seemingly beyond Toru's reach. Midori is a playful firebrand, at once elusive and available. Reiko is an older woman, a guitar player whom Toru comes to know through Naoko.

But brief descriptions of these women and Toru's interactions with them render a service to neither reader nor book. There is no real story here, but merely a series of situations that reflect upon the nature of memories and emotions. All the while, Murakami kills off people with John Irving regularity.

Ultimately we have a lovely, haunting "story," many images of which will stick with the reader like the aftermath of a bout of particularly inspirational dreaming. Don't be frustrated by Toru's passivity; he goes through life like a visitor from another planet whose prime directive is to observe but not to interfere. Rather than try to make sense of it, savor this book, like the deep thoughts you have, just beneath consciousness, as you drift off for an afternoon nap. "Isn't it good, Norwegian Wood?" Yes.

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