The Mystery of Murakami

His sentences can be awful, his plots are formulaic—yet his novels mesmerize.
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Richie Pope

Seasoned fans of Haruki Murakami, having patiently waited three years since the gamma-ray blast of 1Q84, will have a few pressing questions about the master’s newest book, even though they may be able to anticipate the answers: Is the novel’s hero an adrift, feckless man in his mid-30s? (Yep.) Does he have a shrewd girl Friday who doubles as his romantic interest? (Of course; conveniently, she is a travel agent, adept at booking sudden international trips.) Does the story begin with the inexplicable disappearance of a person close to the narrator? (Not one person—four, and they vanish simultaneously.) Is there a metaphysical journey to an alternate plane of reality? (Sort of: the alternate reality is Finland.) Are there gratuitous references to Western novels, films, and popular culture? (Let’s see, Barry Manilow, Arthur Conan Doyle, the Pet Shop Boys, Aldous Huxley, Elvis Presley … affirmative.) Which eastern-European composer provides the soundtrack, and will enjoy skyrocketing CD sales in the months ahead—Bartók, Prokofiev, Smetana? (Liszt.) Are there ominous omens, signifying nothing; dreams that resist interpretation; cryptic mysteries that will never be resolved? (Check, check, and check.) Will this be the novel that finally delivers Murakami the Nobel Prize? (Doubtful, though Ladbrokes currently considers him the odds-on favorite, at 6 to 1.)

No great writer writes as many bad sentences as Murakami does.

Murakami, who learned to speak English by reading American crime novels, begins with an opening paragraph that would make David Goodis proud. Tsukuru Tazaki, recently turned 20, is planning his suicide: “From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying.” But where Goodis would write something like “All right, he told himself firmly, let’s do it and get it over with,” Murakami is balletic, evoking metaphysical realms and a fine sense of the grotesque. “Crossing that threshold between life and death,” he writes, “would have been easier than swallowing down a slick, raw egg.” It is one of the key aspects of his style, this seamless transition from noirish dread to mystical rumination; the most perfect Murakami title, which really could have been used for any of the 13 novels he has written since 1979, remains Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. In Murakamiland, death means merely traveling across a “threshold” between reality and some other world. It is not necessarily the end. In fact, as we soon learn, Tsukuru’s obsession with death is only the beginning.

Tsukuru has fallen “into the bowels of death”—“lost in a dark, stagnant void”—because his four closest friends have abruptly, without explanation, stopped speaking to him and disappeared from his life. These aren’t ordinary friendships. Tsukuru belongs to a group of two girls and three boys who, since meeting in high school, have created a closed world all their own. They form a single cohesive unit, or as Murakami puts it, “a centripetal unit.” Tsukuru’s friends are a jock, an intellectual, a shy pianist, and a sarcastic joker; their surnames all contain the name of a color: red pine, black field, white foot, and blue sea. Only Tazaki is colorless.

There’s nothing special about me. I’m totally normal.
I had no such ambition … there was nothing I wanted to be.
An average … single male. A child of his times.
A guy leading a perfectly ordinary existence.
I’m just an ordinary guy, living an ordinary life.
The basic questions tugged at me: Who am I? What am I searching for? Where am I headed?

Each of these lines describes the protagonist of a previous Murakami novel, but all apply to Tsukuru, who is the only member of his quintet “without anything special about him.” He has “no particular defects to speak of” and “not one single quality … that was worth bragging about … Everything about him was middling, pallid, lacking in color.”

Nearly 20 years after his friends’ disappearing act and his subsequent depression, Tsukuru is encouraged by Sara, his new girlfriend, to figure out what happened to his former companions. She volunteers to help and soon tracks them down, using a detective tool heretofore untapped by Tsukuru: the Internet. (“I’m familiar with Google and Facebook,” he says. “But I hardly ever use them. I’m just not interested.” Even for a novelist as drawn to the fantastical as Murakami, this is a bit far-fetched.) Murakamians will, at this point, expect our hero to travel into some subterranean wonderland—perhaps through the conduit of an elevator, a subway track, or a telephone booth—to find his lost friends.

“From July of his sophomore year in college until the following January, all Tsukuru Tazaki could think about was dying.”

But in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Murakami’s mystical Technicolor lightship never achieves liftoff. His approach is instead uncharacteristically terrestrial. Tsukuru visits each of the three surviving members of his group in turn, discovering that they have normal jobs and careers. One makes pottery; another runs a corporate training center; the third sells cars. Tsukuru quickly discovers the reason for their sudden dismissal of him—a reason that is unfair, and not Tsukuru’s fault, but legitimate nonetheless. In its melancholy tranquility, the novel is most reminiscent of South of the Border, West of the Sun (1999) and Sputnik Sweetheart (2001)—quiet, restrained works that, despite metaphysical elements, never fully abandon themselves to the supernatural. Those novels, following Dance Dance Dance (1994) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997), served as a kind of palate cleanser, a return to plausibility; Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, following the maximalist pyrotechnics of 1Q84, has a similar texture. There is no Sheep Man, dream library, or child psychic. There is only a single moon in the Tokyo sky.

Yet we’re undeniably in Murakamiland. Nobody else could have written this novel, or dared to try. Then again, given the remarkable continuity of his fiction, nearly every Murakami novel feels like a new volume of the same meganovel, a vast saga that is now approaching 7,000 pages in length. As in all the other novels, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki’s plot is gripping, but ultimately inconsequential. The tone is wistful, mysterious, winsome, disturbing, seductive. It is full of gorgeous, incongruous imagery—a Japanese man playing Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” on an upright piano in an empty junior high school in a mountain village; the movement of a beautiful boy’s shoulder blades, “like the wings of a butterfly,” as he swims in a Tokyo pool; an old accordion player in a worn-out vest and Panama hat, singing “Don’t Be Cruel” in Finnish, accompanied by a catatonic, pointy-eared dog—that seem like emanations from the multiverse.

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