The Mystery of Murakami

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

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.

And page after page, we are confronted with the riddle that is Murakami's prose. No great writer writes as many bad sentences as Murakami does. His crimes include awkward construction ("Just as he appreciated Sara’s appearance, he also enjoyed the way she dressed”); cliché addiction (from a single, paragraph-long character description: “He really hustled on the field … He wasn’t good at buckling down … He always looked people straight in the eye, spoke in a clear, strong voice, and had an amazing appetite … He was a good listener and a born leader”); and lazy repetition (“Sara gazed at his face for some time before speaking,” followed shortly by “Sara gazed at Tsukuru for a time before she spoke”). The dialogue is often robotic, if charmingly so. Sara shares the news that one of Tsukuru’s old friends works at a Lexus dealership:

“He’s done very well, apparently, and has won their last few top sales awards. He’s still young, but he’s already head of their sales department.”
“Lexus,” Tsukuru said, murmuring the name to himself …
“I understand Lexus is an outstanding type of car, very reliable.”
“If he’s that great a salesman, he might convince me to buy a Lexus too, as soon as I meet with him.”
Sara laughed. “Could be.”

The dead sentences stand side by side with passages of elegant, inventive, figurative prose, which makes their presence all the more conspicuous. Take, for instance, Tsukuru’s reverie upon listening to Liszt’s piano suite “Le Mal du Pays”:

The quiet, melancholy music gradually gave shape to the undefined sadness enveloping his heart, as if countless microscopic bits of pollen adhered to an invisible being concealed in the air, ultimately revealing, slowly and silent, its shape. This time the being took on the shape of Sara—Sara in her mint-green short-sleeved dress.

Or his appraisal of the pottery made by one of his lost friends:

They were odd and unique figures. From a slight distance they struck him as leaves scattered on a forest floor. Leaves trampled by anonymous animals who were quietly, secretly, making their way through the woods.

How is the author of these lines capable of an atrocity like “Her smile had ratcheted up a notch”? The most charitable explanation is that in Murakami’s fiction, his ugly sentences, though often distracting, serve a strategic purpose. Like the hokey vernacular and use of brand names in Stephen King’s fiction, Murakami’s impoverished language situates us in a realm of utter banality, a simplified black-and-white world in which everything is as it appears. When, inevitably, we pass through a wormhole into an uncanny dimension of fantasy and chaos, the contrast is unnerving.

In the case of Tsukuru Tazaki, the exotic world he enters is his own past, which really is a foreign country—more foreign to him even than Finland, where he must travel to visit the one person who can help him make sense of it. As he examines his past, Tsukuru begins to suspect that there might exist, in some parallel reality, a nefarious doppelgänger of himself. “On one plane of reality,” he concludes, he had done nothing to make his high-school friends forsake him; but on the other, he is guilty of horrible acts of violence. “Which reality had he stepped into now? The more he thought about it, the less certain he became.” His readers are no more certain. The mesmeric pull of Murakami’s fiction lies in this tension between the narrator’s perfectly ordinary existence and this shadow world, which might reside in our subconscious or even in an alternate universe, where we are free to enact our darkest, most violent, most perverse fantasies.

Murakami writes genre fiction—formulaic, conventional, with an emphasis on plot. But it is a genre that he has invented himself, drawing elements from fantasy, noir, horror, sci-fi, and the genre we call “literary fiction.” The other ingredient, which we tend to think of as antithetical to genre fiction, is a hostility to tidy resolution. On the final page of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, we abandon our hero at a moment of crisis; he is poised precariously between despair and bliss. Murakami doesn’t particularly seem to care where Tsukuru will land. What’s important is that Tsukuru has regained, through a painful reckoning with his demons, a desperate passion for life. In a moment of enlightenment, he realizes:

One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss.

Tsukuru is not the first Murakami character to have this revelation, nor is the sentiment especially profound, but it does speak to the main appeal of Murakami’s novels. His heroes forsake the purgatory of their empty, everyday lives and, after exploring uncanny and wondrous psychic realms, find themselves in a new world more vivid than any they’ve known. They never regret having taken the journey, no matter how much anxiety or terror they’ve endured along the way. Nor, surprisingly, do we. Murakami is a charming travel companion. Though we know where we’re going, and must endure plenty of bumps in the road, the trip is rarely boring, his company is amiable, and we can rest assured that he will take us to strange places we’ve never been before, except perhaps in dreams.