Lit-urday: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
It's been a long week, and now you deserve to have one day when you can curl up with a good book – let's call it Lit-urday. Perhaps you're in the mood for the latest by Haruki Murakami, the rare author who's both a bestseller and a Nobel bookmakers' favorite.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
by Haruki Murakami; translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel
Knopf; 386 pp.; $25.95
The last time Haruki Murakami wrote a book, it was 1157 pages long. With 1Q84, Murakami seemed determined to expand the possibilities of serious literature. In a profile of Murakami for The New York Times Magazine, Sam Anderson wrote “It is a book full of anger and violence and disaster and weird sex and strange new realities, a book that seems to want to hold all of Japan inside of it - a book that even despite its occasional awkwardness (or maybe even because of that awkwardness), makes you marvel, reading it, at all the strange folds a human brain can hold.”
If 1Q84 was Murakami turned up to 11, his latest, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, turns the volume almost all the way down. Murakami often alternates between writing long, complicated novels and telling quieter stories - for every Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, there’s a Sputnik Sweetheart - but Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki may be his most unassuming work of fiction yet. It’s decidedly tethered - though tenuously at times - to reality, and lacks the density of detail of previous books. It focuses on the topic of friendship, especially the sadness of a friendship ending.
The title character, Tsukuru Tazaki, is “colorless” because he’s the only one among his high school friends whose surname doesn’t include a color: The four others’ last names are Akamatsu (“red pine”), Oumi (“blue sea”), Shirane (“white root”), and Kurono (“black field”), while Tazaki means “many peninsulas.” Just like a gang of kids in a YA series, each of Tsukuru’s friends has his or her own distinguishing characteristics. Of the two boys, Aka and Ao, one’s a hardworking brain and the other’s a popular athlete. Shiro is sweet, sensitive, and beautiful; Kuro is outspoken, fun, and creative. Tsukuru believes that he has no distinguishing qualities. “Everything about him was middling, pallid, lacking in color.” Nevertheless, the five friends stick together, until Tsukuru goes away to college. One winter break, he comes back to discover that the other four have decided to cut him out of their lives completely.
It’s refreshing to read a book about an adult male that takes as its central crisis the loss of friendship, which often seems to get short shrift in contemporary Anglophone literature in favor of stories about marriage and children. For Tsukuru, his exile is devastating: “Before him lay a huge, dark abyss that ran straight through to the earth’s core. All he could see was a thick cloud of nothingness swirling around him; all he could hear was a profound silence squeezing his eardrums.” Eventually he recovers, making friends with the bewitching Fumiaki Haida (“gray field”), only to be abandoned again after Haida abruptly leaves the university and disappears.
Murakami presents Tsukuru as a heterosexual who longs “to hold a woman close, caress her body, inhale the scent of her skin.” Yet he spends all of his time with Haida, a man possessed of a “graceful beauty.” What happens between Tsukuru and Haida is so strange and psychologically rich that Freud could have easily written an entire book about it, but Murakami moves on without much looking back.
Reading this book, or any of Murakami’s fiction, calls to mind David Foster Wallace’s assessment of David Lynch: “An academic definition of Lynchian might be that the term ‘refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment within the latter.’” Murakami doesn’t filter out the boring parts of his characters’ lives, and he doesn’t force self-awareness of them. Instead, he presents his characters’ sometimes odd behavior and the outlandish situations in which they find themselves without additional comment. He’s said that he doesn’t plot out his novels, but instead writes them as they come to him. It certainly feels that way, reading them.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki contains closely observed passages describing the title character’s grief. “His feelings were wrapped in layer upon layer of thin membrane and his heart was still a blank, as he aged, one hour at a time.” Later, a conversation between Tsukuru and one of his long-lost friends about the virtues of the Lexus brand will be captured verbatim. “I’ve driven a Lexus myself for quite a while. They’re wonderful cars. Quiet, never need repairs.” Readers who stick it out through the mundane parts may be disappointed to get to the end and realize there won’t be much in the way of plot resolution: Every Murakami novel feels as though it could use a sequel, there are so many loose ends.
However, for a certain, fairly substantial portion of the world’s readers, there’s something about Murakami’s writing that has them hooked. Just like Lynch, he’s comfortable allowing his singular imagination free rein without interrogating his own intentions. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki isn’t Murakami’s definitive novel, but it makes up for its shortcomings in its willingness to follow its protagonist wherever he might go in search of lost friends.