It’s the same old story: one day you have friends, the next day they’re accusing you of being a violent sex offender. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, the hotly anticipated new novel by Haruki Murakami, five teenagers in suburban Nagoya--three boys and two girls--become fast friends over a shared experience volunteering with troubled children. Their friendship is intense and loving, perhaps to the point of evoking the occult: “Like an equilateral pentagon, where all sides are the same length, their group’s formation had to be composed of five people exactly--any more or any less wouldn’t do.” Fast-forward to college, when four members of the group, who happen to have names based on colors, stay behind in Nagoya, while Tsukuru, the handsome and intelligent but “colorless” young man, goes off to college in Tokyo. During his freshman year he returns home to find that his former friends suddenly are refusing to talk to him. He contemplates suicide, but his loss of self makes that almost redundant: “A sudden thought struck him--maybe I really did die. When the four of them rejected me, perhaps the young man named Tsukuru Tazaki really did pass away.”
The immediate theme of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is one of decay--not just the deterioration of Tsukuru when he loses his social anchor, but also the endless mundane disappointments held by the adult world. Years later, Tsukuru reconnects with his friends to realize that he was ostracized from the group because Shiro (White), the beautiful girl pianist, accused him of a brutal rape. Shiro is now dead from an unknown strangler. Even before she died, however, she had already become a shadow of her former self. As one of her old friends remarks, “It hurt to see that she no longer had that burning something she used to have. That what had been remarkable had vanished. That the special something would no longer be able to move me the way it used to.”
Tsukuru’s other three friends are still alive, but amid an environment of disappointment. Aka (Red), once tipped to become a brilliant scholar or politician, becomes the leader of an unsavory operation that brainwashes corporate workers to become more effective. Ao (Blue), the jock rugby star, is a Lexus dealer. Even if these victims of everyday upper-middle-class drudgery had continued to be members of a tight-knit community where everyone was clearly identified by a color, it’s unquestionable that these colors would inevitably have faded. Tsukuru may be the victim of a false rape allegation. His former friends are victims of something less coherent--of an alienated post-industrial Japanese society, of millennial economic hopelessness, or simply of the passage of time.
Despite a general sense of shocking and unusual images and plot elements, the weirdness factor in Murakami novels is actually comparatively unmemorable. Readers of Murakami praise the generic strangeness and eroticism of his work, but there isn’t anything concrete that would stand out in literary water-cooler conversation. You might read some of his work, think it’s the best book you’ve ever read, and be unable ten years later to recall any specific plot points.
Take, for example, Murakami’s 1994 magnum opus, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The narrator’s wife leaves him; he hangs out with a fifteen-year-old girl who smokes Pall Malls; some people in World War II get tortured and dismembered. The protagonist has violent and erotic lucid dreams that seep into reality. Sometimes he thinks he knows what is real; other times, not. At one point he has sex with a psychic who dresses like Jackie O. All powerful themes, therefore, but not particularly new ones, as the characters and storyline appear to come from the imagination of someone who watches a lot of movies. The nymphet May Kasahara is mainly a composite of certain monstrosities created by Christina Ricci and Natalie Portman in their reckless youth; the hotel hallucinations have the feel of a serious art-house flick, perhaps Last Year at Marienbad. If there’s a true signature Murakami idiosyncrasy, it’s probably something quirky and slightly boring, like his peculiar fascination with cats. The 2002 Kafka on the Shore, for example, has several chapters devoted to talking cats.
What is it about Murakami’s universe, then, that nonetheless evokes a sense of energizing freshness? Well, for one thing, it’s anti-capitalist and fuck-the-system in a wildly impractical and Utopian way. Murakami is a total little old Victorian lady about money: he finds it distasteful, but acknowledges--apparently without irony--that it’s fundamentally necessary to the good life. In his universe, men with high-powered roles in society are homicidal perverts; the main representatives of sanity and morality are unemployed loners who sit around the house obsessing over whether they’ve overcooked their al dente pasta.
At the same time, more importantly, Murakami openly longs for a way of life where the comfortable haute-bourgeois lifestyle somehow survives, zombie-like, in the absence of any financial concerns whatsoever. The runaway teenaged protagonist of Kafka on the Shore doesn’t let his homelessness get in the way of gym time, clean laundry and rigorous self-study at the local library. This passion for external order eventually reaches dimensions that may be profoundly spiritual or pathological: there’s a wealthy widow named Nutmeg in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle who goes to preposterous lengths to buy new clothes for everyone she talks to, simply because “I want the people around me to look right, even if I have to pay for it myself….I feel a personal, almost physical, revulsion for messy clothing.” People in Murakami’s work may be on the verge of slitting their wrists and hallucinating about household pets, but they still work out, listen to imported classical CDs, and eat three carefully prepared meals a day. It’s a hopeful fantasy of how a depressed person might aspire to endure life--it strikes me that most people who read Murakami must have an experience of being extremely depressed--but it also has an otherworldly Star Trek-like aura, where objects are fetishized for their beauty and quality without actually costing anything, recalling the New Wave films of post-colorization Godard (say, Two or Three Things I Know About Her). A visit to the entrepreneur Aka, for example, immediately devolves into an almost sensual fixation with the ordinary objects in his office:
“Aka’s office was surprisingly small and cozy, considering the scale of the company.. inside was a desk, also a Scandinavian design, a small sofa set, and a wooden cabinet. On top of the desk were a sort of object d’art stainless steel desk light and a Mac laptop. B&O audio components were set above the cabinet, and another large abstract painting that made copious use of primary colors hung on the wall. It looked like it was by the same artist….The room was simple, with a uniform design and nothing extraneous."
Perhaps it is relevant that the growing politicization of Western literature has coincided with the increasing dissatisfaction with Murakami in blogs and articles: much attention has been called to his problematic depictions of women, for example, which reveal an unnatural fixation with hats, clothing quality, and sexual agency (in that order). Murakami’s worlds, while topical, fall flat as a social critique because they are, if not antisocial, deliberately not prosocial. Rather, they are artificial refuges for the reader because of their comforting prioritization of sensory pleasure--the interplay of beauty, comfort, and obsessive interiority--at all costs. (Some characters, like the detective Ushikawa in 1Q84, seem to get killed off for the explicit sin of being ugly.) This, rather than any conventional ero guro characteristic, is the element of daring, I’ll-see-you-in-hell subversion that makes Murakami’s novels exciting--despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, like lengthy side stories about one-dimensional truck drivers who yell “Jeez Louise!” and gratuitously complex storylines about animals.
The central motif that repeats itself endlessly in the Murakami universe--that of the free lunch, where everything is materially flawless without any apparent cost involved--points to a total rejection and obliteration of problems associated with direct involvement in the muck and mire of everyday living. All Murakami protagonists, without any apparent inner torment, are able to eat nutritiously, go to the library, and take care of their bodies at the gym or the pool. Tsukuru doesn’t seem to get a lot of joy out of his work (or anything else), but we are given to understand that--despite his profound inner dysfunction--he is able to focus easily on his work and swims long distances regularly. Where are the internal politics and water-cooler conversations at Tsukuru’s job? What if you just don’t feel like swimming 1500 meters one morning because you feel like a turd? None of these concerns exist for Murakami’s characters; they simply are not part of the internal logic of a Murakami work, which posits (fantastically) that you can successfully take your place in society without a hell of a lot of emotional investment or engagement. It’s like being a vampire victim: it’s fast and stylish, doesn’t hurt much, and in any event any healthy person can spare a few pints of blood now and then. Witness how Nutmeg makes her fortune in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: she relieves wealthy women of their existential despair simply by letting them soak up her traumatic family story of a zoological massacre in Manchukuo during World War II. This is a variant of a primordial fantasy in which simply showing up, sitting around, and passively generating some memories can create cash flow.
Where this engagement-within-disengagement places colorless Tsukuru and his hapless upper-middle-class buddies is a complex question that is repeatedly revisited throughout Murakami’s body of work. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, the jock is a salesman; the nerd is a shadowy corporate guru; Tsukuru is an engineer. The girls enter professions befitting ladies--Shino is a musician, while Kino ultimately finds her artistic path as a potter living in Finland. There’s nothing particularly wrong with all that, but the effects of Tsukuru’s sentimental journey are somehow unsettling. Murakami fills the book with details that render all five friends mere vessels encasing their Pierre Bourdieu-determined roles:
“Perhaps coincidentally, all five of them were from suburban, upper-middle-class families. Their parents were baby boomers; their fathers were all professionals. Their parents spared no expense when it came to their children’s education. On the surface, at least, their families were peaceful, and stable. None of their parents got divorced, and most of them had stay-at-home mothers. Their high school emphasized academics, and their grades were uniformly good. Overall there were far more similarities than differences in their everyday environments.”
Tsukuru and his surviving friends will become subsumed by their roles in society; even Kuro (Black), a happily married artisan in a Scandinavian paradise, is resignedly locked in a cycle of nurturing and caregiving from which escape seems impossible (or, at the very least, not worth the trouble). The subtext is that all people are, like Tsukuru, fundamentally hollow. Tsukuru’s friends, once eager to accept that he is a rapist, are eerily quick to accept (over a decade later) that he has always been innocent. Tsukuru at the time was more resilient than the obviously distressed Shiro, they later explain, and in any event he showed less commitment to the group by leaving town for college; best, therefore, to throw him under the bus regardless of whether he raped anyone. Is the matter of guilt and innocence, like the matter of personhood, simply irrelevant compared to the larger concern with people assuming their appropriate social roles? The horrible possibility presented by Tsukuru and his mildly detestable friends is that there are no realities, just some really awkward social situations.
In this sense, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki recalls the existential themes of Kobo Abe’s The Ruined Map--but with less chest-rending earnestness. There is a latent sarcasm in post-2000 Murakami that seems to evade capture, an insinuation of some veiled, unfunny joke coexisting uneasily with a corny heartfelt sentimentality: precisely the effect that Murakami notoriously achieves with his motley crew of cats, truck drivers, and soulful children.
From childhood, Tsukuru has been obsessed with trains--presenting a curious parallel, in our day and age, to the serial killer Dennis Rader. Trains, as anyone who’s watched a lyric video to American Pie can confirm, are also a harbinger of death. He’s a loner whose life is filled with the unexplained disappearances of others. In some way he represents the psychosis of an entire way of life--specifically, the structured, thoughtful professional existence that is the bane of all Murakami stories. There are some hints that Tsukuru actually has psychotic episodes: he has hyper-realistic sexual dreams of the two girls, Kuro and Shiro, that mirror his homosexual dream experiences with a college friend, Haida. (Whether it’s a coincidence that Haida never speaks to Tsukuru again and suddenly leaves town forever shortly afterwards is left unexplored.) It’s clearly not an accident that one of the core group members, Aka, is a specialist in corporate brainwashing. Tsukuru’s noncommittal girlfriend Sara clearly has misgivings: when she had sex with him, she says, “it felt like you were somewhere else.” She seems reluctant to do it again.
By the book’s ponderous end, the entire storyline has been tritely explained and earnestly psychoanalyzed to death five times over--except for the part of the plot that matters most, which is whether Tsukuru raped (and perhaps strangled) Shiro. But by that point, the big question has ceased to matter. The sinister core of the book is not that Tsukuru may be a homicidal maniac (either literally or, as is possible in Murakami novels, metaphysically), but that nobody cares much, either way, about whether that’s the case.
Another aspect of Murakami, of course, is that he is Japanese. Or, rather, at some point when many of his readers were still high school students writing earnest essays on why Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye could potentially have been a mass murderer, Murakami used to be Japanese. He is now saddled with being the interpreter of Japan for a whole generation of people who associate it with tentacle sex and stagflation.
Over time, Murakami has gone from being a Japanese writer for a Japanese audience--an exotic curiosity enjoyed by an American cultural elite--to being a global cosmopolitan writer, like Borges or Joyce. Paradoxically, this new role has encouraged him to write self-consciously about hang-ups that Japanese people are constantly reputed to have. For example, Murakami’s description of the quintet’s early friendship seems to come straight from an East Asian studies primer: “And when the summer camp was over, each one of them felt they were in the right place, where they needed to be, with the perfect companions. A unique sense of harmony developed between them--each one needed the other four and, in turn, shared the sense that they too were needed.” When Murakami waxes ethnographically eloquent, it is sometimes unclear as to whether we are reading a novel or attending a Berlitz-sponsored seminar on doing business in Tokyo.
This brings us, finally, to an observation on the sheer banality of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. The grain of hope (mixed with toe-curling fear) behind each Murakami novel has always been that there is a door to the other world, and that this door resides in each one of us by grace of a spark either divine or infernal. The crisis point was apparently reached in 1Q84, where the other world gradually becomes a faithful mirror of the real world and is nothing more than, perhaps, an affirmative attitude adjustment vis-à-vis the tragedy of the past--the stuff of self-help books (not that we’re knocking self-help books; we’ve been known to publish some pretty good ones) and Oprah episodes.
At this stage, therefore, there are no more paranormal events, only odd and deplorable ones. People in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki disappear mysteriously, like Haida; there are fingers in jars, erotic hallucinations, and an unconfirmed third-hand story (obviously inspired by Death Note) involving the person-to-person transfer of spiritual enlightenment (followed by imminent death). By and large, the other world has been reduced to rumors and whispers. In the denouement, Kuro tells Tsukuru: “Don’t let the bad elves get you.” The intrusive emissaries of the other world have retreated into the stuff of Finnish fairy tales for children. A one-sentence review of the book might read: Murakami remains an enigma, and is now talking about elves.
Perhaps we never really knew him.