When Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage was released in Japan on April 12, 2013, bookstores opened at midnight to round-the-block lineups and the novel sold a million copies in its first week. It stands to move impressive numbers upon its release in North America, having already topped bestseller lists in Germany, Spain and the Netherlands. One might sooner expect such consumerist mania to surround the latest iteration of the iPhone than a new title from an author in contention for the Nobel Prize. But there’s always been something industrial about Haruki Murakami – author of 24 books, translator of nearly 50 others – and his work.
Murakami’s fans, the most ardent of whom call themselves “Harukists,” consume his books as devotedly as he produces them. His fiction is characterized by deadpan prose and somnambulistic protagonists, usually youngish shut-ins dazed by the real world – even before portals to other dimensions rupture it. At its best (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), Murakami’s writing feels incantatory, his plotting mesmeric. At his worst, his books can feel like being told an especially dull dream. And Colorless Tsukuru might be his dullest book to date.
Throughout high school, Tsukuru Tazaki shared a particularly close relationship with four friends – “like five fingers of a glove” – from which he is expelled abruptly, without explanation, after moving from Nagoya to Tokyo for college. Now 36, spurred by a romantic partner who senses past trauma, he sets off to uncover the reason for his expulsion. The ensuing story flits between interviews with the estranged friends and related memories. Haruki Murakami is a master of complex narrative structures, and initially past and present meld into a sort of reverie – down the rabbit hole we go, it seems, with no telling what weird adventures await.
Except there are no real adventures to speak of. Each ex-friend obediently provides the requisite information to allow the story to limp along to the next encounter. The eventual answer feels anticlimactic – or, sure, colourless, since not only does Tsukuru lack in emotional dynamism, his quest is equally devoid of tension, and the information is presented and dispatched without much fanfare. As such, the novel feels less a compelling mystery than a tedious crusade in research and reconnaissance. It’s also hampered by some truly awful writing.
As it exists in English translation, Murakami’s is a sort of flat, anti-style modelled on the Raymonds Chandler and Carver; his books operate in base units of the familiar, from rote phrases to contemporary signifiers like pop songs and brand names, which are then destabilized with the supernatural or the strange. The result is also readability: maxims such as “he had no idea what deep darkness lay hidden in his heart,” require no extra work from readers because the familiarity affords intrinsic meaning, and our minds can zip along to more important things – viz., the plot.
But in Colorless Tsukuru, the writing isn’t just familiar, it’s often embarrassing, and there’s not much plot to compensate. Murakami’s aphorisms range from the obvious (“No matter how honestly you open up to someone, there are still things you cannot reveal”) through the banal (“Making love was a joining, a connection between one person and another”) to the baffling (“His heart was as hard as a stone wall. This was the very essence of jealousy”). Never mind the clichés: Tsukuru is “sleepwalking through life,” while death is “an abyss” and “a void.”
The novel struggles in particular with sexuality: that “a healthy young man” longs for a girlfriend, we are helpfully informed, is “an entirely natural desire”; women’s breasts are often “full” (of?); pubic hair appears “as wet as a rain forest” and sex itself is rendered bewilderingly: “His penis found its way inside of her with no resistance, as if swallowed up into an airless vacuum.” While there are obvious cultural differences to consider, I doubt that sex in any language feels like making love to a Dirt Devil.
One might suggest that the fault here is of the translator, but Philip Gabriel was hand-picked by Murakami and the two worked in concert on the English version of the text. And the novel is not completely devoid of compelling moments or original thought: a vignette about a mysterious piano virtuoso provides a welcome diversion, and there are some interesting ideas about how people commune in dreamspace – perhaps the territory where Haruki Murakami is most comfortable.
This not to say that his writing has previously only succeeded when it escapes the confines of realism. The naturalist stories of after the quake are among his best work, while many readers were confounded, even frustrated, by the paranormal dalliances of Kafka on the Shore. But since we never really understand what is so compelling about Tsukuru’s relationships, either past or present, it is impossible to engage with his journey.
Yet Colorless Tsukuru insists upon an alleged arc, opening with its main character disconsolate and suicidal and concluding with a life-affirming revelation: “In the deepest recesses of his soul, Tsukuru Tazaki understood […] what lies at the root of true harmony;” yet this epiphany feels equally the stuff of Hallmark cards and crystal-ball psychoanalytics: his “cold core” is “exactly what he needed to acknowledge, and what he needed to confront.” But he can’t go it alone; “to melt that frozen soil [he] needed someone else’s warmth.” (Sigh.)
As with whatever new Apple product, one wonders if readers will pluck Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage blindly from the shelf and consume it within a fog of commodity fetishism, never really touched by what they’re reading but still trudging dutifully along to the end. Certainly the going refrain about Haruki Murakami’s work is that it is “dreamlike,” so perhaps both slavish Harukists and casual fans alike will be satisfied by the novel’s listless drift. His brand, after all, has been approved by tens of millions and might one day garner literature’s biggest prize – how could such a cultural behemoth falter, and how could so many people be wrong?