Here’s a joke: what’s the name of that one Haruki Murakami novel with the aimless, somewhat developmentally-arrested thirty-something protagonist who likes pasta and jazz, and for whom women are those things attached to breasts? Murakami is not known for his artistic breadth, and his readership doesn’t seem to mind. Overseas, a Murakami drops like a new video game console, with pre-release lines that stretch out of bookstores and around city blocks and sales figures in the millions. His latest novel “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” is a return to the more slice-of-life Murakami of “Norwegian Wood.” So what does the mature, 65-year-old, projected-Nobel-nominee author have to say in his more prosaic mode? As it turns out, virtually nothing.
We are introduced to Tsukuru Tazaki and his group of childhood friends, each of whose names denotes a color: Kuro (“red”; artsy with large breasts), Ao (“blue”; jock), Shiro (“white”; doll-like beauty with “eloquent calves”), and Aka (“black”; nerd). Tsukuru is the only member of the group without a color-name, hence “colorless.” He’s convinced he’s a worthless, boring individual and reiterates this tiresome self-evaluation at regular intervals over the course of the novel. Nevertheless, Murakami is adamant that as a five-person group, these stock-character types have a certain ‘je ne sais quoi.’ As teenagers, they do a lot of interesting things, such as volunteering at a local school and talking about, well, stuff that Tsukuru can’t really remember.
When college application time comes around, they all decide to stay in Nagoya — everyone except Tsukuru, who is accepted into engineering school in Tokyo. He is happy with his decision to move away until the summer of sophomore year, when, upon returning to Nagoya, Tsukuru finds that all four of his friends have for no apparent reason severed communications with him entirely. This seems pretty upsetting, but, wet-noodle that he is, Tsukuru slinks away without really confronting them, back to his friendless Tokyo existence, where he spends his time watching trains and learning how to build train stations and generally seeming — despite Murakami’s justificatory treatment — like a creepy train otaku.
We learn the bulk of this from a present-day conversation, sixteen years later, between Tsukuru and Sara, his most recent love interest. The first third of the novel shifts between the present day and a recounting of Tsukuru’s first post-high-school friendship with fellow student and philosopher Haida. Haida’s a philosopher in the same way that as that guy from my Mom’s intro philosophy course who always perched in a tree and titled his papers things like “Stigmata Metaphysique.” He doesn’t really contribute anything to the novel and eventually he simply fades from the narrative. Sara’s purpose is purely expository, to act as Tsukuru’s psychological teleprompter. She asks palm-to-the-forehead-obvious questions about why Tsukuru didn’t investigate his friends’ behavior and ultimately pushes him to open up the cold case files and get some answers. Why was Tsukuru so violently ostracized? Unfortunately, you have to read the rest of the book to find out.
Here’s a two-birds-one-stone illustration of Murakami’s questionable treatment of female characters and redundant prose: “Just as he appreciated Sara’s appearance, he also enjoyed the way she dressed.” To be fair, it’s not as if the male characters are really any more interesting. The novel’s characters are like simulacra of people who speak in cue-card dialogue. When she presents Tsukuru with his friends’ addresses, Sara says: “I’m very quick when it comes to work. As long as I know the gist of something, I don’t take long to get it done.” Later, when Aka tells Tsukuru it would be too awkward if he tried to get in contact with Ao, Tsukuru jokingly replies (because Ao runs a Lexus dealership) that he could go buy a Lexus. Aka winks and responds, “I’m driving a Porsche Carrera 4. Targa top. Six-gear manual transmission. The way it feels when you shift gears is amazing. The feeling when you downshift is especially great. Have you ever driven one?” Is this a parody of Delillo? I half expected the novel’s twist to be that the constantly self-deprecating Tsukuru is in fact the only genuine human in a city full of robots.
When characters aren’t engaging in a sort of astoundingly bland dialogue, Murakami is exhaustively cataloguing the equally boring phenomena that compose his physical universe. Characters can’t order food without Murakami qualifying that “the croissant was overly sweet, but the coffee was strong and delicious.” This tone-deaf pedantism results in paragraphs, sometimes pages, describing humdrum hang-ups at work, or Sara and Tsukuru’s decision-making process when dining out. All of which is relayed in Murakami’s signature “neo-minimalist” (or whatever stylistic euphemism you want to employ in place of “bland and unimaginative”) prose.
The sensation of reading the remaining two-thirds of the novel is sort of like when in a movie, a character falls into a body of water, and the audio cuts out, and the camera lugubriously tracks their movement downward, and freedom is reduced to only a small point of light playing on the surface far above. It becomes increasingly clear there’s no oxygen to be had here. Is this the third or fourth time Tsukuru has bemoaned his vague depression with a pre-adolescent vocabulary, pondering “a sorrow he could touch, yet something that was also far away, out of reach”? What does it mean that he dreams about ejaculating in Haida’s mouth? (Apparently nothing, is the answer).
Tsukuru chugs along, systematically meeting up with his old high school friends who all basically agree that, yeah, they should have maybe told him why they didn’t want to talk, but what’s past is past. Rape is employed so lazily as a plot device that it’s almost offensive. Even more so the fact that character after character doggedly tries to comfort Tsukuru for his blahness: “‘Let’s say you are an empty vessel. So what? […] You’re still a wonderful, attractive vessel.’” It’s all enough to make one feel a surge of nationalistic pride for Dan Brown. And then, mercifully, with neither a bang nor a whimper, it simply ends.