Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage

Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true, to a certain extent: Murakami, for better or worse, has a particular style, and with it come the trappings and clichéd Murakami-isms that, as a fan, you come to both love and loathe about the 65-year-old writer. He has become the master of a certain kind of metaphysical mystery wrapped in urban ennui. You’re either on board (like me), or you aren’t (like a certain editor of this website).

But anyone attempting to play Murakami Bingo with his latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, is going to lose. There are no parallel worlds, talking animals, or mysterious women. There’s only one passing reference each to wells and cats, both only as metaphors, and there’s really only one piece of music that’s talked about at any length. And it’s not even jazz.

This is Murakami at his most straightforward and subdued, the likes of which we’ve really only seen—in novels, at least—in Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun. It is a relatively straightforward tale of friendship, depression, and memory. As such, it sheds a beacon on both Murakami’s core strengths and weaknesses as a writer, some thirty odd years into his career.

In this latest novel, the eponymous Tsukuru, a middle-aged train station engineer, reflects on his high school days, when he belonged to a group of friends so close that its importance to his life has become essentially mythic. Each of their names even contain a color—Aka (red), the temperamental brainiac; Ao (blue), the cool people-person; Kuro (black), the sarcastic comedian; and Shiro (white), the quiet beauty—except for Tsukuru, who they joked was “colorless.” This moniker takes on a whole new meaning for Tsukuru when the group unceremoniously and without explanation excise him from their circle after he leaves their hometown for Tokyo and college. Tsukuru’s sudden exile sends him into a wretched depression, from which he clearly did not come out entirely intact. Sixteen years later, in the present day, a casual girlfriend prompts Tsukuru to try and figure out just what exactly happened, in the hopes that he might be able to finally heal, and perhaps commit more fully to his present relationship with her.

Peel away the usual pseudo-magical realist trappings, and this is the template for the über-Murakami story: an average, lonely man embarks on a quest. But time changes both the man and the world around him. An adventure like this, thirty years ago, involved research and a cross-country trek into parts unknown, á la A Wild Sheep Chase. In Colorless, his girlfriend suggests he checks Facebook.

This epitomizes what makes Colorless both compelling and frustrating in equal measure: it is, essentially, drama-free. The conflict, such as it is, takes place entirely in the past, waiting quietly to be unearthed. Tsukuru systematically contacts each friend, one by one, and slowly comes to learn the truth. And while there is a conspiracy of a sort, and twists and turns along the way, the universe does not fracture in two in response; there is no McGuffin to set it all right. The only thing Tsukuru can do is to push forward and engage with his old friends, and finally be able to come to terms with the contents of his present existence. It is perhaps the best novel I have read where nothing actually happens.

If that sounds like damning with faint praise, well, it is and it isn’t. The novels that Murakami is best known for—The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84—are bombastic in their everything and the kitchen sink approach to writing. They’re weird, messy, digressive, splashy, about seemingly everything and nothing at the same time. They succeed and suffer in their attempts at a fractured 21st century “total novel,” the kind that Doestoevsky and Victor Hugo used to write. Stripped down to just an emotional core, Colorless is outwardly less ambitious, but a lot more personal. Without the distraction of the typical Murakami weird, however, it is a lot easier to spot Murakami’s weaknesses.

For one, Tsukuru is boring. Like every Murakami protagonist, Tsukuru is the consummate everyman. He is average in just about every way, as we’ve been told over and over in one story or another. In other novels, it is pretty easy to get past this—the narrator is a cipher, our surrogate, the straight man in a cast of weirdos, holding our hand as we bemusedly come to terms with a strange new reality. Colorless has no such distractions, and there are no other characters that stick around long enough for us to get interested in, like the vivacious Midori in the similarly somber Norwegian Wood. Tsukuru trots from one friend to the next, knowing that despite the amicable, nostalgic peace that comes with reconnecting with an old friend, things will never be the same, and it’s time to be moving on.

Murakami has always had a straightforward yet quietly elegant way with words, but the language in Colorless is so undemanding it frequently comes across as repetitive. (Translator Philip Gabriel has always been more than up to the task in previous translations; it seems unfair to throw him under the bus now.) When tasked with illustrating a character’s feelings, Murakami generally has no qualms with telling instead of showing—a big no-no any Intro-level creative writing class will teach you—but in Colorless it feels like this has become a bigger problem than ever before. While reading I even came up with a drinking game: a shot for every time you read some variation of Tsukuru wanting or needing something “more than anything.” Spoiler alert: you’re going to blackout.

So, to tally up so far: a boring narrator, facile language, clichéd characters, and a conflict-free narrative. Sounds pretty dismal.

And yet, there’s something about Colorless that works despite all these obvious flaws, something that makes all these seemingly egregious sins click into place. It is still just so damn readable. And while this subtle propulsion certainly doesn’t make the work transcendent, it makes it a far cry from the mess that I make it sound to be. Murakami is a workman, a writer in some tangibly fundamental way—in short, a professional. He can’t help but get a few things right.

One of the ways in which Colorless is much cleverer than at first glance is the way Murakami so deftly and subtly illustrates the fallibility of memory. Tsukuru is reflecting on events that happened sixteen years ago, the aftermath of which has colored his perspective of himself and the world around him. He frequently remarks that nothing is interesting or remarkable about him because that’s fundamentally how he sees himself. He has carried the feeling of being “colorless” for years; he is someone who seems himself, essentially, as someone who is very easily abandoned. His friends are described practically with only one characteristic each, as if stock characters right out of the Breakfast Club. But memory orders our lives by both exaggerating and obliterating the truth. Each friend had their role to play, as we all do during those formative years, and the distance of time amplifies those impressions even more. It’s telling that with every friend Tsukuru reconnects with, Tsukuru can’t help but notice how they seem both exactly the same and inexplicably different.

So while the language itself is perhaps shallow, its simplicity belies a complex and satisfying narrative thread of a man who is taking his first steps toward self-actualization. A man who learns he has self-worth, and value, and that his friends, his history, his fundamental self, are not what he assumed they were. They are simple but powerful truths about what it means to grow older and wiser, and to be able to look back at the past without letting it define you. Anyone who has suffered, and survived, episodes of depression or trauma will easily relate.

Murakami moves deftly back and forth between past and present in the beginning of the novel, so while it takes nearly a hundred pages for the “plot” to begin, in the meantime we get to enjoy another common but more welcome Murakami-ism: the story within the story. Here, it comes courtesy of a friend named Haida (another colorful name, this time gray), whom Tsukuru meets in his traumatic college years. The tale concerns Haida’s father, who, after suddenly dropping out of college, meets a pianist at a secluded hotel who claims to be able to predict his own imminent death. Haida similarly drops out of college soon after, another colorful friend who suddenly abandons the colorless Tsukuru.

The reader will have to decide whether the sum of the novel is equal to more or less than its parts. At times it feels both simultaneous too long, with a hundred-odd pages just to feel like something is happening, and too short, with that niggling sense that characters aren’t as fleshed out as they could be. On this issue I might perhaps place blame on the presentation of the book itself. Chip Kidd has designed the book beautifully, as he always does, but the font and margins are absolutely gigantic, making what should be a relatively concise 200-odd page character study feel like a sloppy mess at 400. Perhaps Knopf wanted to hedge their bets and make readers feel like they are getting “their money’s worth” or, “a real page-turner”; I hope the paperback will adjust the layout so I won’t feel like I’m reading a large-print young adult book.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage will not go down as Murakami’s masterpiece, but it certainly won’t go down as his worst either. I absolutely cannot imagine it will change the minds of Murakami detractors, and even amongst his fans it will be a pleasurable read that might leave some feeling hollow by the end. But, as perhaps befitting of the old saw, still waters run deep. Strip all the metaphysical nonsense away, and Colorless is Murakami to the very core, fault lines and all.

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