Friday, December 23, 2016

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

I don't know if this is true, but I'll say it anyway: it feels true.

In every group of close-knit friends, there's always one -- at least one -- not as tightly connected as the others. That's the friend who would be thrown out of the sleigh first when the wolves get closer, the comic relief who the slasher picks off before the opening credits, the one who was always there and dependable but somehow no more than that.

Tsukuru Tazaki was that guy. Growing up in the provincial Japanese city of Nagoya, he was part of a group of five -- two girls, three boys -- who were always together for years. Four of them stayed local after high school, and only he moved away -- to go to school in Tokyo to study train-station architecture. (Yes, something that specific. It's good to have a passion, yes?)

And, in the middle of his sophomore year, on a trip home between semesters, those friends told Tsukuru that they never wanted to see him again. It nearly killed him -- literally; he almost stopped eating and didn't leave his apartment for months -- and he didn't see any of them for more than a decade afterward. But then his life went on; he completed his studies and went to work in his chosen field, designing and building train stations. And, in his mid-thirties, a new girlfriend trying to get to know him better learned this story, and insisted that he needed to find out why he was shunned.

That's where Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, the most recent novel from Haruki Murakami translated into English, begins. Tsukuru has realized that there's something broken, or unfinished, inside of him, and he needs to understand his past to move forward -- and, he hopes, to make a stronger and lasting relationship with this new woman, Sara.

Colorless is the closest to a mainstream novel Murakami has come since his first couple of books: there are no oracular cats here, no slips into alternate worlds, no mysterious holes in the ground, no doubles or dopplegangers. There are unsettling and odd dreams, of course -- all literary writers love dreams, even if they hate fantasy in every other form -- but those barely count in the world of Murakami. Instead, this book is the story of a man who was broken without entirely realizing it, about how he tried to find the edges of that break, and how he got to the moment where he might be ready to heal that break.

(It's still a literary novel; it ends before any possible catharsis or true indication of Tsukuru's state.)

The prose is solid Murakami, but the blander plot disappointed me: I was hoping for an eruption of the numinous, or some other unreal explanation for the shunning. Tsukuru does learn why he was cast out, and it's an adequate reason, even if he and we will never know all the details -- but it's not a traditionally Murakamiesque reason.

If I were being flippant, I'd make some kind of comment on that word Colorless; this novel has less of the wild colors and imaginative strokes of Murakami's best books. (And maybe I just did that while claiming I'm not going to.) I don't know if this novel will be disappointing to every reader: Murakami has a stronger sense of plot here, and is better at moving from present-time into flashback and back out than he did in his earlier, wilder novels. I suspect SFnal readers will tend to be disappointed, and the folks who wish Murakami would buckle down and lose the weird cats and magic girls will be happier. Let me know where you fall on that divide, if you've read this book, and if that's right.

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