Nothing is more dreary in literature today, not even the political autobiography, than the realistic novel, promising steaming heaps of poignant verisimilitude and emotional depth. Put through the ringer of the graduate-level creative-writing seminar, the realist tradition of Balzac, Eliot and Tolstoy has devolved into listless mimicry. Today’s realistic “fictions” are really just memoirs with the proper names changed, Facebook posts strung together and lightly copy-edited. Imagination has been replaced by “experience” and “voice,” as if these were somehow uniquely writerly traits.
Call me naive, but I always thought fiction was supposed to yank you out of reality, work its juju on your brain and return you to this world ineradicably changed. That, at least, is what any serious reader must feel after sailing aboard the Pequod or tromping through Middlemarch, where reality is heightened, not merely duplicated. Today, though, the MFA mafia holds inordinate sway over what gets published and reviewed, which means that the realist tradition dominates American fiction. Those who dare work outside that moribund realm are deemed genre novelists not quite serious enough to be taken seriously.
Thankfully, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is far too famous and accomplished to worry about the ex cathedra pronouncements emanating from Iowa City. His whole career has been a refutation of Henry James’s famous warning that to tell a dream is to lose a reader: Murakami’s oeuvre consists of gorgeous, weirdly familiar nightmares splashed across contemporary Japan, set to languid American jazz and soaked in Heineken. No writer since Lewis Carroll has been quite as adept with talking cats, not even Bulgakov.
Last year, Murakami—who is often rumored to be on the very short list for the Nobel Prize—caused a sensation when his latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, sold more than a million copies in its first week. Speculating on the causes of the craze, The Japan Times noted that “the book’s theme overlaps with the sense of loss that permeated Japan in the wake of the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.”
Now, more than a year later, the American edition arrives, and the Japanese sales figures are touted in the jacket copy, as if commercial success were a sign of literary merit (I should add that the dust jacket and, in fact, the whole book, is gorgeous, thanks to the consistently excellent Knopf designer Chip Kidd). But the merit is there, even if Colorless Tsukuru doesn’t quite rise to the vertiginous heights of Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore. It is more accessible than 2011’s onerous 1Q84 (of which one Twitter wit noted, “[It] is a pretty good 400 page book. Unfortunately, my copy had 1,157 pages”). Colorless Tsukuru can’t even boast 400 pages; it is a compact story of one man and a loss he doesn’t quite understand. But give it 100 pages and you will be hooked.
The plot is strikingly simple for a restless wizard like Murakami, whose fluid movements through time and space lay waste to every rule of writing fiction. Tsukuru Tazaki is a train station engineer who lives in Tokyo. He is 36, lonely and dull, a quintessential flat-as-Kansas Murakami protagonist who at one point says, “Every day I just build things you can see. I have no time for doubts.” His complacency is an exaggerated version of what we all feel, a confidence in the material world that makes it possible to go about your Wednesday afternoon. Murakami delights in nothing more than revealing the insanity of faith in things as they are.
Tsukuru has been living with mystery for the past 16 years. He grew up Nagoya, with a close-knit group of four friends, two boys and two girls, each of whom had a name that correlated with a color. Tsukuru’s name, though, means “to make or build,” making him the “colorless” standout in the group. The five friends seemed to be an “equilateral pentagon,” but during a college break, Tsukuru discovered that his friends suddenly no longer want to speak to him. When he finally managed to get one of them on the phone and begged for an explanation, Tsukuru was met with a stupefying injunction: “I’m sorry, but I have to ask you not to call any of us anymore.” No explanation was given. Tsukuru was so astounded that he didn’t ask for one. Not then, not ever.
Almost two decades later, he remains haunted by this rift, having never understood the reasons for his abrupt exclusion from the group. Was he merely the odd man out? Had he unwittingly done something wrong? He might have gone on that way forever, except that a new girlfriend, Sara, demands that he find out why he was dumped. “Maybe under the wound, under the scab,” she tells him, “the blood is still silently flowing.”
Thus begins Tsukuru’s quest for clarity, if not quite redemption. It does not begin auspiciously. After Sara makes inquisitions of her own, she discovers that—mild spoiler alert coming—one of Tsukuru’s quintet is dead, having been strangled in her apartment. Sara forces Tsukuru to see the remaining three: a Lexus salesman and a management guru, both still living in Nagoya, and a married mother of two living in Finland, where she makes pottery. Each reveals to him—with too little resistance in each case, as if they’d been waiting for him to ask all along—the reason for the long-ago separation.
But once that revelation is made, the erstwhile amigos turn to discussing the lives that were, that could have been, that never will be. Much has happened in the intervening years, not all of it planned, not all of it desired. “That amazing time in our lives is gone, and will never return,” the friend in Finland tells him. “All the beautiful possibilities we had then have been swallowed up in the flow of time.” That is the simple truth that powers this story.
As always, Murakami treads in the nebulous space “where the real and the unreal secretly mingle.” The novel, in fact, could have benefited from a bit more of his trademark weirdness: I longed for a subplot about a jazz pianist with supernatural powers to do more than it ended up doing. Same for a jar with amputated fingers, not to mention the central mystery of Tsukuru’s exclusion, which is explained away too neatly for true novelistic satisfaction. Though frequently compelling, Colorless Tsukuru is not the most nimble of Murakami’s works. He has been sharper, stranger, elsewhere.
Still, few authors can endow the ordinary with so much enticing oddity. Even the most mundane moments acquire a numinous sheen. For example, upon the jangle of an Elvis-themed ringtone: “Ever so slowly, Tsukuru felt reality drain from things around him.” It is a testament to Murakami’s power as a novelist that he can moderate the ebb and flow of reality with such singular confidence.
“You can put a lid on memory, but you can’t hide history,” Tsukuru says at one point, recalling Sara’s counsel and how it spurred him to action. It may be that Japan is indeed inordinately occupied with history and that Colorless Tsukuru has struck a chord there. But I think the chord is universal, for Murakami is one of those rare novelists who can turn our ordinary lives, whether conducted in Tokyo or Duluth, into something wondrous.