Although I’d read a number of Japanese novels as a kid, I only became interested in Japanese literature in earnest via Jessica Schneider, who’s reviewed a number of Japanese classics for PopMatters, and elsewhere. Compared to the West — at least in the past century or so — Japanese art has always struck me as a little more mature. No, this does not necessarily mean that it’s always better, but merely that, if you look at the subject matter, it aims a lot higher, and either succeeds, or fails, but fails nobly. This is true of books, film, and even Japanese anime, wherein shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop, while delivered by solid/good directors who simply never grew up, have enough moments of poesy to keep things interesting and fresh, despite such films’ more obvious lacks.
That said, Haruki Murakami is one of those writers I’d suspect to be better in his short stories than long novels, and his latest book (quite the best-seller, today) is no exception. This is because, on the plus side, he attempts philosophy, and sometimes even poesy; he tries to get to the bottom of this or that idea, and, more importantly, see how characters might live this idea out, in real-time, which is really the difference between philosophy and art. Some of his situations are innately interesting (fantastical plot-points in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; the melding of waking and dream in Kafka On The Shore), and he doesn’t necessarily go with the most obvious trajectory. On the negative side, however, some of his novels go on too long, have many pointless details (the taste of coffee and croissants; lots and lots of ‘characterizing’ description, yet without the interaction to make it real), half-assed attempts at philosophy (Chronicle’s opening: “When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along to an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta”), and other flaws that, had they simply been concentrated into a far shorter burst, via a story or novella, would naturally trim Murakami’s worst tendencies, and force him into a poesy that more often comes out in Murakami’s structure and juxtapostions, rather than any innate feature of the prose itself.
So Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage is long — too long — and is simply not a good book in its duration. Its biggest weakness, by far, is its over-reliance on a group of 5 high school friends to both form the narrative, as well as the narrative’s purported reason. Yet despite how deeply affected the 5 characters are by their friendship, one NEVER sees any genuine, much less affecting, interaction between them, at all, merely a bland, mechanical, and rote description of what they’re like and what they do early on in the book, as teenagers, so that when the inevitable ‘update’ comes, via adult life, it has little intellectual heft, and even less emotional resonance. In a short story, this omission would be perfectly fine, as the focus would merely shift to Tsukuru’s (the protagonist’s) feelings, potentially making these friendships a ‘rosebud’-like event whose meaning is more tied up with Tsukuru’s reactions, rather than anything intrinsic to the adolescents, themselves. Yet in a 400 page novel that continually hammers home the “perfection” of this friendship, and even goes as far as ascribing a mystical, numerological quality to their special group, it’s much harder to avoid this need. Thus, after a while, their behaviors are no longer recognizably human, in the living sense, for characters become mere vessels for this or that (limited) idea, and not a means to watch this idea play out within people that are well-sketched and therefore actually matter.
The crux of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is this. Tsukuru, a bland (“colorless,” in the book’s world-view) adolescent, strikes up a friendship with Ao, a jock, Aka, a natural leader, Kuro, a nice girl who is always ‘second best,’ and Shiro, a beautiful, talented, and apparently sick young woman, a set of relationships that follow him into the sophomore year of college. Then, quite suddenly, Tsukuru gets cut off, and angrily, at that, for an offense he does not understand, but slowly must come to grips with as he grows up. For much of the book, Tsukuru is already an adult, in his late 30s, but obsessed with death and his various failings and insecurities, and admits multiple times that he’s never been able to get over his friends’ cruelty 15+ years ago. That is, until he meet Sara, a deus ex machina in the worst sense of the phrase, for she is not only almost purely symbolic, and non-living (as a wiser ‘angel’ of some sort), but very much arising from Murakami’s own ‘machination’. In other words, we are led to believe that Sara, a seemingly beautiful and successful human being, would start dating Tsukuru, who is sexually incompetent, emotionally closed-off, bland-looking, obsesses over death and wacky dreams, and more or less mopes about for the entirety of the 20 or 30 pages until Sara comes into play. If they have some deep initial flirtation that gets them together, we do not feel it; if they exchange genuine emotions, which might superficially overcome Tsukuru’s shortcomings, we do not see it; if they engage in a deep colloquy, thus drawing each other in intellectually, we do not hear it, but must simply assume the best from the utter detritus we are given. And this is simply a lot of suspending one’s disbelief, for the sake of a tale that provides too little payoff to reasonably ask for such leaps from the reader.
In time, Sara tries to get Tsukuru to, well, grow the hell up, meet his old friends, and discover what happened. In between this, he gets flashbacks to Haida, another, later friend that axes their relationship in much the same way. Introduced as a lively, “younger” man, the reader senses, correctly, that there will be some sort of homosexual detour, wherein Tsukuru can be further stereotyped as a ‘lost soul,’ both sexually and psychologically, in an all-too predictable narrative arc that is meant to cast doubt on Tsukuru’s guilt in his friends’ behavior, given that this all seems to be a pattern. In fact, upon meeting up with his friends, a decade and a half later, Tsukuru learns that he was accused of rape by the deluded Shiro, forcing them to cut all ties, despite no one really believing Shiro. (Again: too much suspension, and for what?) Yet the end’s finally in sight, for after he makes amends with all, and forgives them, he must also come to terms with Shiro’s death: a murder by strangulation, which, as with Haida, he takes a kind of metaphysical responsibility for given his obsession with her, as a kid. If that seems too much for Tsukuru to handle, however, it pays to note that all the others take some responsibility, as well: “We have all killed her,” the adult Kuro tells him, forcing the already-wan character of Shiro into yet another symbolic role, and into being the dumping-ground of each and every character’s neuroses.
In between these revelations, however, no one character really comes out much deeper, which is forgivable, as far as art is concerned, and the reader’s not much wiser, which is not. This is because while characters can be reasonably static (for most people, in reality, change only a little), art in fact COMMUNICATES something about this static, whether it’s the extreme self-destructiveness of Bigger Thomas in Native Son, from beginning to end, or the way that people and things are beholden to patterns, and use that as a spring-board for even deeper examinations. By contrast, the stuff Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki communicates is middle-school level truisms, moral lessons that seem like didactic art for the wrong audience, since there’s that adult mix of sex and violence, but the thinking of children: or rather, the thinking that children might find ‘deep’. In fact, the real extent of the book’s ideas devolve to Tsukuru, while being bland, and rarely, if ever, being loved, is still a “good person”; can, unlike most people “build stations” (he is an engineer, a play on his name– another obvious, clunky symbol); is a “taxpayer,” a proper “citizen,” and is “productive”. Now, this is not exactly enlightenment, for any intelligent reader knows these things, and it’s dull– incredibly dull– to watch such ideas play out in a book marketed for symbolically-minded adults.
Perhaps it’d be OK if the tale in the interim was better-told, yet the writing, itself, is often bad, from the massive number of cliches (“the prison, after all, was his own heart”); odd clunkers (“anxiety raised its head, like a jagged, ominous rock”); ridiculous and silly (“their pubic hair was as wet as a rain forest”); and the forced exchanges. And no where does this last element come out more than in the dialogue:
“You mean maintaining the group itself, and keeping it going, became one of your aims.”
“I guess so.”
Sara narrowed her eyes in a tight line. “Just like the universe.”
“I don’t know much about the universe,” Tsukuru said. “But for us it was very important. We had to protect the special chemistry that had developed among us. Like protecting a lit match, keeping it from blowing out in the wind.”
“The power that happened to arise at that point. Something that could never be reproduced.”
“Like the Big Bang?”
I mean, just look at those transitions; it is almost something that one might say to be funny. To keep a friendship going becomes as good as perpetuating the universe — all in casual conversation, that — and its origins are now the Big Bang, done in with a question mark. Worse, the language is not only over-the-top, but completely unsuited for describing something that the reader can never even get a glimpse of, on either an emotive or intellectual level. In fact, so much of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki‘s dialogue devolves to this sort of ‘philosophy’, that one is better left with Murakami’s expository prose, which is often solid, and sometimes offering an unexpected turn of phrase or two. Just as often, however, one gets the following, which is in fact quite similar to Murakami’s sex passages in other books:
“Leisurely foreplay, caressing her, had been amazing, and after he came, he had felt at peace as he held her close. But that wasn’t all there was to it. He was well aware that there was something more. Making love was a joining, a connection between one person and another. You receive something, and you also have to give.”
Yet this is not just bad, cliched writing, but damaging to what little differentiation Tsukuru, as a character, might otherwise have. If Sara, for instance, was something deeper to him, more special, somehow, it cannot appear in such a passage, whose utter triviality overshadows their other interactions, too. For in a world where so many of the characters have color-names, where entities such as Haida (and his father) merely come and go, and everything else so god-damn THIN, quotes, like the above, make such obviousness even worse, as there is not even some stylistic veneer to play off of. Does this stop the good reviews from rolling in, however? Well, let’s see what the New York Times has to say:
Tsukuru Tazaki’s unfathomable anguish seems to contain every color of the rainbow. The colorless color of death. He pictures his heart stopping but does not take his life, as no method of suicide corresponds with his “pure and intense feelings” for death. He survives the terrible disaffection but carries profound invisible scars. Precise without, desperate within; plagued by graphic sexual dreams, aspects of astral projection, nameless guilt and confusion. A strange fellow even unto himself, tangled up and colorless.
Here, they merely regurge Murakami’s own words, and while invoking “profound invisible scars”, offer nothing in the way of describing how, exactly, such “scars” are communicated, within. Because, if they would, they’d have to quote passages re: “the pain in his heart,” that he’s “become like stone”, or dialogue wherein Sara, in a moment of faux depth, offers the brilliant advice that, if Tsukuru merely does not think about his problems, it doesn’t mean he’s any closer to solving them, and that it’s THIS sort of interaction that belies “the colorless color of death”– not a solution, really, to most normal human beings, and certainly not one of the solutions that art needs to condescend to offer for those that might not ‘get it’.
Then, there’s The Guardian, whose negative critique of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, which devolves to a single sentence that says little of the book, qualitatively, and merely offers what Mark Lawson, himself, ‘wants’ from a book:
“Although as adept as ever at setting up Kafkaesque ambiguity and atmosphere, he disappointingly chooses to leave most of the mysteries unresolved.”
But, as I pointed out, the issue is not so much the lack of resolution (in fact, the book’s biggest selling point is the ambiguity of its ending), but in how so very little of its narrative goes for depth, or follows believable trajectories, or offers either intellectual or emotional pay-off, due to flaws in both structure as well as individual sentences. Yes, one may argue that not every cliche in the book is there in the original Japanese, but realistically, there are so many cliches that go beyond cliche of words, and into the territory of narrative, structural, or ideational cliches, that it becomes quite difficult to argue anything to the contrary– making Murakami’s dissolution into poor writing all the more believable.
As for The Wall Street Journal? I’ll merely stick with one word:
Yet Sara is a kind of angel; Haida a source of manliness Tsukuru aspires to, and nothing more; Shiro the sick, beautiful, asexual ‘type’ that represents nostalgia and desire; and Tsukuru’s own name, as well as pretty much everyone else’s, has a color, theme, or idea that comes up over and over again, whose meanings are repeated, ad nauseam, as if Murakami is afraid the reader will somehow not get him. The gay tropes can be seen from a mile away; Sara’s possible rejection of Tsukuru is expected, given his cowardice for the greater part of the book; and Murakami’s use and re-use of music, as a kind of thematic piece, is only tiring, for despite the number of times it is connected with the friends’ childhoods, nothing of substance, nothing of import, can be learned of their group, thus making such attempts (music, analysis, etc.) a kind of window-dressing fixed on broken glass. Alas, this is not at all ‘subtlety’. In fact, it is the very opposite of such, for the word implies hinting, and gently guiding. Instead, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki force-feeds the reader in pretty much all things, and it’s telling that, of all these 3 supposedly major arbiters of literary culture, not one review quotes from the book at any real length, choosing, instead, to declare things by fiat, all evidence be damned.
No, Murakami is not a bad writer, but can, in a weird way, do a kind of proto-MFA thing with his words, wherein details are larded upon details, thus drowning out narratives that are already too forced, and ideas that are both maldeveloped and provide the wrong function, in the wrong mouth. I’ve not read his shorter stories, but it’d be interesting to see what he does when concision makes demands, or even in the much earlier novels, wherein a sense of comfort and re-treads had not yet settled in.