It’s an old cliché to speak of Haruki Murakami’s old clichés, all the talking cats and simple meals and favorite LPs. There’s a Murakami drinking game and interactive Murakami Bingo and a generic Murakami parody titled “The Mysterious Disappearance of the Strangely Beautiful Woman.” In the Japanese literary superstar’s latest, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, the stylizations arrive right on schedule for the trainspotters. But, in a silent way, Murakami seems both self-aware of his tics and comfortably at play with them, constructing his familiar and elaborate dreaminess from the usual materials. Especially compared to 2011’s massive 1Q84, Tsukuru is one of Murakami’s more earthbound efforts — spoiler: no talking cats — though the weirdness builds on itself with a masterful sleight of hand, anyway.
Characters who think of themselves as nothing special are a regular feature of Murakami books. But within the first pages, we learn that the titular Tsukuru — horror of horrors — doesn’t even listen to music and “sometimes… ate plain bread, washing it down with milk straight from the carton.” So much for the humble gourmand. When some of the first specific musicians mentioned are via the albums left behind by Tsukuru’s older sister — LPs by Barry Manilow and the Pet Shop Boys — it’s tempting to wonder if Murakami could even be trolling the obsessives who make playlists of the recordings mentioned in his books as they attempt to access the lovely and highly bankable place where Murakami transports his readers.
Even the plot’s central point, Tsukuru’s quest to find out why he was banished from a group of friends, is a slight inversion of the disappearing, strangely beautiful woman. Here, it is Tsukuru who has disappeared to someplace else, undergoing a transformation. “What stared out at him now was the face of a young man with cheekbones so prominent they looked as if they’d been chiseled by a trowel,” writes Murakami by way of translator Philip Gabriel.
Soon enough, though, we’re back in the same old territory. It turns out that Tsukuru does own one record that he really, really loves, so much so that he keeps a turntable for the specific purposes of playing it: Lazar Berman’s recording of Franz Liszt’s “Le mal du pays,” from the Years of Pilgrimage suite, which lends itself to the book’s title. And, don’t you know, Tsukuru keeps the LP and turntable around because it reminds him of a strangely beautiful woman who’s been MIA from his life. It would be a pity to stop Murakami if you’ve heard this one before, though.
At every moment when Murakami edges into an expected place, he announces himself with a wink. As the narrative kills two clichés with one chapter — a hint of the paranormal and a nested story within the story — one character advises another, “you can take it as folklore, or a tale of the supernatural, I don’t mind.” By the second paragraph, the temporary protagonist is consuming “meals [that] were simple but tasty.” Even if the author is too embedded in his own world to notice what he’s doing, perhaps an alternate, unconscious self is writing between the lines of the text, operating from a shadow world — another enduring Murakami theme in Tsukuru and elsewhere.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is an easily engaging, large-print, small-page entry into Murakami’s ether. There are long philosophical dialogues, deep, painful yearnings for faraway and inaccessible people, and the type of idiosyncratically erotic sex scenes that might weird their way into nominations for the Literary Review‘s Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, but only because there’s little else quite like them.
One of the book’s most telling moments isn’t one of the beloved clichés, however, but the absence of one. “You graduated from engineering school, but you don’t use the Internet?” Tsukuru’s girlfriend asks, pushing him as to why he hasn’t tracked down his long-missing friends. “Haven’t you ever heard of Google or Facebook?” Despite the occasional presence of email, the universe of Murakami and his protagonist is (as always) essentially a pre-digital one, and the arrival of magic-depleting technology might be seen as a firm border between the outside and what lies between Chip Kidd’s fetishistically designed binding.
Murakami’s beautiful and affecting metaphors are invariably of terrestrial forces, creating the dual effect of achieving their descriptive purposes as well as keeping the reader safely inside his world away from the larger outside world. Ears are “nicely formed, like lovely seashells.” His most soulful moments come connected to images like “a powerful west wind [that] blows away chunks of clouds,” a “savage darkness,” or “a bolt of unseen lightning, accompanied by soundless thunder.”
In both sales and style, and despite his self-styled unpretentious oddness, Haruki Murakami is an author of incredibly popular fiction that seems completely unconcerned with literary “problems,” structural gimcracks, or representations of modernity. His language plays but rarely subverts, and generally does what it says it is doing. Murakami’s characters are infrequently plain but invariably sweet and sad. Very sad. And that, perhaps above all, is their appeal and the main substance Murakami is dealing with: the surprisingly renewable resource of emo-level sadness. All his clichés are belong to us, the same constellations viewed from our Earth as by the different sad boys and disappeared girls from the varied surfaces of his novels.
When Tsukuru goes on his eventual travels (as decreed by “How To Tell If You Are In A Haruki Murakami Novel”), we learn that he is a trainspotter himself (place a dauber on the Bingo square for “Train Station”). It is perhaps the biggest wink yet. Tsukuru “visited railroad stations like other people enjoy attending concerts, watching movies, dancing in clubs, watching sports, and window shopping,” Murakami writes. At the unfamiliar depot, he “got a simple train schedule, sat down on a bench, and, sipping hot coffee from a paper cup, watched the long-distance trains arrive and depart. He checked their destinations on a map, and where they’d come from,” Murakami writes. “As always, doing this calmed him. Time passed, smoothly, homogeneously.” The same could be said without the slightest bit of condescension about the pleasing effect of Haruki Murakami novels, running like clockwork since 1979.