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.