Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013)

Haruki Murakami.  Yeah, there's no question--I should try to come to terms with the guy.  I cannot feign a lack of interest; at this point, I haven't read ALL of his novels--because IQ84 is like a thousand pages, dude, and it got kinda mixed reviews even among the faithful (who tend to be, uh, very faithful).  BUT THE FACT REMAINS: I've read twelve of his novels.  And also the short story collections The Elephant Vanishes and After the Quake.  So the evidence strongly suggests that I am, in some sense, a fan.  But I'm the most ambivalent fan ever, I'll tell you that much.   

I first read Murakami in my early twenties, which is probably about the perfect time to do it.  It's no surprise that he would be popular with such people: here we have this hip, pop-culture-attuned Japanese guy writing novels with zany titles like A Wild Sheep Chase, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, with covers with graphic design to match.  And then you crack the books themselves and you get these hyperreal narratives adroitly collapsing the barriers between real and dream worlds, and it's just about THE COOLEST THING EVER and by the by there are also really explicit sex scenes and it's no surprise that he's so popular.

Yes so but.  Let there be no doubt, Murakami's books really do have a very strong appeal.  Otherwise, uh, I probably wouldn't have read fourteen of them.  But in spite of this, I was skeptical from the start, and it may partly just be down to contrarianism or to latent or not-so-latent snobbery on my part, but there it is.  The first Murakami novel I read was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.  I remember I read it directly after slogging through Forbidden Colors, Yukio Mishima's grim slice of misanthropy (well, one of them), and it was SUCH A RELIEF MY GOSH YOU HAVE NO IDEA.  When I finished, though, my immediate, overwhelming reaction was: this is NOT profound stuff.  This is the literary equivalent of fast food (I may have written a snotty amazon review to that effect at the time): sure, it's tasty, but it demands nothing of you, and it gives you very little beyond the temporal pleasure of eating it.  Of course, then I went on to read a bunch of other Murakami novels, so what leg do I have to stand on?, but that was my very strong impression.  It would be okay if it were just pure escapist stuff, but Murakami novels really, really do have great aspirations of profundity, and the fans will talk your ear off about how profound they are given half a chance.  But I was not so sure, and to be honest, I remain not so sure.  

Certainly, if you're reading Murakami novels you're not stupid--so isn't it possible that I'm the one who's missing something?  Or who demands a certain sort of literary payoff that some novels don't provide and really why SHOULD they; there are multiple valid ways for literature to work?  This is all very possible, and thus am I wracked with self-doubt.  But fuck, man, not to brag too much about shit no one cares about, but I have read and (more or less) understood a shitload of very difficult novels.  I earned a PhD studying such, which let me tell you was NOT SO EASY.  So I think my opinions should maybe perhaps only partially be attributed to my status as a condescending asshole.  Murakami novels buzz along very pleasantly, but they demand almost no effort from the reader, and they follow a very rigid formula: person has normal life, weird shit happens to person, weird shit is poked at but never explained.  THE END.  To Murakami's credit, he at least seems to have gotten away from the thing where all his novels have identical first-person narrators, but that doesn't change the basic formula.  A lot of people will point to Norwegian Wood as the best Murakami novel, on the basis that it eschews all the magic stuff to tell a realistic love story.  But thinking about that, I realize that this is rather missing the point: the "magic stuff" per se isn't the problem, if you think there's a problem.  Norwegian Wood may not have any magic, but it still follows the formula to a T, the only difference being that the "weird shit" is more realistic (for some definition of "realistic"): the mystery of the love interest's mental problems and eventual suicide (not really a spoiler) fills the role just fine, and boy do I think that if I reread Norwegian Wood I'd be bugged as hell by Murakami's treatment of women.  So am I wrong?  Is the entire literary establishment wrong?  Is it mind-bogglingly arrogant of me to think it might be the latter?  QUESTIONS FALL LIKE RAIN (do questions "fall?"  Sure, why not).

Sheesh.  Well, be that as it may, I hadn't read a Murakami book since After Dark in 2007, and this new one was getting good reviews (of course, they all get good reviews, but…), so why not, right?

Colorless Tsukuru is probably Murakami's most subdued novel to date.  The idea is that when he was a teenager, Tsukuru was part of a circle (pentagon?) of five really, really close friends, three guys and two girls.  The "colorless" thing comes in because all of them except Tsukuru have colors (in Japanese, obviously) in their names.  His lack of a color makes him feel sort of bland, and the color motif runs through the book.  

No, not quite that obvious, but close.

In any case, During their second year of college, the other members of this group abruptly cut all ties with him, for mysterious reasons.  This is very painful and makes him kind of crazy, but he eventually recovers.  The book's present day is sixteen years later, when, at the age of thirty-six, a woman he's seeing convinces him that there are deep unresolved problems here, and that he should get in touch with these people to get to the bottom of things.  There are also flashbacks to his relationship with another friend who mysteriously vanished during his college days.

So that's the story.  There really isn't much more to it than that, but I was enjoying reading it, and I had HIGH HOPES that this would be The One--the Murakami novel that I can totally unreservedly get behind.  And then, I got to the end.  See, he's basically resolved his problems, and now he's all in love with this woman he's been seeing, Sara.  Only, oh no, before he left on a trip to see one of his old friends, he had seen her with another man.  So he calls her up and asks her: are you seeing someone else?  And she's like wait 'til Wednesday; I'll tell you then (DUDE THAT MEANS "YES").  And that's the book's penultimate chapter.  And then in the last chapter, instead of getting to the point, we begin with an excursus on subway stations (Tsukuru works designing train stations, you see), and you realize: you're not gonna resolve this, are you, Murakami?  No: you are SO COMPLETELY PROGRAMMED to end in this exact same BLARGH IT IS TEH MYSTERY BIG AMBIGUITY way, that even this seemingly straightforward, non-mysterious situation has to be treated like this.  You are literally incapable of doing anything else.

And it would be one thing if the stuff we got instead of a definitive conclusion was, like, interesting or revealing or profound, or anything, but no.  It's stuff like this:

Eri was right.  No matter what, he had to make Sara his.  But this wasn't something he could decide on his own.  It was a question decided by two people, between one heart and another.  Something had to be given, and something had to be accepted. (259)

This is the sound of a man furiously treading water.  And it makes me doubt all the more that there was ever all that much there there in his previous books, because if this is his idea of depth, laid back with no smoke and mirrors bullshit to obscure the situation…well.  It feels like Murakami is actually mocking the reader:  You thought I was going to move away from my usual thing?  Well--ha!  Joke's on you!  I never move away from my usual thing!

And then you start looking back on the book with a more jaundiced eye, and you are forced to think about all the pointless narrative culs-de-sac.  And also to concede, man, this book is just padded as hell; hence, we get things like

Thirty minutes later, when the taxi pulled up in front of a hotel in downtown Helsinki, Tsukuru wasn't sure whether or not he should add a tip.  He realized he hadn't checked this in the guidebook (or anything else about Finland, in fact).  He added a little under 10 percent of what the meter said and gave it to the driver.  The driver looked pleased and handed him a blank receipt, so it was probably the right decision.  Even if it wasn't, the driver clearly wasn't upset. (176)

Seriously, what is this?  What purpose does this paragraph serve?  Please write me a five hundred-word essay on why it shouldn't have been just cut out entirely.  It doesn't amuse, illuminate, or anything.  It just sits around and takes up space.  Are ALL his books like this?  Am I just more picky nowadays?  I don't know.  But it does not impress.  And can I also say?  Part of this may be down to the translation, but there are many phrasings here that feel really awkward.  "He wanted to hold a woman close, caress her body, inhale the scent of her skin.  It was an entirely natural desire for a healthy young man" (51); "he had no problem with feeling those desires--they were, after all, the natural urges and cravings of a healthy adult male" (77); "he'd never felt anything for her beyond a calm fondness and a healthy physical desire" (95)--so is it just me or does this sound like the way a psychopath trying to pretend to understand human feelings would talk about sex?  Like Nice Pete from Achewood, maybe?

Anyway, I'm feeling kind of disillusioned, to the extent that I was ever illusioned.  Murakami has said that he was basically winging it with this book; that he pretty much made it up as he went along.  I would say "…and BOY, does it SHOW!" but actually it feels pretty similar to his usual thing, in most of the worst ways.  I dunno.  I want to say "he came SO CLOSE to really making it work," but I'm not even sure if that's true anymore.  The man has talent, but he's sixty-five years old, and I think that at this point expecting him to do anything different from what he always does is probably a sign of insanity.  Still, when he's enjoyable, he's, well, enjoyable.  By all means, check out Hardboiled Wonderland.  Keep your expectations reasonable, however.  And probably avoid Colorless Tsukuru.


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