Like many college students, I lived in a variety of apartments and dorm rooms with various other young men, and spent a great deal of time engaging in bullshit sessions with them. On one occasion I remember a discussion about why exactly I liked Vonnegut’s Deadeye Dick, which I was reading at the time, and what I said was this – there was a subplot, or really just a mention, that after a neutron bomb accident the government had moved in a bunch of Haitian refugees into the affected areas and that it might not have been an accident in the first place. And I said that in most books, that bit about the Haitians would have been the whole plot, or they would have at least gotten to the bottom of it, whether it was a conspiracy, or really was an accident, or whatever. But instead Vonnegut just mentioned it and moved on.
I’m not sure that was an especially convincing argument for the merits of that book, and I remember this particular roommate looking skeptical. Back then I was a little more thin-skinned about sophistication, and was probably a little hard to live with. Then, as now, my literary tastes tended to fall into either 1) nonfiction, or 2) fiction that involves aliens, murders, evil wizards, or some combination of those, and he knew it, which I think was why he was challenging me to explain why exactly I was reading Deadeye Dick. So, anyway, let’s talk about Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.
Reading Murakami is, for me, like being in a dream, or possibly reading the musings of an alien being. I’ve read a fair bit of his oeuvre and I’m still really not sure what I think about him, but I keep reading this stuff so it must be doing something for me. Damned if I can really place exactly what. The best I can do is to compare it to that bit about the Haitians in Deadeye Dick, though, which was the point of that whole introduction there. Which is to say that there’s a bunch of stuff in his novels that isn’t really explained. In some ways I don’t even feel like I’m qualified to say anything about it, but, you know, I’m a literate person, or at least what passes for one nowadays.
If you’ve read something by Murakami before, then Tsukuru is going to be pretty familiar. He’s a supremely disassociated individual, almost pathologically so. He’s got trouble connecting with anyone in his life; never had much of a relationship with his father, has decent connections with his mother and sisters but tries to avoid seeing them as much as possible. Like many Murakami protagonists he does have one particular desire, though, and that is building and renovating train stations. Tsukuru had four close friends in high school, but after he went to university in Tokyo (to study train station engineering, naturally) he received a call from one of them saying that they didn’t ever want to talk to him again, which he accepted like it was a bad thing from a dream, then went into a suicidal depression for a while. Later he came out of it, made another friend in college, and lost that guy too.
He’s been carrying this trauma around for some time, since as the book opens he is in his mid-30s and just starting a relationship with a woman that he finds himself actually really into, which surprises him, as he’d had a series of love affairs that moved him just about as much as anything which isn’t a train station moved him (i.e., not much). But this woman thinks that maybe there’s something bothering him, and suggests that maybe he needs to confront the demons from his past.
Somewhat reluctantly, he does.
And this is where the Haitian bit comes in. It turns out that one of the friends is dead, that she was found murdered in her home and that the murder was unsolved. Somewhat like real life, Tsukuru doesn’t know anything about investigating murders, and he does what most of us would do upon finding this out, which is that he says “that’s awful” and goes on about his business. He never figures out who murdered his friend, and neither do we, and neither does anyone else, that I can tell.
It turns out that the murdered friend had accused him of committing a heinous act, which Tsukuru didn’t know about and didn’t do. This is why his other friends cut him off, but when he comes back to re-connect with them they all handle themselves like adults and talk it out. It turns out that one of the three remaining friends knew all along he didn’t do it, a second had figured out over the years that it was pretty unlikely that he did, and the third hears Tsukuru out and then accepts his reasonable explanation. No throwing things, screaming matches, or crazy fistfights. But they don't have a tearful hug-fest, either. They make up, everyone apologizes, they promise to maybe keep in touch in the future, but it's not like they set up an appointment to do this. I mean, they haven't seen each other in half their lives, and Tsukuru notes each time that he may in fact never see them again.
Oh, and he never figures out what happened to his college friend, either. Although possibly the centerpiece of the story is a flashback to a story that the friend told Tsukuru one late night decades ago, about the friend’s father and his encounter with a pianist who may have kept an extra finger in a bag, and who had sold his life in exchange for the ability to truly perceive color. That pianist’s extra fingers may have turned up in a train station later, but if they did it’s not really important. Oh, and we don’t find out if he gets the girl, either.
There’s not quite as much of the insanity that I’ve come to expect from Murakami, or the laugh-out-loud bizarre flatly-affected conversations. Mostly it’s Tsukuru thinking about doing things, then doing them, then thinking about the things that he did. At his worst, Murakami absolutely screams “literary book club selection”, and there’s a bit of that in places here. But I found myself strangely affected by Tsukuru’s travels, and how he discovers that maybe he’s not entirely colorless after all. The point isn’t really about any of these external things, but about feelings about them. Just like real life, that’s all right.