Two college friends, Tsukuru and Haida, listen to ‘Le mal du pays (Homesickness),’ the eighth piece of Franz Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage,” its melancholy musical notes floating softly through the air. Tsukuru describes the music as possessing a “calm sadness” without being “sentimental.” Haida responds by saying that “the piece seems simple technically, but it’s hard to get the expression right.” The oft-self-deprecating Liszt might have knowingly chuckled at their analysis of his work. And perhaps, Haruki Murakami uses this quiet moment to subtly acknowledge a similarity between his own career and that of Franz Liszt: Neither has had lots of formal training, but they’ve got a whole lot of heart.
Before Murakami’s latest, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” (Alfred A. Knopf), gets too comfortable teasing ambiguity on top of ambiguity without delivering much of a resolution, it has the potential to be Murakami’s most affecting and complex exploration of the psyche yet. “Colorless” is not the kind of zany, fast-paced novel we’ve come to expect from Murakami. The main character does not embark on a fantastical adventure that dances the line between reality and some dreamlike state. Rather, the adventure is inside Tsukuru’s mind.
The novel begins with Tsukuru Tazaki wallowing in despair at the edge of a great abyss—his living room floor. His deep depression is the result of a recent abandonment by his high school friends. Each member of his formerly inordinately tight-knit group had unique characteristics and color-coded nicknames derived from their last names, except for Tsukuru Tazaki, whose first name means “to make” or “build.” He felt “colorless” and empty, like he held no meaning for the group. This insecurity leads to a mental breakdown when Ao (Red) coldly calls him up one day and tells him that they will never see him again. His physical and mental states deteriorate for the next six months into an all-consuming infatuation with death.
He finally finds his own value once again in college when he befriends Haida, with whom he listens to Liszt. They bond for nine months over long discussions of classical music and philosophy before Haida disappears. The plot picks up 10 years later and tells the story of Tsukuru and his kind-of girlfriend, Sara. Their dates are interwoven throughout the narrative of Tsukuru’s younger years and his hardships with friends. After learning of Tsukuru’s background, Sara pushes him to reconcile with his friends. And so, Tsukuru ventures off to find out exactly what happened and why he was suddenly pushed away.
But Murakami allows the narrative time to wander along, only occasionally picking up speed after Sara’s arrival. We wallow in deep introspection along with him until the plot is whipped onward by his desire to see his friends. But it takes too long—about 130 pages to get there. Along the way, many promising elements of the plot are left unexplored, such as Tsukuru’s possibly mystical color-seeing powers, or suggestions that Haida and Tsukuru have a homosexual relationship. Just as Liszt’s ‘Le mal du pays’ is a definitive sea change for a composer who consistently incited stupefying “Lisztomania” with his robust style of music, so is Murakami, now 65, taking a break.
This meandering partially stems from the way that Murakami constructed the novel. He has described the writing process for “Colorless” as impulsive and almost random: “I sat down at my desk and wrote the first few lines of the story . . . basically not knowing anything about where the story would lead—and then I just kept on writing for the next six months [...] But it was fascinating to see [Tsukuru Tazaki’s] view change bit by bit . . . growing both deeper and broader.”
But such a meandering method can lead to laziness. The prose is filled with clunky sentences like these: “Like the Grim Reaper having shown a dead person the road to Hades, he never looked back;” “The human heart is like a night bird. Silently waiting for something, and when the time comes, it flies straight toward it.” These and dozens of other sentences depend too much on cheap poetics and cliche-riddled fluff.
When one of Sara’s friends tells Tsukuru “Some things in life are too complicated to explain in any language,”she might be summing up the problem with “Colorless.” Words might just be insufficient to convey the changes that Tsukuru experiences and as a result, Murakami is stuck between universality and specificity, and readers are left not knowing exactly how the hell they’re supposed to feel. Murakami may also be reaching to illustrate some painful type of growth—Tsukuru’s being more painful than most—and while this is a noble experiment, it is either impossible or maybe just out of Murakami’s creative reach.
To keep the classical music comparisons coming, Murakami’s approach resembles putting on a pair of mittens and banging out an off-the-cuff composition on the piano. Sure, the act of making it was fun for the creator and it’s even more fun to describe, but the work is ineffective in getting its own ideas across, leaving behind a product that is muddled and incomplete.