One of my great bafflements about books is why some capture the public’s imagination and others languish in Amazon’s cellars. Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, The Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage sold over a million copies the first week it was in print. I’m a fan of Murakami, but his latest work doesn’t warrant that kind of attention. To be frank, I was disappointed by it. I don’t mind the sameness in his stories. They usually involve a clueless young man who stumbles through life until he meets or marries a woman whose mysterious nature wakens him from somnambulance. After that, he’s dragged through one adventure after another, not as a player but as life’s plaything. Usually, Murakami’s plots end with the central character becoming sadder but seldom wiser.
I’m not complaining. The joy of Murakami is the adventure. He throws us into Kafkaesque worlds where the difference between magic and reality is indistinguishable, where we are asked to believe the unbelievable and we do. The tales can’t be called fantasy, however. The edges are too sharp. They draw blood in that they create uncertainty in us and make us begin to fear the firm ground beneath our feet is an illusion.
Regrettably, The Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage is a journey that takes us nowhere and fails to startle. The clueless young man is ever present and a girl jolts him into a fragile wakefulness, presenting him with a problem which, in the end, is pedestrian. She imagines he suffers from a psyche wound — one his high school buddies inflicted when they ostracized him from their group without an explanation. She wants him to heal and encourages him to track down those former classmates to learn why they engaged in their curious behavior. Not convinced he has a problem, Tsukuru begins his pilgrimages anyway and soon learns he was banished by his classmates because one of the two girls in the group accused him of raping her. No one believed her accusation but no one wanted to contradict her either; so Tsukuru was sacrificed for the good of the whole. As to the girl who charged him with rape, she was strangled to death a few years later and the murderer was never caught, though the police believed the perpetrator was someone she knew.
Tuskuru didn’t physically rape the girl, but he does feel guilty because he often dreamed of having sex with her. This faint connection between the victim and Tsukuru’s dreams — added to the fact that the victim may have known her killer — invites readers familiar with Murakami’s style to anticipate that the line between dreams and reality might have blurred and Tuskuru is the murderer. However, that possibility is never pursued deeply enough to invite serious speculation. What matters in this book is that Tsukuru makes contact with his past. One critic calls his saga, “a story of love, friendship, and heartbreak,” (Amazon). But I say the loss of some high school buddies 20 years earlier isn’t a strong enough dilemma to propel the novel forward. Besides, a careful reader remembers that Tsukuru undertook his adventure only when his girlfriend refused to have sex with him until he did. Hardly a heart-palpitating motive for a saga.
A better read is Pam Glenn’s Barter World. Like Murakami’s tale, Glenn’s book also involves a kind of pilgrimage in that beads, once owned by Scheherazade, pass from hand to hand across the Middle East until they make their way, centuries later, to middle America. The magic in her tale is a series of coincidences that alter the reality of everyday life. Like Murakami, Glenn’s gives us a sense of completeness but not closure. Her story invites us to observe life as a circle where endings mark beginnings. Certainly, Glenn writes as well as Murakami and shares his style of elegant simplicity. For me, the mystery to be explored between them is why Murakami’s recent book tops the best seller list while Glenn’s’ novel is largely unread.
(Originally published 1/15/15)