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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
By Haruki Murakmi
Alfred A. Knopf
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
There's a common cliché in the world of the literary arts, that says that authors are essentially on a ticking clock of slipping quality that is intricately tied to their age; in other words, that writers are at their most creative at the beginning of their careers, typically when they're young and fresh and haven't actually written out every idea yet that they have in their brain, while by the end of that career they are typically doing not much else than rehashing old concepts and coasting on their reputation as a revered veteran. And unfortunately there's not much better example of this than the Japanese surrealist titan Haruki Murakami, who just turned 65 this year and has now put out close to twenty books; for while I was as big a fan as everyone else during his '80s heyday of such classics as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (still to this day the best novel he's ever written), I have to admit that I've been intensely disappointed by the last three books in a row he's published, not just 2007's After Dark (a.k.a. "Murakami Lite") and 2011's career nadir 1Q84 (what will undoubtedly go down as one of the most overhyped novels of the entire 21st century), but now also his new Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which feels like a book he was excited about starting but then completely lost interest in about halfway through.
A book riddled with the usual Murakami touches (an obsession with Western classical music, a young Japanese male narrator who prefers coffee over tea, a romantic interest with distinctive ears, references to evil spirits who haunt our dreams, etc), Colorless nonetheless starts out looking like something we rarely get from the author, which is a deep character study grounded in the real world with only a light plot skeleton holding it together; it's the story of our eponymous hero, who as a teenager had four best friends who each by coincidence had a color in their last name, until all of them suddenly and angrily rejected him from the group in their twenties for no discernible reason, with Tsukuru only now in his late thirties deciding to track each one down and find out what exactly happened two decades previous, because of a new girlfriend who feels that he needs closure over this part of his life. And for most of the book, this is indeed just enough of a story to make a highly readable and intriguing tale, as Murakami shows us the twisting fates of each of the friends in middle-age, and makes a lot of insightful comments about the slippery nature of memory, the fragile nature of friendship, and the surprises in life that greet all of us as we become older and hopefully wiser people.
The problem, though, is that Murakami never does anything with all this, letting the story peter out into a little nothing whimper by the end; we never learn the answer to the plot's central mystery (or, that is, we learn superficially why the friends rejected Tsukuru, which I'll let remain a surprise, but we never learn why the thing happened that led to the rejection), and our hero never comes to any kind of resolution about it all, simply drifting off into contemplation as a way of unsatisfactorily ending the novel. And in the meanwhile, the book is full of annoying distractions as well that seem to have no purpose: Tsukuru's middle-aged girlfriend turns out to already have a lover, but we never learn why she's dating Tsukuru as well or what she plans to do about it all, plus there's an entire subplot about a male friend Tsukuru has as a twentysomething, who he may or may not have had a homoerotic experience with, which might've instead been an intensely real-seeming dream, and who suddenly disappears before anything else happens and never enters the story again. It all adds up by the end to a reading experience that was never actively horrible, but that left me at the last page scratching my head and thinking, "Why did I even bother reading this?" And the answer is because it's Haruki Murakami, and a man with Haruki Murakmi's reputation gets an automatic read from me no matter what the new book is, even as those books keep becoming more and more dissatisfying with each new title. Granted, at this point I'll probably still keep reading each new one as they come out, but I have officially given up on the idea of this once mighty author ever putting out again anything that comes even close to the amazing, powerful novels of his youth.
Out of 10: 7.0