The incredibly popular Japanese writer just released his latest book in English . It’s a departure for him, and for me. (Minor spoilers, insofar as a Murakami book can be spoiled.)
Chris Ritter for BuzzFeed
When I picked up my first book by Haruki Murakami, somewhere around the start of high school, I did not expect to like it. He writes the exact opposite of what I tend to read. I’m drawn to essays full of sharp observations and overflowing with feelings; I go for wry female writers and long, nonfictional sentences peppered with a lot of commas. Murakami writes fiction that is spare and mild. Rather than planting his feet firmly in reality, he lets talking cats and rifts in the space-time continuum brush up against his otherwise aggressively normal characters. I’ve read nearly all of his books over the past decade yet I can’t so much as recount their plots to anyone who asks — it’s too hazy, too personal, too much like trying to describe a dream once you’ve had your coffee. But at 14 I tore through the slim, strange volume that is After Dark and he’s been my favorite writer ever since.
What I was responding to was the remarkable-at-least-to-me idea that you could be alone without being lonely. I was a nerdy, obsessive teenager, and Murakami provided a template for introspection that felt downright revolutionary. His books are odysseys, most of which follow similar blueprints. A character, usually a quiet and solitary man, meets somebody or finds something or receives a strange phone call, and before they know it they’re tossed from their simple life into a winding, harrowing journey.
In the process, these characters tend to learn something about themselves; they solve long-dormant mysteries from their own pasts or open their hearts to deeply unexpected people. They’re not rich but they don’t lack for money, their apartments are tidy, and they enjoy jazz, Wild Turkey, and occasionally conversing with well-dressed prostitutes. There is a lot of sex and sometimes the descriptions thereof can make your skin crawl. But mostly there is a quietness and a strength to the way Murakami’s characters make their way through the world he’s drawn for them. They don’t question their missions for long — the philosophy being that if something’s in front of you then you may as well just do it.
I read those books so many times: Sputnik Sweetheart and A Wild Sheep Chase while I was finishing high school and figuring out where to head next; Norwegian Wood and The Elephant Vanishes during an especially lonely, relationship-less patch; Kafka on the Shore in the dining hall of the small college that became the only place for me. I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle over the course of long train rides back and forth between home and school and New York City, and when I finally moved to an apartment after subletting and squatting for months after graduating, about half of the 20 or so books that I brought were by Murakami. Even alone, or searching, or uncertain, he was there with me.
What made him stick was this central thesis, crackling throughout all of his books, that your own inner life is something worth devoting time and energy to. This is true even if you are — as his characters near-uniformly seem to be — totally average, at least on the surface. These odd adventures they had were a way of making their emotions legible, and so they helped me start to name mine. Because that’s the real fantasy: What if you could revisit your old confusion, your sorrow, your trauma, and wend your way back through to its core? What if it could be made physical, the inward quest turned outward?
Chris Ritter for BuzzFeed
There were no parallel universes in my small Boston suburb, or on the campus of my not-quite-upstate New York college. There were no reclusive men dressed as sheep, nor were there abrupt phone calls that whisked me across the world. There was, though, uncertainty, and a burgeoning case of anxiety, and bouts of loneliness. There were fights with great friends and misunderstandings with family and a few deaths that came much too soon. Reading thousands of pages of characters making their way through not-dissimilar struggles, aided and hampered by an element of Murakami’s magical realism, buffered me and helped me see more clearly. Look, he seemed to be saying, here is how you mourn, here is how you sift back through what’s happened to you, and look again, there is still a small bit of wonder.
And so his latest book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Many Years of Pilgrimage, came as something of a shock. (A quiet, slow shock, because that is how Murakami does everything.) There is no magic in it, no thresholds into alternate universes. His usual MO — rendering a character’s emotional journey as a physical, fantastical one — falls away here, leaving only ordinary Tsukuru Tazaki to muddle through his past on his own. On the first page, we learn that at the age of 20 he was dumped by an incredibly close-knit group of friends and that his life essentially stopped there. Two decades later he’s fine, with a decent job and a promising third date, but he’s never been able to shake exactly what went wrong in that friend circle.
The book catalogs his painful, halting attempts to find out, with no talking animals to guide him. There is one moment when Tsukuru recalls listening to a story told by a friend from the past, one that the friend’s father had recounted to him, that contains a hint of something otherworldly, but only there, shrouded beneath layers of recollection, is even so much as an occult glimmer. A friend, not-quite-jokingly on Twitter, described the book as “normcore.”
I know that Murakami is so much more than his magic. His memoir about ultramarathons, What We Talk About When We Talk About Running, is a spectacular sideways look into how we create and operate, and his collection of interviews from the aftermath of the Tokyo subway gas attacks (Underground) lingered with me for weeks after I read it. He can take any topic imaginable, it seems, and imbue it with both weightiness and wonder. But the lack of fancy in Colorless Tsukuru made reading it a tougher, darker experience than I’d bargained for. Lately the anxiety that reared up in college has been back with its claws out, ripping holes in nearly everything — my job, my relationship — that I love and identify with. It’s been hard to restrict my dry-heaving panic attacks to the inside of my apartment but it’s even harder to feel alone, to feel like my brain has seized control of my body without a warning or an exit. When I received the book in the mail, I tucked into it like I was starving.
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