"Poets die adolescents," Robert Lowell wrote, and it's supposed to be romantic. Personally I think it sounds like hell. Just imagine: never growing out of your teenage rawness to the world, your pathological vulnerability to insults and beauty, your terrible godlike hormones.
Haruki Murakami, the signal Japanese writer of his time, is now 65, but the great theme of his novels is how we spend our lives circling back toward the intensities of adolescent emotion. In a way that seems right — from afar, at least, there is something that looks like arrest at the heart of Japan's modern culture, with its weird suicide forest, its graphic novels, its young men (hikikomori) who remain in their childhood bedrooms for years without leaving. Murakami is both engaged by that alienation and has become an avatar of it. His new novel, "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage," sold a million copies in its first week of publication in Japan.
That's not a book, it's a Drake album, and as I read Murakami's sincere, soft-spoken story, there were moments when I remembered this popularity and felt disconcerted. For such a quiet stylist to be so meaningful to so many people, I thought, he must be churning up deep waters — or else he must be giving in to their penny yearnings, the intellectual teenager's Stephenie Meyer, a fantasist of early love, early doom, early death wishes. If you wanted to make the case that Murakami is a fraud, you would start there, and then move on to the constant sense of enigma that's thrown out in his work (a useful summary of his plotting might read, "Who knows if this was actually just a dream?"), and rarely answered for. You might also refer to the uncomfortable frequency with which his female characters are merely life rafts for his anguished male ones to make it safely back to shore.
But all of that could describe, say, Goethe, too, and it would take far graver disqualifiers than these to taint the feeling that lingered with me for days after I read "Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki," a feeling of having experienced some extreme vividness, some extreme force of emotion. I'm still not sure exactly what it was. "An encounter with genius" may be the answer.
The book's plot is simple. Tsukuru, its title character, is a designer of train stations, successful but with a strong sense of disconnection from his self — a powerful feeling of absence, or colorlessness. He can trace this to an event in high school: "One day his four closest friends, the friends he'd known for a long time, announced that they did not want to see him, or talk with him, ever again." They offer no explanation. Tsukuru, alone at university, falls into a profound depression, and for more than a year thinks ceaselessly of suicide.
After describing this trauma, the novel picks Tsukuru up again in his mid-30s. Though he's superficially more functional, the expulsion still defines him, as he realizes when the pretty, grounded woman he's dating, Sara — she's the life raft here, and an almost unforgivably thin character — tells him that he has to find himself before she can love him. She researches the whereabouts of his friends (how helpful!), and he heads out to meet them, one a car dealer now, one a motivational speaker, one a potter.
The excavation of their secret is shoddy, but somehow that doesn't alter the emotional impact of Tsukuru's reunions. Perhaps this is because, as in "Norwegian Wood" or "1Q84," there is an intoxicating mood of nostalgia. Murakami's books may move within the banal dream of adult life, but their homeward pull is toward youth. "That amazing time in our lives is gone, and will never return," says one character. "All the beautiful possibilities we had then have been swallowed up in the flow of time."
This line has a kind of innocence that contemporary American novelists, sharp, restless and sophisticated, might scorn. But Murakami is like Edward Hopper or Arvo Pärt, his simplicities earned, his exactingly artful techniques permitting him a higher kind of artlessness. As Tsukuru tracks down his friends, this enables the author to ask very basic questions with new freshness: What makes a person? What was the past? And where did it go?
These are the obsessions that run across all of Murakami's novels. His instinct is always to push back toward what things used to mean; his virtuosity is in tracing the nuances of the impossibility of that return. Tsukuru's pilgrimage will never end, because he is moving constantly away from his destination, which is his old self. This is a narrow poignancy, but a powerful one, and Murakami is its master. Perhaps that's why he has come to speak not just for his thwarted nation, but for so many of us who love art — since it's only there, alas, in novels such as this one, that we're allowed to live twice.
Charles Finch is a writer based in Chicago. His most recent novel is "The Last Enchantments."
"Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage"
By Haruki Murakami, Knopf, 385 pages, $25.95Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
About this story
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, the Chicago Tribune’s premium Sunday book section. Learn more about subscribing to Printers Row Journal, which is available for home or digital delivery.