Reviews — From the October 2014 issue

The Monkey Did It

The facts in the case of Haruki Murakami

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Discussed in this essay:

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami. Knopf. 386 pages. $29.95.

There is a shape with the unusual property of having a finite volume but an infinite surface area. It’s sometimes called Torricelli’s Trumpet, after the mathematician who first described it, but it is more commonly known as Gabriel’s Horn: an instrument with a bell that narrows continually into an infinitely long body. The fiction of Haruki Murakami, which seems at times marvelously simple, embodies this same barely fathomable shape — a perfectly contained sublime.

Illustration by Steven Dana

Illustration by Steven Dana

Or so I was thinking after reading his newest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I say “Or so I was thinking” in part because that sort of gentle subjectivity is the mind-set Murakami puts one in, and also because the other mind-set one is put in when reading Murakami is that rules for how to proceed, and truths that seem indispensable, may at any moment vanish. Reality forks into parallel paths, reconverges, and forks again as elephants vanish, men dressed as sheep prophesy, women commit suicide, phantom mandarin oranges are peeled, and spaghetti is done.

Very small disturbances can precipitate these forkings. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, for example, the startle of hearing a “Viva Las Vegas” ringtone is enough to make the colorless protagonist feel “reality drain from things around him.” At another moment, when Tsukuru recalls a friend playing the piano, the memory makes its way back to him as if swimming through a waterway, “against the legitimate pressure of time.” “Legitimate” as a modifier paradoxically marks the ordinary passing of time as suspect or illusory; often in Murakami’s work, and especially in this novel, the events of the past feel more real than the melancholy haze of the present. Of his work designing railway stations, Tsukuru says early on, “I’ve always liked making things that you can actually see,” but the words sound like an unintended pronouncement of faith in the invisible. Tsukuru says these words to a college friend, Haida, who soon afterward vanishes and is never seen again.

Haida is not the first but the fifth friend Tsukuru loses in the novel, and his disappearance is not even the main plot, not that plot is central to this novel, or really to any of Murakami’s novels. The sensory pleasures of cliffhangers, clues, and storytelling strangers — these are the elements that never go missing, unlike Murakami’s people and animals. It is via these ever-present narrative ordinaries that Murakami moves the reader through the novel. Plot is not central, but it is essential. This is particularly evident in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, which has perhaps the simplest story line of any of his books to date.

Tsukuru is thirty-six, lives alone in Tokyo, and is haunted by having been abruptly dropped many years earlier by his four closest childhood friends. He doesn’t know why they cut him off: they didn’t explain, and he didn’t ask. He’s recently started dating a woman named Sara. Sara tells Tsukuru he needs to go back to his friends and find out what happened; it’s impossible for the two of them to really be together until he does this, she says. (Like so many Murakami women, she is inexplicably and immediately devoted to helping the Murakami male understand something about his inner life.) So Tsukuru sets out on his pilgrimage, visiting the people from his past, and he learns an answer — a very particular, kennable, definite answer! — to the mystery that had changed his life “forever, as if a sheer ridge had divided the original vegetation into two distinct biomes.” Knowledge gained, Tsukuru returns to Sara. The novel closes with the sense that there might now be a chance for them to share real love and intimacy. The end.

But not the totality. That’s the finite aspect of the story — its volume — but on its expansively suggestive surface there are numerous homosexual and heterosexual dreams that feel curiously real to Tsukuru, a murder by strangling with no apparent motive, an enigmatic tale told by an extremely talented jazz pianist, a rape that didn’t happen but of which Tsukuru may nonetheless be guilty, a jar of fingers found at a train station that brings up a discussion of the dominant genetic trait of hexadactyly, the differing interpretations historically given to a sixth finger (diagnostic of a witch, indicative of a shaman), and a lot of listening and re-listening to a late work of Franz Liszt, “Le mal du pays.”

The story and surface together sound both hokey and random, which points to the most perplexing part of Murakami: that his fictions are so consistently transporting. Not every time, but often enough that it seems like another mathematical impossibility. Reality dials in and out, and the work respires with genuine emotion, and this happens within and not despite the clunky structures of wondering why X has moved to Finland, what Y has inside his bag, what led Z to become a Lexus salesman. At one point in the novel, while Tsukuru’s friend Haida is playing a recording of Liszt, Tsukuru recognizes the piece as one played on the piano by one of his childhood friends. Did she play it well? Haida asks Tsukuru. It sounded beautiful to me, Tsukuru answers. “Then she must have played it well,” Haida says. “The piece seems simple technically, but it’s hard to get the expression right. Play it just as it’s written on the score, and it winds up pretty boring. But go the opposite route and interpret it too intensely, and it sounds cheap.” This description might as well apply to the notes of Murakami’s pieces, which may explain why Murakami has so many admirers, and yet, I would venture, no descendants; it is exceptionally difficult to play such notes well. Following the technical habits of Murakami as if they are the source of the magic puts us at risk of being like those storied islanders who built their own airstrips and airport waiting rooms and waited for the goods to arrive.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. Her story collection, American Innovations, was published in May by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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