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.

“When I start to write a story,” Murakami told the Paris Review, “I don’t know the conclusion at all and I don’t know what’s going to happen next. If there is a murder case as the first thing, I don’t know who the killer is. I write the book because I would like to find out.” We know that the term plot can describe not just a machination of story but also a secret plan, and if we ask ourselves whom the secret is from, and whom the plot is against, one direct object that suggests itself here is the author himself. “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.” The finite Murakami, an ordinary man who listens to jazz and runs and lives outside Tokyo and has whatever thoughts he has, in this way — through the passivity of not having a plan, and the constraint of a tightly structured day — makes himself receptive to an infinitude we might succinctly term the unconscious, or perhaps the will of the world.

How does the process then manifest on the page? I don’t want to plot-spoil Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki — the plot should be a secret not just from the writer but also from the reader — but let’s consider a short story of Murakami’s with a similar shape that in its composition we know is at an extremity of his rigorously passive writing technique; Murakami has said that he wrote “A Shinagawa Monkey” in less than a week.

“A Shinagawa Monkey” begins with a woman, Mizuki Ando, who finds she has been forgetting her name. The problem isn’t debilitating, but it’s somewhat embarrassing, and so she eventually gets her name engraved on a bracelet she can refer to inconspicuously. Then one day Mizuki sees an article in the local newsletter about a new counseling center with reasonable prices. With the help of a counselor there, she uncovers a memory of having been asked to hold on to the name tag of a beautiful and intelligent girl at the boarding school she attended as a child; that girl then committed suicide; no one ever knew why. The memory doesn’t explain the name-forgetting, but it sits there suggestively. After a few more sessions the counselor tells Mizuki that she knows very definitely why Mizuki has been forgetting her name, and that Mizuki won’t be forgetting it anymore, but she can’t tell her what she knows until their next session. Cliffhanger! When Mizuki returns the next week, the counselor introduces her to a monkey. The monkey stole Mizuki’s name, which is why she wasn’t able to find it. The monkey is apologetic. He explains that the stealing is just a thing he feels compelled to do and that he knows he shouldn’t do it, but sometimes good things come from his stealing names (he thinks that if he had stolen the other girl’s name earlier — the girl from the boarding school — she might not have committed suicide). Often evil things stick to a person’s name, so in taking names he also takes away those evil things. What evil thing was stuck to Mizuki’s name? After some mild coercion the monkey tells Mizuki: Her mother never loved her. Her sister didn’t love her, either. He doesn’t know why, but they didn’t. That was why they sent her away to boarding school. The lack of love is still affecting her — it is keeping her from fully loving the nice man to whom she is peacefully but unpassionately married. That’s pretty much the end of the story. Mizuki is cured of forgetting her name! Her counselor asks her whether she’d like to continue meeting, to talk about the other things that the monkey brought up, but the woman says, no, she can handle it, and the story closes on that tentatively happy note.

We notice that the original puzzle of the story — Why is Mizuki forgetting her name? — is cleanly resolved, in a nice, finite way. The same is true of the opening unknowns in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. But the solution to the minor mystery opens up (as it does in the novel as well) onto considerably more substantial mysteries — Why didn’t Mizuki’s family love her? Why did her classmate commit suicide? Why is there a talking monkey who lives in the sewer system of Shinagawa, and why is that monkey stealing people’s names? The solution to the original puzzle presented in “A Shinagawa Monkey” (and analogously in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki) recalls a famous footnote from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams: “There is at least one spot in every dream at which it is unplumbable — a navel, as it were, that is its point of contact with the unknown.” Freud returned to this notion later in his book, writing, “The dream thoughts to which we are led by interpretation cannot, from the nature of things, have any definite endings; they are bound to branch out in every direction into the intricate network of our world of thought.”

At the navel of a dream there is not a one-to-one correspondence to meaning, not even a one-to-seven correspondence; the correspondence is one to infinity. Again and again in Murakami’s fiction, just as a plot strand draws to a close (it was a thieving monkey) it also opens out into a vastness. What presents itself as a key reveals itself simultaneously as a keyhole. The bounded solution in the this-world translates into an unbounded space elsewhere, a place whose logic we cannot quite apprehend. One begins to feel that a desire to catch sight of these other-worlds drives the whole procedure of Murakami’s fictions. Then occasionally there is an inversion: one feels one has passed through the looking glass and come across a keyhole opening out to the unknowable world that is ours. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is not one of Murakami’s supernatural novels; it could be argued, despite some weird dreams, that there’s nothing supernatural in it at all. But just as the science-fiction novels of Philip K. Dick change the feel of his few straightforwardly realistic novels — Puttering About in a Small Land is about people fighting over money and children, yet it feels sinkholed with existential doubt and faith throughout — the supernatural novels of Murakami make the ordinary settings of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, with scenes in train stations and car dealerships, feel at times even more ghostly and strange than the deep wells and dream hotels of its siblings.

I will leave the main plot of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki unrevealed, but we can see variants of the key/keyhole structure in the minor moves of the novel: in a nested story, in an embedded locked-room mystery, in the nonresolving clues.

Tsukuru’s friend Haida tells a story that his father had told him about a man he met in a mountain lodge who had his own further story to tell — one told to him by yet another stranger. This furthest stranger had two months to live, unless he could find someone else to whom he might hand over his death, as if it were a token that could be passed. The man at the lodge was a jazz pianist who paid his room bill in cash every morning, and who said he would die soon, and who had with him at all times a bag the inside of which Haida’s father never saw; the pianist told Haida’s father that he (the father) could take the death token from him (the pianist) if he (the father) wanted. Haida’s father was himself on a sort of pilgrimage at the time; when Haida tells his father’s story to Tsukuru, Tsukuru feels a slipping in time, as if Haida is at once himself and his father, and then soon Haida himself is gone, and just as Haida’s father never learned what was inside the bag, nor what became of the jazz pianist — “All he left behind was a stack of mystery novels” — Tsukuru never learns what happened to Haida, and the reader doesn’t learn, either. Yet as the images reappear morphed — a bag is found in one of the train stations that Tsukuru designed, and in the bag is the jar with fingers in it, and other lost friends of Tsukuru’s do reappear, and Haida appears in Tsukuru’s dreams — the reader has the sensation of closure. We see this also in the recurrence of the Liszt music that Tsukuru’s friend Shiro used to play on the piano being played by Haida; though neither Tsukuru nor the reader understands Shiro — she is a navel of sorts for the novel, for reasons best left to be encountered in reading — the resonance produces the illusion of an explanation. In nesting the stories, Murakami has given them a finite boundary, from which they can recede forever inward. And by resolving his clues through associative leaps rather than within the plane of their original situations, he achieves a variation on this improbable feat — the clues do resolve, but they resolve out into an infinite space.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki also deploys in one of its subplots a locked-room mystery: a woman is found strangled in her home, which is locked from the inside, with no evidence of break-in or motive. “Nothing was disturbed in her apartment, and there were no signs of a struggle. Residents on the same floor had heard no suspicious sounds . . . Her body was discovered . . . on the faux tile flooring of her kitchen.” This instantiation of one of the most classic of mystery forms remains unsolved except via a sort of dream logic. The woman played piano, which suggests an answer might lie with the story of the doomed jazz pianist, and Murakami provides details about her house and neighborhood that seem to implicate something structural in Japanese society — Is it a suicide? — but nothing definitive is ever learned about her case.

The resolution, such as it is, of this subplot rhymes structurally with the most famous of all locked-room mysteries, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue, in which the reader gets a perfect, wholly understandable explanation of the murders of the two women in a locked room — it was done by an orangutan who then exited via the fourth-story window. (This great ape escape further half-rhymes with “A Shinagawa Monkey.”) The Poe story emphasizes how the murders terrified everyone especially because they seemed not to have been motivated by money, and then we meet the poor sailor who was hoping to make some cash selling the captive orangutan, and we learn that the way the animal came to have a razor blade was that it saw its human captor shaving in a mirror and wanted to do the same, and in this and other details the now-solved crime obliquely opens up onto the greater violences of capitalism, of colonialism, and even of the rationality and civilization that made a C. Auguste Dupin.

Murakami has said of writing short stories, “You merely enter a room, finish your work, and exit,” as if they were themselves a mystical kind of murder. Like many people, I’ve consistently preferred Murakami’s short stories to his novels. His novels often, when closely approached, appear as if sparsely pixelated; they are less noun-y, less particular, more dream-filled and ruminative. I used to think of this as a fault. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki may be Murakami’s least vivid novel of all, and yet it has changed my thinking on how his novels’ airiness can work. I now understand better what at times irritated me about the books I found myself helplessly reading, one after the other.

The vagueness of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki — it does indeed feel colorless — lets it enter the mind like a fog. The short stories, more densely sprinkled with objects and sensory detail and odd incident, remain more external. The stories allow themselves to be taken in or not at a reader’s own will. The indistinctness of the novels makes them more coercive, more like the music that Murakami’s characters listen to so religiously. I myself have long found music almost too powerful to bear; music instructs me to feel a certain way and I immediately start feeling that way, and this is not just the case with good music. But perhaps we can welcome certain coercions, though we struggle against them. While reading the simple and sometimes silly twists and turns of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, I found myself longing so intensely for an illusory home and for resolution and for the past — in Murakami, the pilgrimage is always to the past, as if reality got lost along time’s way — that at moments I had to set the book down to keep from becoming pure cortisol. The novel communicates its mood so fully not despite its lack of specificity but because of it.

Whether this is a good or bad thing remains unclear; one wants to be moved by art, and yet certain kinds of movement are kindred with Kleenex commercials. Murakami’s novels are indisputably, and quite literally, masterful. Which is almost certainly related to his attempts to avoid himself being the master of them. The master is elsewhere, and other.

As mentioned earlier, the main piece of music in this novel is “Le mal du pays,” from Franz Liszt’s Anées de pèlerinage suites. The soon-to-disappear Haida explains to Tsukuru the difficulty of understanding what the phrase mal du pays means. “Usually it’s translated as ‘homesickness’ or ‘melancholy,’ ” he says. “If you put a finer point on it, it’s more like ‘a groundless sadness called forth in a person’s heart by a pastoral landscape.’ ” As it’s used here, “groundless” is such a beautiful word, calling forth the evocative contradiction. As English readers, we are relying on the translator Philip Gabriel, one of the three translators into English of Murakami’s work, the one Murakami has called “modest” and “gentle” — the best of his translators for this watery novel.

Believers say of the archangel Gabriel that he will one day sound his horn to herald the transition from our earthly, finite world to the infinite kingdom to come. Mathematicians say that in fact it’s not true that you could never paint the outside of Gabriel’s Horn; you could, if paint could be spread immeasurably thin. It can’t be so spread, but Murakami makes it seem as if it could.

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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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