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?
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.
I had wanted, I realize now, to slip back into Murakami’s familiar eccentric patterns, to get a little lost. To suspend a feeling or two of my own, and to trace myself in his characters’ journeys. I had wanted a cipher to show me that I too would-will-can get to the other side, and when I didn’t get that in the way I was expecting, I felt a lack. (What is the same in this book, as ever, is the soothing way Murakami describes his characters’ routines. He adores them, as do I; his renderings of what it’s like to come home to a clean apartment and make a healthy meal of vegetables while drinking half a can of beer can border on simplicity porn, and is the perfect balm for a fevered brain. I would read the man’s food diary, like, yesterday.)
But I am older now, and Murakami is too. And this book, with its roundabout construction and lack of definitive conclusions, looks a lot more like life than the fantastical tale I had been secretly, selfishly hoping for. It was exceedingly popular when it was released in Japan last April, selling over a million copies its first week. It fulfills a different need, I think, one that’s harder to define. More than any book I’ve read in the past few years, it documents exactly what it’s like to mourn for something you can’t quite name.
This book is not satisfying. There isn’t much neatness, nor is there a real conclusion to speak of, and that’s what gives it its power. I read it in a day (the opposite of its predecessor, the monstrously large and surpassingly odd 1Q84, which took me the better part of a year — at around 900 pages, the hardcover edition was not so much a subway read.) When I was done with Colorless Tsukuru, I missed it. I missed the breathtaking intimacy of watching someone process such loss and uncertainty and yet continue to go forward even without the scaffolding of magic, because what else is there to do?
“You can’t go back now?” Tsukuru’s almost-girlfriend Sarah asks him when he tells her what happened with his friends so many years before. “To that orderly, harmonious, intimate place?”
“That place doesn’t exist anymore,” he replies.
One summer in college, somewhere between Dance Dance Dance and South of the Border, West of the Sun, I interned at a magazine and spotted Murakami’s name on a contact sheet. Because I was deathly afraid of Getting in Trouble™ I hadn’t availed myself of that sort of resource before, but I copied his address down on the back of my paycheck envelope. I never did anything with it and lost the envelope shortly thereafter. And what would I have said? Thanks, man across the ocean three times my age, thank you for being odd and gentle and helping me figure out how to be a person in the world.
And it is not, I hope, just me. My sister is three years younger and in the midst of taking on some monsters of her own. When I last came home to Boston, she had raided my bookshelf, a pile of Murakami splayed on the kitchen table. I haven’t felt lately like I know how to speak to her, how to tell her how much I love her and that I see her even when I haven’t been exactly where she’s going right now. What I did know, though, was to point to the book she should start with. I am not a talking cat (to my knowledge), capable of guiding people through an enchanted landscape of their fears and limitations. But I know where she can find one.