Recently, I’ve decided to read all the hardback books I’ve had rotting, unread, on my shelves for years. All the hardback books that I’ve transported across the UK, across France to Barcelona and, most recently of all, across the wild Atlantic.
Well, no, that’s a lie.
I’m not going to (right now) read every single unappealing hardback I own, but I will read a lot of them. Now that I no longer feel obliged to “keep forever” every book I’ve read and also given that I no longer have the near-infinite storage space that I had access to in a previous life, I want to read a load of these hardback books to clear space on my shelves. That’s why I read the Stendhal and why I read the Can Xue, and why I’ve been reading the middling mainstream novel I’ve been reading since I finished the one I’m about to loosely comment upon. Right.
It is this plan, this methodology, which led me to this novel, Colorless [sic] Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which is a 2014 translation (by Philip Gabriel) of a 2013 Haruki Murakami novel. This isn’t a book I was wild about reading, and as such I entered into with very little enthusiasm. This was both to the novel’s gain, but also to mine.
I read and loved a couple of Haruki Murakami’s novels a long, long time ago (pre Triumph of the Now), everything I’ve read since has been either deeply disappointing or – at best – fine. Colorless [sic] Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage has a pretty shit title and rather dull cover design, and as I am exactly the kind of time-conscious individual who most certainly does judge books by their covers (if I haven’t read them), I judged this one in an unflattering light.
Maybe the reason I ended up enjoying it as much as I did was precisely because of my low, low expectations. To be honest, low expectations seem to have been the cause of most of the praise I have received as a writer, so I’m really not saying I think this is a bad thing. If you expect something shit and get something conspicuously (not necessarily very conspicuously) better than mediocre, then through the comparison with your own expectations then the book is gonna shiiiiine, right? Right? That makes sense to me, at least.
Especially because now – a couple of days after finishing reading it in the first opportunity I’ve had to sit down in front of a laptop without something more pressing to do – I’m finding it hard to think of any good points about the novel. I will try to ignore the sleazy descriptions of teens and focus on the positives. That’s very generous. Much like when I was officially told by a doctor today that I’m “not overweight”, which doesn’t make sense as I’ve seen my naked body and it’s fucking grotesque.
What I enjoyed about the novel at the time was Murakami’s uncharacteristic use of an age-appropriate love interest for his characteristic protagonist: a middle class male who lives alone. However, this pairing of adults in their mid-thirties isn’t the real focus of the text: instead, the age appropriate lover insists that the man do some personal growth if he wants to be more than just lovers: she’ll hook up with a man with unresolved psychiatric issues related to his unexplained rejection by all of his teenage friends during his first year of university, but she won’t be in an exclusive relationship with a man with unresolved psychiatric issues related to his unexplained rejection by all of his teenage friends during his first year of university.
Most of the novel is told in flashback, as the eponymous Tsukuru Tazaki recalls the intense friendship group he had in high school and how they kicked him out after he left their hometown to study in Tokyo. Encouraged by his new girlfriend, the sad, lonely man revisits his hometown and tracks down the remainder of his group: one of whom is dead, and it turns out that the dead one was the one who had persuaded all the others to ditch the one who moved furthest away.
There’s an unresolved narrative thread about an intense friendship Tazaki had an university with a man who drifted away from him after he had an erotic dream about him which may have actually just been a half-awake real-life blow-job; there’s a weird story within a flashback where someone narrates a tale of their father meeting a jazz pianist up a mountain in the sixties who promises he can gift omniscience in exchange for a curse of accelerated mortality that can be passed on with no ill effects – save the loss of the omniscience – as long as the holder can persuade someone else to accept the terms before their own death. It’s a fun digression.
This is a novel full of meandering subplots: though we find out the reason for Tazaki’s rejection by his teenage friends, it is no real explanation: a lie was spread about him which – had it been true – social ostracisation would have been less than the deserved consequence. If you ignore the trivialisation of sexual assault and the offstage violence towards women and the use of a near-fantastical plot device in a false rape accusation (which I’m not really sure one should), then you could just about praise the reality of the unknowingness of ones self that Murakami evokes in this novel.
Far from trying to tie up every loose end, though, it ties up none: it evokes teenage friendships and university-aged sexual experimentation and 30ish year old ennui in the city: it’s a fine (as in “good enough”) novel. Far from perfect, but conspicuously (though maybe not very conspicuously) better than mediocre. I went in expecting shite.
I enjoyed it, but I expected not to. Also I’m on some pretty hefty new medication so my judgement is officially impaired. Lolololol. That explains it!
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