Why Haruki Murakami Inspires Midnight Madness

A new book by Haruki Murakami, as Patti Smith said yesterday, carries the same weight as a CD release by Bob Dylan in the '60s. There will be midnight release parties (Aug. 12) for “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A novel” in Wichita, Seattle, Brooklyn and even Oxford, Mississippi. (None in Boston, according to his publisher.)

Why are people lining up for this odd duck of a writer, a quasi-absurdist, somewhat depressive Japanese novelist whose last three-volume set, “1Q84,” at close to 1,000 pages, had to try the patience of his firmest fans, myself included?

The answer is that readers just love spending time in Murakami’s Bizarro Universe, no matter what's going on there. A lesser episode of one’s favorite TV series isn’t cause for alarm; it still has the actors, cinematography, sensibility that can feel like a warm bath (even if it’s a “Breaking Bad” or “Sopranos” bloodbath).

Not all writers are capable of providing that same sort of feeling. A bad Norman Mailer or John Updike novel is a bad novel. A bad Murakami novel is still a walk in a brilliant friend’s company, which is why “1Q84,” the stuck-in-place story of a female assassin, didn’t feel like a forced march.

“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki” is at the opposite end of the pole. A mere 386 reduced-size pages, it feels like a very unambitious book, as if Murakami is saying, “Even I need a break after that last one.”

On the face of it, Tsukuru is like his other protagonists — diffident, longing for connection, something of a beta dog but curious what he can learn from the alphas whether they be male or female. Unfortunately, Tsukuru lives up to the “Colorless” title a little too closely; he’s more of a cipher than the usual Murakami stand-in.

Tsukuru has been abandoned by his four closest friends, without explanation, when he’s in college. He’s alone, bereft, as if his whole world has been taken away. He toils on as an engineer, depressed if not suicidal, plagued by frighteningly orgasmic dreams, until he meets Sara, who tells him he has to seek out his friends and find out what happened if he wants to be Sara-worthy.

Hence the pilgrimage. And I was with him every step of the way, even if it wasn’t the exciting journey of his other novels, particularly his masterpiece, “Kafka on the Shore” — the place to start for the curious.

I’m not giving anything away by saying that Tsukuru isn’t as colorless as he thinks he is, or as I’m making him out to be. And the book features all the dualities that Murakami has fashioned into such a fascinating literary persona — realism and magical realism, embracing the present and nostalgia, sexual daring and reservation, humor and pathos, navel-gazing and getting out into the world, Japanese and Western culture. It is “and,” not “vs.” One doesn’t negate the other in Murakami’s world.

He speaks of those dualities in terms of his protagonist, Tsukuru, after one of his erotic dreams:

"… a complex mix of emotions always struck him. A strange mix of guilt and longing. Special emotions that arise only in a dark corner unknown to other people, where the real and the unreal secretly mingle."

He also has exquisite taste in culture, whether rock, jazz or classical music and in books and movies of all kinds. (See below.) Sometimes the references seem like name-dropping, more often it’s underlining what’s happening in the story, as in making Liszt’s “Années de Pèlerinage” the soundtrack for the book. And not just any old Liszt, but Lazar Berman’s Liszt. (He sold me, I bought the three-CD set.)

It’s Murakami’s voice that unites it all. A bit mournful, but romantic in the end. Colorless Tsukuru or sexy assassin, Murakami strives to keep their heads above water, weathering their abandonments, embracing whatever color they find along their various pilgrimages.

“Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki” is far from Murakami’s best work, but it’s still emblematic of why people line up for midnight release parties. His writing is one of those colorful diamonds that millions of readers seek whenever they crack open a book.

What's on your iPod, Haruki?

(Music cited in “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki”)

  • Liszt, “Annees de Pelerinage,” Lazar Berman
  • Thelonius Monk, “ ‘Round Midnight.”
  • Elvis Presley, “Viva Las Vegas.”
  • Schumann, “Traumerai,” from “Scenes from a Childhood.”
  • The music of Sibelius

What’s on your Kindle, Murakami?

Arthur Conan Doyle in 1923. (AP)
Arthur Conan Doyle in 1923. (AP)

(Books cited in “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki”)

  • Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World.”
  • Arnold Wesker play, “The Kitchen.”
  • Aldous Huxley, “The Doors of Perception.”
Headshot of Ed Siegel

Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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