Sunday, December 21, 2014

2014 in Shit: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is one of those Murakami books that, despite being in the style of his that I prefer less -- assuming, of course, that you buy the argument that he has two primary styles, which (in my mind at least) are differentiated by, for lack of a better word, realism, and which might be exemplified by Norwegian Wood against Kafka on the Shore -- makes me want to read or reread the whole of his oeuvre. It is, despite feeling somewhat slight, the sort of book that suggests that how you read it is reflective of some fundamental assumptions you have about the author. And it is, in some bizarre way, for me at least, closer to Stephen King's Joyland, from last year, than any other Murakami novel. Colorless is, that is all to say, a motherfucker of a book.

Colorless is about a thirty six year old name Tsukuru Tazaki, who tries to determine why his extraordinarily close group of high school friends suddenly and totally cut him out of their lives in his sophomore year of college. He is dating a woman, and works as a railroad station engineer in Tokyo. His being cut off still registers as a trauma in his life, and the woman recognizes this. So he returns to Nagoya, where he grew up, and takes a trip to Finland, where one of his friends has moved, to find out what happened.

What he finds out is that one of the women, who was murdered six years prior to his search, accused him of rape. It slowly comes out that none of his friends really believed her, but that they felt the need to protect her all the same. They all open up to him, though they have fallen apart, and he ends the novel with some measure of absolution and a determination to propose to his girlfriend.

No, not really. Like Norwegian Wood, Colorless may fall on the realistic end of the spectrum for Murakami, but it's still Murakami. There are dreams that seem to possess some causal relationship with waking life, and a strictly limited third person perspective. There's a central character, a man who is a bit of a cipher, who cooks clean food and never worries much about money. If there is a second Murakami novel to compare Colorless with, I would reach for Sputnik Sweetheart. Both blur the lines between Murakami's realist vs magical realist split, Sweetheart the more of the two. Both, also, thematize certain concerns about sexuality that, while present in (I think) all of Murakami's work, are rarely worked through at any length.

To reach for another comparison, as I flounder to talk about this motherfucker of a novel: there is something peculiarly Tolstoyan about Colorless, in a way that I do not recall any other of his books being. There are the obvious things: Tazaki's occupation and passion, train stations, sees him spending portions of the novel in one train station or another. When I say Tolstoyan, of course, I mean Anna Karenina. There is no spa in Finland, unfortunately, but the analogue seems unavoidable. The thematization of sex -- and, specifically, how it, as an act, both structures and disrupts the social -- plays into this as well, as does the way in which the social is always written in such a way to suggest that it possesses the seeds of a socialist form of life, without ever quite saying as much.

Murakami writes about sex and socialism.

To pause, briefly; a reading of Colorless, which I cannot in suggest is in any real way repudiated by the book: Colorless is a book about a rapist working through the trauma of having had to face the (social) consequences of his actions. Maybe it is merely a consequence of Gabriel's less than stellar translation, but I found nothing in the novel that, taking Murakami's other books into account, can so much as be used as a coherent counterargument to this. There's some weird sense in which this book read to me (as mentioned obliquely above) like my review of Joyland brought to life. I don't know that Murakami has, before, written a protagonist for whom the reader's untempered lack of sympathy is perhaps the most reasonable reaction. Many of them are awful, of course, and perhaps it is just a sign of better reading practices, but they mostly seem to have been awful as a consequence. More later, but: unpausing.

(I hate writing about Murakami. Everything I've read about him has been garbage. Everything I write feels the same. I wish I could do some justice to his work. I cannot.)

These seeds are, I think, also where an alternate, and important, reading of the novel can be found. There is a sociality to Murakami's novels that is always pushed, relentlessly, off screen. Norwegian Wood, with its background of student unrest, exemplifies this; 1Q84, with the cult, seemed as though it was, finally, his attempt at addressing it in the text. He didn't, of course. Colorless seems, from that perspective, to be a building on 1Q84; he comes another half-step closer to addressing, directly, the ways in which the social determines (or influences) the personal. Where in the past he has elided money altogether, for instance, in this novel he gives all of his speaking characters jobs. Most of them, of course, are high paying, or, at the very least, comfortable, and none have to be delved into very far. But they are there -- and, more importantly, they suggest the possibility of a world.

The metaphor of seeds is, perhaps imprecise; the very premise of the novel, about a man who was stripped, apparently arbitrarily, of a true sense of social being -- one that, while remembered by him as being just short of utopian, was, by his own account, just as subject to internal formalization and external pressure as any real configuration would be -- provides the basis of any attempt to read Colorless as a novel of social importance. The jobs themselves are, like everything else, a consequence of how this configuration develops into the external structures of society.

Which brings up the real comparison in Murakami's oeuvre to which Colorless lends itself: Dance Dance Dance. Throw the others out the window; now we might be able to at least point in a direction that could get us somewhere.

Dance Dance Dance is Murakami's novel about architecture, which is to say it is his novel about economy. It is suffused with numeric significances; the numbered floors of the hotel, most obviously, but also its fixedness in time (a specific year). Its narrator displays an ambivalent cynicism about progress, couched in gripings about capitalism. These things are all readable as a sort of atypical set dressing for a typical Murakami journey-inward through external trappings.

The first hint that Colorless picks up where Dance Dance Dance left off should have been Tazaki's occupation; he's an engineer, sure, but he's also an architect. He works with blueprints, and, while his dream was to construct train stations, what he actually does is to conceptualize and implement modernization projects on them in order to keep them safe. The overwhelming sense of the novel is that the stations are, for him, ciphers of humanity (a trait he feels he shares), where the breadth of human life can be seen in passing through, with order and safety as abstractions through which to organize this massiveness. It is the inversion of the transition from the Dolphin Hotel to l'Hôtel Dauphin, where gaudy surfaces fail to obscure sinister undertones. There is also, of course, the dead woman, whose death is tied to an obscured action; Tazaki's dreams, Gotanda's fractured memory.

Is it clear yet that I have, for years, struggled to get a grasp on this particular element of Murakami's fiction, and consistently found myself falling short? I think it probably is.

And, too, like Dance Dance Dance, the particularities of Colorless tend to fade, at least for me, very quickly. Which isn't to say that they aren't powerful, or striking.

Proceeding, if only briefly, from there; if the roots of Colorless are Dance Dance Dance, then my suspicion that it is a novel that requires our disidentification with the protagonist seems even more relevant. Where Boku, down to his name, works as a sort of distanced self through which the reader engages the world, Tazaki is a refusal. Whether this stems from his own trauma, or from trauma he has enacted, it is important that while throughout the book he describes himself in terms of a cipher, an empty container, a temporary refuge, he is consistently described by his former friends as a bedrock; he is chosen to be cut off from the group, according to the one who did it, in part because he seems to be the only one who could handle such excommunication, and he is described by the living woman as having always been conventionally handsome. He is the only member whose dreams stay consistent; the jock works at a Lexus dealership, the nerd spouts aphorisms to retrain middle managers, and the aspiring novelist is now a potter. Where they have adapted, he has willed and worked. And they, too, confirm to Tazaki that their excommunicating him was ultimately an act of weakness on their part, followed by more. This is where the "falsely accused rapist achieves some measure of absolution" narrative comes from. I still think it's bullshit.

Tazaki has only one friend in college, after the crew dumps him; a young man named Haida, who he meets at the pool, and who shares stories and a love of music with Tazaki. Haida is a loose thread in his narrative; at one point, Tazaki acknowledges that he cannot complete his journey without reconnecting with Haida as well. Instead, he settles for seeing someone who looks like Haida in passing, and lets the whole thing slide.

There is a tendency, at least for me, to let this go as simply a tendency of Murakami's; more than many authors, it seems to me, Murakami is happy to remember that his characters, as well drawn as they sometimes are, never extend beyond their existence as words on a page. Because of this, they can be easily metonymized, some aspect of their characterization revived in a way that is as meaningful as their full return. I'd go so far as to suggest that this is one of Murakami's greatest strengths. But it also requires the reader to have a certain level of identification with (or at least sympathy towards) the narrator, if it is to be used in an argument supporting his work holistically; that tactic, it would go, corresponds to a psychological aspect of the narrator. In the case of Tazaki, it would perhaps be a consequence of his desire to find patterns which can be immediately obscured, a sort of inverse conspiracism stemming from his being the only member of his group (the source of his trauma) without a color to his name. Even as a purely craft argument, I think, some degree of this sympathy is still operative; the obvious rejoinder, the "unreliable narrator" (with its history of being shorthand for "asshole"), doesn't quite get it.

To put some wretched semblance of a bow on this bundle of loose threads, if only to motivate myself to end this at some point: What the comparison with Dance Dance Dance allows, I think, is the bones of an argument for reading the obscured social out of Colorless. The point of the focus, in the previous few paragraphs, on Tazaki and his "acts" -- scarequoted both because of their ambivalence within the fiction and with respect to the identification of Murakami's consistent tendency to play with the category of character precisely in this way -- is that the only way to grasp the socialist threads that poke out of the novel is to first find out what has been obscured, and how.

From Boku's grousing against progress to the background of student unrest in Norwegian Wood (brought up again, notably, here, in Haida's story about his father) to the utopian leftist cult in 1Q84 (regarding which is a whole other essay), these threads aren't new to Murakami's work. Neither are they valorized, by either the author or his audience. I don't know that I would suggest they should be, at least in the sense of regarding them positively; I only know (or suspect, depending) that they are there, and that they are a large part of why I continue to return to Murakami's writing, and that I would like to find out more about them.

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