This novel was my first taste of Murakami, and while I found it a fascinating (and not Japan-specific) foray into the minds of 20-30 somethings, I found Murakami’s story rather emotionally chilly. Of course, any book which devotes at least half of its pages to death, death wishes, and repressed sexual urges, is bound to be more than a little chilly, even downright depressing, but the book is saved by a combination of sometimes lovely prose, a mystery that kept me turning pages almost despite myself, and a more or less satisfying conclusion.
The story takes place in Japan and is centered around 30-something Tsukuru Tazaki, an engineer who builds railroad stations and who otherwise exists within the four walls of his home, or more properly, within the unanimated clay that constitutes his own self. He has no real friends, no real links to his family, no passions or interest. His life is ordered precisely, but he is trapped in the quicksand of his own existential angst. Tazaki had grown up as part of a uniquely intimate quintet of friends, until the year he left for Tokyo to go to college and was abruptly and devastatingly cut off by the two girls and two boys who had been his soulmates. No explanation is offered, and for the next 15 years, Tazaki remains convinced that it was his colorlessness, in fact, his “unloveableness,” that led to his exiled state.
There is a brief interlude in his life where Tazaki meets a fellow swimmer who brings music, philosophy, and companionship into his life and he abandons his suicidal thoughts, but his friend’s sudden disappearance from his life is yet one more trauma he is unable to fathom. It is not until an enigmatic woman enters his life and demands that he face these traumas head on and demand explanations that will enable him to move forward with his life, that the book surges ahead. Tazaki goes on a pilgrimage to confront his former friends, and learns a shocking truth.
Murakami’s books are often a blend of reality and fantasy, and this one, while staying mostly in the realm of the real, has enough strange moments that I occasionally found myself blinking in confusion and forced to go back and re-read sections, sometimes several times. There is at once a simplicity to the plot and yet a profundity to the story that is intriguing and left me inexplicably haunted by some of the themes it raises, which in turn went a long way toward explaining the immense popularity of Murakami’s books in Japan and, increasingly, worldwide. And yet…. I am somehow not compelled to read others of his works. Hmm.