Note: This review contains very little “plot” or “content” spoilers that aren’t revealed in the first one or two chapters of the novel. Plot revelations, where they exist, are minor and are used only to provide context for thematic and stylistic analysis.
Tsukuru Tazaki is a 36 year old single train station engineer who lives and works in Tokyo. But he has a secret that has been ripping him apart for the better part of the last 16 years; during his sophomore year of college, his four best friends from High School (two girls and two boys) told him to never contact them again. They offered to explanation as to why. They would not see him. They would not return his calls.
After deeply contemplating suicide, Tazaki is finally able to move on with his life. However, he remains hamstrung by the pain inflicted by his best friends, and is forever reminded of his inadequacy, his plainness, and most of all the emptiness that resides within him.
I’ve never read anything else by Murakami, who is a highly revered author in his native Japan and has made quite a few waves internationally. This being my first foray into his work, I cannot compare it against his other works, which have been immensely popular. Being a pessimist, I’m inclined to tell you what I did not like about this book first.
1) Murakami is no minimalist author.
That isn’t to say he supplies excessive imagery or is overly descriptive of scenes, but he does take deep dives into the thoughts and contemplation of his characters, particularly Tazaki. While we are reasonably permitted Tazaki’s thoughts through third-person narration, we are offered often-excessive glimpses into all the other characters’ thoughts through their dialogue. As a result, all the characters who are not Tazaki seem like very “open” people. They all talk like they just got done reading a bunch of Confucius. It made me wonder if this was due in part to the translation to English, or if Japanese people really talk this way. Either way, the resulting effect was that the characters were a bit too contrived, too unrealistic, and much too outwardly contemplative to resemble real people in my American experience.
2) I sometimes felt I was reading a 400-page fortune cookie.
Some of the thoughts of the characters bordered on the non-sensical, for the sake of trying to sound ‘deep.’ This was perhaps the most irritating aspect of the book. It is so pervasive that I hardly have to cherry pick to find an example. I can open to almost any page and find examples, to varying degrees of ridiculousness.
“As he listened to the rain drum against the window, with these thoughts swirling around in his head, his room began to feel like an alien space. As if the room itself had developed its own will. Just being in there steadily drained away any ability to distinguish the real from the unreal…”
This style of writing is simply not my bag. If it is yours, and you found that passage to be illuminating in some way, you’re going to love this book.
3) I thought the end was weak
…and I’m not even a sucker for great endings. I don’t need a twist or even full closure to be satisfied. In this case, however, I was left feeling a little lost about all the different threads Murakami opens up throughout the book. Most of these “threads” have to do with theme, although there are some open plot threads, too. I think this mostly has to do with Murakami’s attempts at being very deeply philosophical. If he was as deep as we thought he was throughout the novel, he would have been able to tie up most of these thematic threads. I felt strung along and, well, abandoned…
Moving on to the stuff I DID like about this book:
4) 2/3 of the novel is utterly captivating
I breezed through the first 2/3 of the novel in 2 days because it was that good. For most of the novel, I could relate to Tazaki. What would I do if I’d suddenly and without explanation been abandoned by all of my best friends? That’s the position in which we find Tazaki when the book opens. We want to know why the hell he was abandoned. When he goes on a pilgrimage to find out, we are there right beside him hunting for the clues and putting the pieces together. Despite the overly-Confucius philosophical diatribes, Murakami is still able to keep our attention by maintaining our curiosity. Halfway through the book, I was certain this book was going to get at least a 4/5 rating from me.
5) Some very interesting themes and perspectives on human nature are illuminated
I won’t go into all of them because there are many, and some require further plot revelations, but Murakami did a decent job exploring some very real facets of human nature. My favorite was his exploration of the dynamic between Tazaki’s group of four friends. In sum, it consisted of three males and two females. Although they were all “just friends”, Tazaki in his later years can hardly sleep without having sexual and erotic dreams involving him and the two females in the group. Despite his conscious efforts to be “just friends,” he is utterly a victim of his subconscious. He comes to feel exceptionally guilty about the desires of his subconscious and begins to develop a sort of complex. He believes he is a monster. He even irrationally believes, to some extent, that it is because of his dreams that he deserved to be abandoned by his friends. He even hints that his dreams could have been an impetus for his abandonment. Did they see the impurity of his heart through his eyes? It is an interesting aspect that few modern novels explore; the guilt and shame imposed upon men for having purely biological and natural impulses, even when those impulses are adequately tamed.
In summary, this book was a good read and I didn’t regret the time I spent on it. In places it was both illuminating and exciting to read. It only suffered a bit too much indulgence into the pseudo-philosophical, and by the end I wasn’t entirely convinced on the author’s sagacity.