As pathetically low as the production standards for our dreams are – disjointed plotting, dim lighting, atrocious editing, muffled dialogue, and mentally unstable actors whose appearance and identity continually shift – our critical standards are even lower. Talk about a willing suspension of disbelief! No matter what absurd non-sequiturs our middle-of-the-night entertainments throw at us, we accept it all without challenge or criticism and indeed, with wholehearted emotional involvement; more so than any movie ever made or conceived, dreams can make us cry, sweat, climax, or scream out in terror.
I believe that the famed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami understands this as well as any writer or filmmaker of our time; though not all of his fictions are dominated by fantastical or supernatural events, most of them exist in a surreal other-world that is governed by the convoluted but utterly convincing logic of dreams.
The weakest of Murakami’s fictions come across as merely bizarre and arbitrary. But dreams are never arbitrary. They are ruled by a strict internal emotional logic that always seems exactly right to the dreamer, because the dreamer of the dream and its audience are the same.
In his most successful works, like the modern classic The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami’s genius has managed to make his interior, ineffable and usually Japan-focused fantasias nearly universal in nature; much like David Lynch, he appears not to be merely replicating in a too-literal way the stuff of nightmares, as run-of-the-mill horror-film makers do, but rather inviting us into disturbing dreams that we unhesitatingly accept as our own. This he does, in Wind-Up Bird, even as he interweaves an unsettingly realistic account of Japan’s wartime and post-war legacy.
In 1Q84, another of Murakami’s masterpieces (one notch below Wind-Up Bird), a woman stuck in a highway-overpass traffic jam climbs down a ladder at the side of the road and steps into a fundamentally changed reality. As the character’s world unaccountably alters, the ground shifts beneath the reader, and her odd new universe becomes our own.
As in Poe or Kafka, so too in Murakami; the power of his writing, and its extraordinary worldwide popularity, is due to the way his inexplicable scenarios haunt us and begin, though on a rational level we can acknowledge them as dreams, to seem more real than reality.
Murakami’s new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (surely among the most esoteric-sounding titles to ever ascend to the top of the New York Times bestseller list) begins with an event that, while nightmarish in its own way, is all too plausible: One day, seemingly out of nowhere, while he is attending college in Tokyo, the title character’s
…four closest friends [from high school], the friends he’d known for a long time, announced that they did not want to see him, or talk with him, ever again. It was a sudden, decisive declaration, with no room for compromise. They gave no explanation, not a word, for this harsh pronouncement. And Tsukuru didn’t dare ask.
This pronouncement, which Tazaki’s four friends do not waver from, is more than merely devastating. It is a form of soul murder.
This means that Tazaki’s attempts to track down his former friends – the “pilgrimage” of the title, which takes place in Japan and Finland — and coax from them an explanation for this cruel estrangement, are delayed by many years as he first struggles to find a reason to remain alive, and then later as he nurses his psychic wounds and attempts to recover. It is only through the intervention of a new girlfriend, in fact, that Tazaki, a designer of railway stations – railroad tracks and routes serve as a potent symbol throughout of made and missed connections – begins his pilgrimage at all.
Like nearly all of Murakami’s other work, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel, is characterized by patient, plodding and transparent prose, disturbed only now and again by an unsuccessful simile or awkward stretch of dialogue. In some sense the literary equivalent of our dreams’ “poor production values”, Murakami’s plain prose is a deliberate attempt, I believe, to stand back as an author and let his story’s disturbing events take center stage.
This lack of authorial intrusion ends up making his fictions seem peculiarly sincere and un-ironic in an age when we are continually exhausted by our attempts to suppress our emotions and pretend not to feel what we really feel or think what we really think, and thus could be seen as one explanation for his global popularity. Our dreams, after all, are always sincere; since they are all underlying message, there is no surface meaning ironically at odds with the truth that lies underneath, and this is why we accept and believe them, at least as we sleep, so completely and uncritically.
Unfortunately, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is middling Murakami, because he provides a too-literal explanation (prime Murakami might not have provided any explanation at all) for why his four friends abruptly cut him off. At the same time, a murder that is central to the plot is never satisfactorily accounted for, except as a plot contrivance, and yet another friend of the unfortunate Tsukuru Tazaki, this one a college acquaintance, disappears without any explanation at all, i.e., arbitrarily.
Like the cobwebs and spider webs that colonize a neglected basement, Murakami’s filamentous plot threads trail uncannily across our psyches. Some disappear or float away; others cling. In Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, the threads that ought to dangle are too neatly resolved, and others that should be resolved just drift away.
If you haven’t yet encountered Murakami, read one of his erotic and memorable short novels such as Norwegian Wood or South of the Border, West of the Sun; or one of his stranger concoctions such as A Wild Sheep Chase; or, or course, his masterpieces Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or 1Q84. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is worth reading (and, incidentally, worth buying for its beautiful hardcover design alone, for those of you enlightened souls who still purchase real books rather than pixels). Alas, this will never be ranked among the greatest of Murakami’s works.