Barring the creator of an improbably popular boy-wizard, how many authors in the world today could coax more than a hundred people into a bookstore at midnight on a humid Monday evening for the publication of a new novel? Earlier this month, dozens of people crammed into Elliott Bay Book Company to buy Haruki Murakami's newest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, on its day of publication. The mood was downright festive. People participated in a black-and-white costume contest. Some unlucky bookseller spent hours cutting the eyes out of a stack of Murakami head shots and then taping the faces to drinking straws so that partyers could goof around with Murakami masks.
In one corner of the store, Elliott Bay event coordinator Rick Simonson looked through the store's photographs of Murakami's visit to Seattle in November 1997 and reminisced about the first time he heard the author's name in 1989 (Kodansha editor Elmer Luke handed Simonson a copy of Wild Sheep Chase and recommended it as the first English translation from "the Japanese Tom Robbins"). Everyone ate snacks from a generous-but-weird spread (an international hodgepodge that included wasabi peas, black licorice, Hershey's Kisses, Brie, and Finnish crackers) and entered a trivia contest for the chance to win an autographed copy of the book. Few authors demand that kind of adulation around the world; in Japan, Tsukuru sold a million copies in its first week of sales.
As much as his fans love him, a certain reticence is sneaking into discussions about Murakami, even among some of those faithful fans at the midnight sale. It's the kind of friction that's borne out of a growing familiarity between reader and author. Many have accused Murakami's previous novel, 2011's 1Q84, of desperately needing an editor. What was once considered to be his intentional repetition of themes—the missing women, the boring main characters, the loving descriptions of food—now appears, to some, to represent a startling lack of imagination. The strange, dreamlike aura of Murakami's prose appears a little less strange after you've read around nine of his books. People levy these critical barbs at Murakami with an affronted hurt that seems to spring from personal injury, as though they've been betrayed. It's impossible right now to ascertain whether these charges are fair or not—the arc of an author's career isn't fully visible until the author's career is over—but they are increasing in volume and in passion, and they are not going away.
As for me, I think Tsukuru is his best book in more than a decade, since 2001's Sputnik Sweetheart. On the spectrum of Murakami weirdness, it falls much closer to Norwegian Wood's naturalism than the science-fictional surrealism of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. The plot is fairly straightforward: As a boy, Tsukuru Tazaki defined himself through his friendship with four other kids. The five of them shared a special bond, an innate understanding and bone-deep empathy. Then, one day, for no apparent reason, the four other friends completely shut Tsukuru out of their lives.
For Tsukuru, the experience of being ostracized was an unparalleled trauma: "All that remained now was a sort of quiet resignation. A colorless, neutral, empty feeling... His feelings were wrapped in layer upon layer of thin membrane and his heart was still a blank, as he aged, one hour at a time." He lives a characterless life as a designer of train stations until someone convinces him to seek out his old friends and find out why they severed him from their lives.
And here's where the jaded Murakami fans begin to roll their eyes: Oh, God, another protagonist living a life with no friends, no hobbies, and no real interests? Another super-vague mystery to be partially solved by a bland central character? Well, yes. But Murakami clues the reader in to the fact that he's aware this is ground he has traveled before. Tsukuru remembers himself as "decent-looking, though unthreatening and unfocused," but his friends describe him as a handsome and intelligent young man—the exact opposite of a traditional Murakami hero. It's as though Murakami is chastising us for taking his protagonists' blandness for granted through the years. As Tsukuru's quest continues, he displays more and more agency as he reunites with his old friends. The book's central mystery is resolved fairly early into Tsukuru's quest, and while many of Murakami's novels become more ambiguous as they conclude, Tsukuru achieves a fair amount of clarity. It's positively un-Murakamian.
This novel is deeply interested in acknowledging and amending past mistakes, in discovering ways to move forward and to change. There's plenty of the familiar Murakami in Tsukuru, but there's also an indication that his evolution is perhaps not complete. Murakami gestures to a warmth that has never before existed in his spare prose, a suggestion that though it's impossible to reclaim the happiness of the past, there's always the possibility of finding some different kind of happiness tomorrow, if you're willing to reach for it.