Tsukuru Tazaki’s given name means “to build or construct”—innocuous and appropriate since he is a railroad station engineer. But to Tsukuru, this simple moniker signifies his own unremarkable identity in Haruki Murakami’s new and similarly lackluster novel.
In high school, Tsukuru belonged to a harmonious collective of friends: three men and two women who avoided sexual encounters with one another and disallowed any singular intimacy from taking precedence over the group. Moreover, each friend’s vibrant surname contained a color (except Colorless Tsukuru’s, a deficit he never forgets). After Tsukuru leaves their hometown for college, he is inexplicably expelled from the clique and told he should know why. He doesn’t but accepts their verdict and falls into a profound depression. Sixteen years later—having buried his grief but not the suspicion that others do not need him—he confronts his friends. We learn the grounds for his shunning about halfway through the story, and from there, the novel tumbles into the blandness of Tsukuru’s recollections and self-inquiry.
If Murakami’s authorial strength were abstract introspection, this concept may have driven a significant work about identity and otherness. But Murakami, at his best, creates a certain strangeness—not necessarily surrealism, just some sense of dissonance—that represents his characters’ internal toils. With that overlay of the bizarre removed, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki lacks the tactile urgency that grips readers to the page. Late in the novel, Tsukuru travels to Finland and notes that every Finn makes witty, albeit trite, remarks about life. The same could be said for the novel (“Our lives are like a complex musical score,” Tsukuru thinks), which, while not wrong in its observations, only skims the superficial layers of empathy and emotion.