A young man’s friends shun him in Haruki Murakami’s great new novel

After he leaves for college in Tokyo, Tsukuru Tazaki’s four BFFs from high school drop him without explanation. Is it because the two boys and two girls he hung out with are nicknamed for colors and left him with “colorless,” the literal translation of his name? Probably not, but Tsukuro doesn’t know.

Worse: He thinks maybe it’s something he did. But what?

Questions beget questions in this brilliant new novel by Haruki Murakami. Tsukuru keeps phoning, but although the others stayed in Nagoya, the city where they all grew up, they’re never home to him. As an adult, Tsukuru will hunt them down one by one, to find out why.

The premise is simple enough, but in the works of Murakami, nothing is simple. The endpapers for his new novel make this clear. A partial map of the huge, complex Tokyo subway system surrounds the text. Thousands of travelers pass through central stations on these heavily traveled lines. People intersect without ever meeting. Perfect for Tsukuru. As an adult, he designs and repairs stations in this vast underground world. It’s his road to recovery.

Losing his friends almost destroyed him. “When he wasn’t thinking about death, his mind was blank . . . Events occurring in the outside world were, to him, inconsequential. When he grew tired of his room, he wandered aimlessly around the neighborhood or went to the station, where he sat on a bench and watched the trains arriving and departing, over and over again.”

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At 20, he meets Haida, an enigmatic type who swims laps in the lane next to him. For the first time since the bad breakup, young Tsukuru has a friend. Haida loves music, and he loves to talk. They spend long evenings listening to the same piece of music, and they talk. And talk.

“Everything has boundaries. The same holds true with thought. You shouldn’t fear boundaries, but you should not be afraid of destroying them.”

Haida leads him along a path that leads Tsukuru to ask: “If that’s true, then what’s the value of free will?”

“ ‘That’s a great question,’ Haida said, and smiled quietly. The kind of smile a cat gives as it stretches out, napping in the sun. ‘I wish I had an answer for you, but I don’t. Not yet.’ ”

Haida tells Tsukuru an open-ended story about his father and a traveling pianist whose last performance begins in a country inn, but he never tells Tsukuru how it ends. He says that the pianist carries a “death token.” Unless he passes it on, he’ll die. He puts something on top of the piano and sits down to play.

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Stringing Tsukuru along with his story, Haida stays over on most nights. Tsukuru’s sleep is disturbed. Is there someone else in his sealed, pitch-black bedroom or is it another of his violently erotic dreams? These dreams center around the two girls in the group that dropped him, specifically the beautiful, talented Shiro. Or is that really Haida in his bed?

As narrator, Murakami travels effortlessly through time and space and takes the reader with him. By the time we meet Haida, the adult Tsukuru is in sort-of-love with chic, lovely Sara, who says they can’t be together unless he hunts down his four former friends and solves the central mystery in his life.

There is the shunning. There is the feeling of guilt that he can’t shake. Sara researches the quartet. She and Tsukuru can’t be together, she says, until he confronts the friends one by one and asks them what exactly went wrong. Powerful, disturbing dreams suggest he may be at fault.

We are in the gray area between imagination and physical reality, where the trains run on time, but everything else is up for grabs.

Tsukuru finds the two men still in Nagoya, one of the women in Finland. And beautiful, talented Shira, who figures in too many of those violent, erotic dreams, well . . .

Welcome to the gray area Murakami explores so brilliantly. His characters’ lives spin out in the shadow of accidents and natural disasters that have plagued Japan in the decades since Hiroshima. In the wake of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, Murakami published six short stories as After the Quake. He interviewed survivors for an account of the sarin gas poisonings that killed 13 and injured thousands in Tokyo subway stations in the ’90s ( Underground, published in 2001).

Much more accessible than IQ84 and, for that matter, most Murakami titles, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki has a strong storyline and sharply drawn characters whose motives are ambiguous: a perfect introduction to Murakami’s world, where questions of guilt and motivation abound, and the future is an open question.

Kit Reed is the author of ‘The Story Until Now’ and the upcoming novel ‘Where.’

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