Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
by Haruki Murakami

A quick, elegantly structured, and sometimes frustrating novel about lost friendships. Nostalgia is Murakami’s thing, and there’s plenty of it realized very effectively here, but two of the three women at the heart of the story are basically just plot devices. That’s a problem from the start, and it only compounds given some of the turns in the latter half of the book.

Tsukuru Tazaki is a thirty-something rail station engineer who, as a college student, was mysteriously rejected by his four closest high school friends. His present-day girlfriend Sara, a literal and figurative travel agent, exists primarily to Gandalf him through the plot, first spurring him to solve his longstanding personal mystery and then guiding him from one investigative reunion to the next.

This basic structure – moving from reunion to reunion – has a beautiful sort of simplicity, and there’s real power in seeing how a sequence of people have changed over the course of a decade and a half. But we never get more than a cursory sense of who these people were in the past: this guy a jock, that guy a nerd, this girl the arty one. That shallowness gets even more frustrating as the story begins to deal with serious trauma in one of the characters’ history, which the book treats sympathetically but thinly, and perhaps more as a plot machination than a lived experience.

There’s some surprisingly rough prose here, too. I’ve seen some reviews point out this line, which gets at both the infelicity of the language and the often shallow rendering of women:

“Just as he appreciated Sara’s appearance, he also enjoyed the way she dressed.”

Hard to know whether that’s a question of the original language or subtleties that aren’t coming across in the translation. I could imagine that “appearance” and “way-she-dressed” might have more specific and distinct meanings in Japanese. Either way, there’s more jarringly awkward writing here than I’ve noticed in other Murakami books.

Still, the novel includes some really compelling and true-feeling scenes between old friends who haven’t seen one another in over a decade. And tucked in the middle of the novel is a better short story that traces the arc of a sudden college friendship. There’s a lot of emotionally exacting characterization in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki – but very little for the women at its center, and that leaves the book feeling unfinished.

Inaugural peppers

The first peppers of the season:

More Harrowing

Some exciting reprint news: “The Harrowers” is set to appear in Paula Guran’s Zombies: More Recent Undead from Prime Books. The anthology brings together zombie stories from folks like Maureen McHugh, Roxane Gay, Neil Gaiman, Genevieve Valentine, Mike Carey, Joe Lansdale, and many others:

“Trail of Dead” by Joanne Anderton
“Rigormarole” (poem) by Michael Arnzen
“What Still Abides by Marie Brennan
“Iphigenia in Aulis” by Mike Carey
“Those Beneath the Bog” by Jacques L. Condor (Mak a Tai Meh)
“The Day the Saucers Came” (poem) by Neil Gaiman
“There is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We” by Roxane Gay
“I Waltzed with a Zombie” by Ron Goulart
“The Harrowers” by Eric Gregory
“The Death and Life of Bob” by William Jablonsky
“Til Death Do Us Part” by Shaun Jeffrey
“The Afflicted” by Matthew Johnson
“Rocket Man” by Stephen Graham Jones
“Aftermath” by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill
“In The Dreamtime of Lady Resurrection” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“Present” by Nicole Kornher-Stace
“The Hunt: Before and The Aftermath” by Joe R. Lansdale
“Becca at the End of the World” by Shira Lipkin
“What Maisie Knew” by David Liss
“Jack & Jill” by Jonathan Maberry
“Selected Sources for the Babylonian Plague of the Dead (572-571 BCE)” by Alex Dally MacFarlane
“The Naturalist” by Maureen McHugh
“Resurgam” by Lisa Mannetti
“The Day the Music Died” by Joe McKinney
“Chew” by Tamsyn Muir
“Delice” by Holly Newstein
“Love, Resurrected” by Cat Rambo
“What We Once Feared” by Carrie Ryan
“The Children’s Hour” (poem) by Marge Simon
“A Shepherd of the Valley” by Maggie Slater
“Stemming the Tide” by Simon Strantzas
“Bit Rot” by Charles Stross
“The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring” by Genevieve Valentine
“Kitty’s Zombie New Year” by Carrie Vaughn
“Pollution” by Don Webb
“Dead Song” by Jay Wilburn

It’s out in September. I’m thrilled that my bootleggers and preachers get to keep company with some of my favorite writers – the McHugh and Gay stories are both amazing, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest.

Rules of the road

Fell into a Wikipedia spiral of descriptivism and prescriptivism in linguistics, recently, and found this great post:

Prescriptivism and descriptivism are contrasting approaches to grammar and usage, particularly to how they are taught. Both are concerned with the state of a language — descriptivism with how it’s used, prescriptivism with how it should be used. Descriptivists describe, systematically recording and analysing the endlessly changing ways people speak and write. Descriptive advice is, as Jesse Sheidlower put it, almost an oxymoron. Prescriptivists prescribe and sometimes proscribe, emphasising rules and guidelines based on the conservation of customs (and sometimes a mythical ideal of correctness), and on judging what is or isn’t acceptable — which poses, among other questions: acceptable to whom, when, and why?

Maybe a “descriptivist approach to creative writing” sounds a little oxymoronic, but it gets at how I’ve tried to teach fiction courses in the past, and I think it describes how we learn to write outside a classroom. You read widely, internalize the many ways others are writing, and then synthesize what you read as you find your own voice (or voices). When you sit down to write, you do it contextually, mindful of your own aims and audiences. Supposedly universal doctrines (avoid adverbs, avoid second person, tend toward the minimalistic) are sometimes useful, but usually just the loose consensus of a particular discourse community.

That doesn’t mean you ignore rules altogether. But it means advice like “You have to learn the rules to break them” is maybe a little wrongheaded. A better take might be, “Knowing local customs is useful for a traveler.”

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