“As we go through life we gradually discover who we are, but the more we discover, the more we lose ourselves.”
Before I begin, a note on my critical biases: I’m aware that I’m reading Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, a Japanese novel translated into English, as a white Westerner who knows pretty much nothing about Japan. There may be cultural undertones that I’m missing; if I am grossly mistaken or unaware of an important context, please do call me out on it.
Ten years ago, Tsukuru Tazaki’s four closest friends in the world all told him that they never wanted to see him again. Now, Tsukuru has met a woman, Sara, who encourages him to find out why so they can move on with their relationship.
The novel reads like a strangely Freudian kind of Bildungsroman: Tsukuru’s original circle of five high-school friends is repeatedly described as a sort of lost Eden, a perfect and irrecoverable union of souls which nevertheless relied on each member suppressing something of themselves. Tsukuru’s subsequent, titular pilgrimage is one towards self-differentiation, his forced separation from this commune kick-starting a long process of individual becoming. A Freudian birth narrative, if you will: a process of becoming an individual subjectivity.
And, like all Freudian stories, this novel is absolutely (and problematically) obsessed with sex, and sex-as-trauma.
It turns out, about halfway through the book, that the Great Separation Event, when Tsukuru lost all of his friends, was precipitated when Shiro, one of the women in the group who eventually turns out to be asexual, was raped by a stranger and blamed it on Tsukuru.
The problem with this particular bit of plot, obviously, is that Shiro gets no kind of actualisation at any point in the novel. In the present-day of the novel, she’s actually dead, killed in a locked-room mystery that never gets solved. She is, as too many fictional women are, a cipher against which the male protagonist can define himself: her actual and real trauma (her rape, her pregnancy, her murder) is erased in favour of Tsukuru’s storyline; her asexuality is pathologised and othered in a novel in which literally every character is defined by their desire; her mental illness is turned into an unsolvable mystery (“why would she do that?” Tsukuru and others say, constantly, blithely ignorant in a way which is never sufficiently problematised by the narrative).
And Shiro’s mirrored by Tsukuru’s present-day love interest Sara. We slowly come to realise throughout the course of the novel that the original harmonious union of friends was held together by a sort-of unconscious repression of sexual desire for each other; the break-up of the group is triggered by sexual violence, the discovery of separate sexual identities. Tsukuru’s “pilgrimage”, therefore, is one towards unrepressed and genuine sexual desire: desire, that is, for Sara, who is thus reduced to another trigger for Tsukuru’s self-actualisation. Just as we never find out how and why Shiro’s story ended, we never find out what becomes of Sara and Tsukuru, because Marukami isn’t, fundamentally, interested in his female characters. They’re constantly, wearisomely conceptualised as others, unknowable, capricious objects (the number of sex dreams Tsukuru has about the female characters in this novel is astonishing) which are used essentially by way of contrast for Tsukurus developing subjectivity. So the developing sexual awareness which breaks up the original union of friendship becomes a way for that amorphous, sexless group to become gendered, divided, individual.
I probably don’t need to point out how heteronormative all of this is (although one of the original group of friends does turn out to be gay, this is presented as a kind of unspeakable trauma; and I’ve already mentioned how Shiro’s asexuality is profoundly othered). What perhaps isn’t quite so apparent is just how boring all of this is, as well: Tsukuru as a character is utterly passive, his relationships with others only ever superficial, his only unique characteristic (an interest in train stations) feeling bolted-on for the quirk factor. It’s just another “geeky-male-seeks-validation” narrative (see also: Ready Player One, The Brief Wondrous Life of Junot Diaz, Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore) without any of the fun geekiness.