When the bottom falls out of your life, you can't always figure out what happened. You just have to get through it. But getting through it and getting past it can be the difference between surviving and living.
"Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage," Haruki Murakami's accessible and often moving new novel, underscores that difference, and the personal journey necessary to bridge that gap. When the novel's title character, Tsukuru, is cut off completely by his circle of high school friends during his sophomore year in college -- they won't tell him the reason -- he nearly dies.
More concisely, he ceases living. For six months, his existence is that of a ghost: no human interaction, little appetite for food or life, a despondency beyond despondency.
Although Tsukuru eventually halts his downward spiral, it's nearly two decades before he decides to find out why, nudged along by a new girlfriend who convinces him he needs to close the chapter to move on.
As the title suggests, Tsukuru thinks of himself as something of a blank. He was the only member of his close-knit group whose name didn't include a color in its meaning. (His name roughly correlates to "builder" or "maker" -- sturdy and dependable, befitting his goal to become a builder of train stations.)
So, even after he pulls out of his profound funk -- during which he all but erased himself -- he feels like he's still struggling for color and definition. At his girlfriend's urging, he tracks down his former friends to get the answer for himself.
The journeys he takes turn out to be as much inward as out of town. As is often the case in Murakami's fiction, his characters are all about introspection.
Considering the otherworldliness of Murakami's most recent novels -- "Kafka on the Shore," "After Dark," the mammoth "1Q84" -- "Colorless" is almost jarringly down-to-earth. No talking cats, no twin moons in the sky, no vanishing elephants.
In fact, the tone is often neutral, if deceptively so. One of Murakami's most endearing and enduring traits as a writer is an almost reportorial attention to detail, the combined effect of which gives you a complete picture while still feeling a little ethereal.
Because, like many of the award-winning novelist's best books, "Colorless" also is rooted in dreams. Tsukuru relates dark fantasies involving the people in his past in such a matter-of-fact way that the character himself isn't sure they're not real. As always with Murakami, it doesn't really matter if they are real: It's the feelings they evoke that matter.
Like many of Murakami's best novels -- especially his landmark coming-of-age novel, "Norwegian Wood" -- "Colorless" is also rooted in music. (Murakami owned a small jazz bar in Tokyo when he was younger, and music is such a part of his books that a previous publisher even posted a "Murakami Mix" of music referenced in his earlier books.)
The "Years of Pilgrimage" in the title is a reference to a passage from Franz Liszt's "Years of Pilgrimage" suite, which figures in Tsukuru's more innocent youth, in the friendship that helps him rein in his despair and in the closure he seeks with his past. Ever the musicologist, Murakami even cites the pianist (Lazar Berman); the passage, "Le Mal du Pays" (roughly, "Melancholy"); and the interpretations that other players bring to it.
For Tsukuru, as for many other characters in Murakami's repertoire, focusing on music brings a sense of release, of clarity, of peace. And it also brings a sort of timelessness, as if his pilgrimage's destination, wherever it takes him, is home.