At first “Killing Commendatore’’ delivers many of the qualities readers of Haruki Murakami’s work have come to admire. A chilling and creepy prologue — the novel opens “Today when I awoke from a nap the faceless man was there before me” — establishes a hallucinatory mood. Harbingers of disaster mount. The tone is detached, wry, a blend of whimsy and profundity, matter-of-fact reporting and dreamy meditation. And many of the familiar Murakami preoccupations are present: a middle-aged male protagonist adrift and haunted by trauma and lost love, vinyl records, lonely men yearning for connection and transcendence, existential musings, talking creatures, the need to reconstitute identity in the face of loss and disorientation.
This is the first Murakami novel in a good while to feature exclusively first-person narration, this time by a 36-year-old portrait painter whose six-year marriage has recently dissolved. Reeling and aimless, he leaves Tokyo and embarks on a road trip, ultimately becoming the caretaker of the house of aging renowned artist Tomohiko Amada, who has been moved to a nursing facility.
Strange occurrences ensue. The narrator receives a mysterious commission; he’s given a huge fee to paint the portrait of his enigmatic neighbor, Wataru Menshiki, a Gatsby-like figure, “impeccably dressed” with a luscious shock of white hair, who made money in the tech business and has retired to a white mansion across the way. A bell, ringing somewhere in the woods between their homes, torments the narrator’s nights. In the attic of the house, he discovers a bizarre, shockingly violent, painting by Amada titled “Killing Commendatore.” Elements of the painting and of books the men have read begin to appear in their lives. The line between dream and reality is breaking down.
Everyone has a secret. The Amada family turns out to have a traumatic past, one obliquely represented in the disturbing “Commendatore.” Our narrator confesses that he fell for his estranged wife in part because she “reminded [him] . . . of [his] . . . younger sister, who had died” when she was 12. Menshiki, whose mansion is rumored to contain a locked room like the one in Bluebeard’s castle, attempts to enlist the narrator’s help in a covert mission involving a 13-year-old girl. Our narrator, like Nick Carraway before him, becomes “an unthinking actor in someone else’s plan.”
These delicate, amorphous, even insubstantial materials of identity provide a richly tenuous ground for Murakami’s obsessive inversions. Art is variously real or abstract, form or formlessness, “done purely as commodities” or personal, risky, and unrelatable. Allusions to “Alice in Wonderland’’ and fairy tales like “Little Red Riding Hood’’ generate a literary atmosphere that blends the vividly fantastical and the transiently absurd. Evocations of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, as a model for penetrating mysteries, seem only to offer the image of a vain, meticulous pursuit of clues that blink in and out of view with quantum improbability.
Murakami’s effects depend on his deft handling of this tenebrous stuff. It is all too easy to reduce his work to a stale thesis about indeterminacy: as though it was all making a point about emptiness.
But this also means that Murakami’s work relies for its success on a tricky array of hard-to-define devices: mood and shades of moods along multiple dimensions, humor neither too critical and superior nor too affable and ingenuous, pacing and plotting that engage us in the details while always threatening to throw us off the rails, deliquescences and disappearances (of things, bodies, ideas, memories) that are unpredictable but not merely random.
In this book, however, Murakami seems to have lost a bit of his conjuror’s dexterity. Those ineffable effects, relying on sophisticated and probably instinctual balances of one invisible force against another, fail when things become unsteady, when the conductor falls a fraction behind the beat. At times the book reads like a literature graduate student’s fever dream. Other sections feel like a history textbook. The counterpoise of humor and poignancy so crucial to Murakami’s other works feels awkward. Halfway through, the plot runs out of steam and invention. What remains is a strangely naked exploration of Ideas and Metaphors (the volume is in two books: “The Idea Made Visible” and “The Shifting Metaphor”).
The problem of being just off extends to a subject whose cultural delicacy has in the past been well-served by Murakami’s typical lightness of touch. Depicting male characters as breast-crazed is a hallmark of his fiction (our narrator admits to a “fear about women with larger than normal breasts” and to thinking of his sister every time he looks at or touches the small breasts he finds attractive). These potentially dicey topics have previously seemed just another facet of his characters’ splintering, refractory consciousnesses: It’s part of what happens when their depths float to the surface. But here, Murakami’s handling is weirdly coarse. It is the 13-year-old herself who is now obsessed with her breasts, and this obsession is the most important thing about her. Her relationship with the narrator, who is first her art teacher, then her portrait painter, is built in large part around the “breast question.”
“Killing Commendatore’’ seems a hanging curveball, among the many darting sliders and knuckleballs of Murakami’s previous works. And Murakami is not a writer whose pitches you wish to hit (or generally can). Those of us who have long adored this author’s unsettling, surprising, poignant fictions now await the next delivery by a virtuoso at the top of his game.
By Huraki Murakami
Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen
Knopf, 681 pp., $40
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’