I think what makes just about everyone, myself included, swoon into this story is reading one's own romantic destiny between the lines. Most of us find ourselves beholden to a profound but unrealized love at some point, rife with speculation about what might have been or could be. It’s heady stuff, as maddening as it is compelling, especially when you can follow a trail of persistent intent repeatedly foiled by cross purposes. Anyone who knows about that can appreciate lovers desperate to reach each other across parallel worlds, and the vicarious satisfaction of such a story is hard to resist.
My problem with this take on that dilemma is that it reads like two books, one magical and engaging and satisfying, the other pedantic and annoying and disappointing. Fitting, in a way, for a story about parallel worlds, but unintentional, I think, and frustrating. The "good book" is a finely crafted mystery with compelling main characters that kept me turning pages, eager to follow their paths, and a fascinating take on the dynamics of imagination and reality via the novel itself as metaphor.
“Reading novels was just another form of escape. As soon as he closed their pages he had to come back to the real world. But at some point Tengo noticed that returning to reality from the world of a novel was not as devastating a blow as returning from the world of mathematics. Why should that have been? After much deep thought, he reached a conclusion. No matter how clear the relationships of things might become in the forest of story, there was never a clear-cut solution. That was how it differed from math. The role of a story was, in the broadest terms, to transpose a single problem into another form. Depending on the nature and direction of the problem, a solution could be suggested in the narrative. Tengo would return to the real world with that suggestion in hand. It was like a piece of paper bearing the indecipherable text of a magic spell. At times it lacked coherence and severed no immediate practical purpose. But it would contain a possibility. Someday he might be able to decipher the spell.”
It’s the transposition part that falls short in Murakami’s telling. Mostly it’s a problem with the second half of the story, but increasingly it happened this way: The spell was abruptly broken by language lapsing into tedious clichés and repetition, or overly drawn secondary characters and scenarios that began to seem an excuse for avoiding the main ones, as if Murakami wasn’t up for seeing things through. He fails to hone several of the telling details presented in the first half of the story, and the journey is hindered by pointless detours that sidetrack the potential. I’ve read some attempts to explain these shortcomings as literary devices or artistic license, but I remain unconvinced.
There's enough really good language to out-voice the bad, which is why I kept reading. I don’t know how much of the language issues can be blamed on translation, but it’s hard to imagine a faulty translation getting past the gatekeepers of an author of this caliber. More likely the problem is editorial. Murakami’s become a celebrity, and celebrity authors are rarely beholden to editors, and sometimes the writing suffers, even that of a gifted writer, which Murakami clearly is. Even so, three stars for being a magical story I don’t regret reading and, despite the disappointments, vicariously enjoyed very much.