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4.0 out of 5 stars It's easier to get into Murakami as a storyteller than as a philosopher, August 31, 2009
This review is from: Kafka on the Shore (Hardcover)
The adjective inevitably attached to Haruki Murakami is "metaphysical." There certainly is some Hegel in Kafka on the Shore, delivered in the form of a lecture by a woman of the night after a "totally artistic act of [pleasuring a man]," and immediately after a quote from Henri Bergson. I'm told enrollment in philosophy Ph.D. programs shot through the roof, so to speak, after Kafka came out.

It could be that I'm just not bright enough, but I didn't really grasp the metaphysics in Kafka on the Shore. I'm similarly mystified by the supposed depth of Paul Auster's writings; I love The New York Trilogy and Oracle Night but the philosophy in each seemed to me an excuse for laziness. We're moving along in three meta-mystery novels, when it turns out that the lens turns in on the detective. Or we're hiding in a dark basement, when the lens turns in on the protagonist. It's an excuse not to end a story while pretending that you have.

Fortunately, I'm pretty sure that Murakami's supposed metaphysical genius says more about the laziness of book reviewers than it does about Murakami. Most of what makes Kafka on the Shore, and After Dark, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle enjoyable, is Murakami's facility as a storyteller. Wind-Up Bird is a constant tease, and so is Kafka on the Shore. We start Kafka with two my God, what the hell is happening stories which will play out, in parallel and intersecting ways, throughout the rest of the book. On the one side, we have a classroom full of Japanese children hiking off into the hills in 1944, as the country is being bombed to within an inch of its life. They reach a clearing and stop to take a break, and every one of them falls unconscious. Their teacher stands there, stunned, before racing back to her village to get help. All but one of those students regains consciousness within a couple hours. One of them falls into a coma and wakes up with an empty brain and with the ability to talk to cats. So ... that happened.

In the present-day part of Kafka we meet the novel's namesake. He's running away from home for reasons unknown. We know it has something to do with his cruel, distant father, but that's about it. Kafka may be crazy; he certainly carries a disembodied voice, whom he calls "the boy named Crow," that talks to him sometimes. "Kafka," by the way, isn't his real name. He's chosen it as part of the new identity with which he sets out on the road.

(Soon enough Kafka receives manual stimulation that seemingly comes from nowhere, thus furthering my hypothesis that Philip Roth made unexplained sexual favors, unaccompanied by reciprocation, respectable within "literary" novels. As the novel progresses, the manual stimulation makes a bit more sense, but I can't escape the suspicion that a lot of highbrow male authors think, "Unwarranted sexual climax? Don't mind if I do!")

On one path, then, we have the brainless cat-talker (who, by the way, refers to himself exclusively in the third person: "Nakata needs to take a dump" and so forth). On the other we have a really interesting little kid, setting out into the world without much of a plan. He ends up in one of those ornate libraries specializing in obscure forms of literature; it's the only place where he can expect to be left alone as he formulates a plan for his next steps. He meets its librarian, Oshima, and its head, Miss Saeki. Everyone's got some terrible secret. Sometimes the secrets are actually nauseating. The story is always gripping.

We flip back and forth between the two threads. They come closer together, and eventually the flipping happens every few pages. Murakami knows how to nail his dramatic pacing. You won't put this book down once you pick it up.

By the end, a lot remains unanswered. I think that's almost a definition of a "Murakami novel", but somehow it's less frustrating here than in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The storytelling more than makes up for any leftover plot holes. I'm unwilling to call Kafka "metaphysical," though. That word shouldn't just be a synonym for "vague."
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