on July 29, 2005
I guess from other reviews that I'm not the typical reader of this sort of book - some of the other reviews go way over my head, which might suggest that the book did, too. Unlike many readers, I'd never heard of this author, nor have I studied philosophy or metaphysics, nor did I appreciate any of the clever references to other works which I gather are in the book. So my review is based on the book alone without any external context or any expectations of this author at all. I picked the book up more or less at random from a public library shelf because it looked interesting.
The first half of the book had me sitting up reading in the early hours of the morning, it was that good. I'd never read anything quite like it and was fascinated to see where the story was going to go. I appreciated the book's readability too, with the author conveying complex ideas without getting bogged down in complex language. Some of the reviews I've read subsequently are less readable than the book itself, so don't be put off by thinking you need to be an intellectual to read it.
Unfortunately I felt that after the first half of the book, the sense of wonder began to fade and instead of being content to be caught up in the plot I was starting to wonder where it was going to go and how long it was going to take to get there. To be honest I hung in there for the last quarter mainly because I didn't want to abandon the book having come this far. It's not that the writing deteriorated or that the storyline wasn't still interesting, more that the characters weren't developing any further and it looked like they weren't going to. The plot just played itself out and I lost that "Wow, I can't wait to see what happens next" feeling.
Nevertheless, it's unlike anything else I've read and I did enjoy reading it. On the most basic level it's a fantasy which requires that you suspend your ideas about the nature of reality and, like one of the main characters, just accept what's going on without making judgements and perhaps without trying to understand at all. I can't say that it was an entirely satisfying read from cover to cover, but there were moments in which I was totally entranced. I will probably read more from this author, especially if I find that reality is getting a bit too heavy for me and I need a break.
By the way, cat lovers may need to be warned that there is one particularly unpleasant scene; I'm not entirely convinced that it was necessary and it is very disturbing.
on August 5, 2007
I finished this book quite some time ago, and it's taken me a while to review this book, because frankly, I've just been at a loss of how to write a lucid and representative review. I felt tongue-tied and "writer blocked" in the afterglow on this spellbinding adventure. Murakami took me to realms I have not reached with books for a while now, and which I am still gently floating on. I finally did decide to write though, because I think it's imperative for me to document how I felt about the book and really try and impress upon other bibliophiles that they must, must, MUST read this!
The two fundamental themes of the book are simple, and in fact, quite clichéd: one can run, but not escape, and life needs to be dealt with; and that every person has a purpose and a destiny to fulfil. The way these themes are illustrated is, however, far from simple, and to do so, Murakami shares with us two tales: one of a precocious fifteen-year old boy who leaves home in an attempt to escape his oppressions, and the other of a mentally challenged old man who needs support on many fronts to just go through daily life, but has curious abilities like being able to converse with cats and making fish rain from the sky. Both the protagonists undertake fascinating physical and metaphysical journeys which inevitably weave together at the end, but in very unusual and interesting ways. Accompanying them, or somehow associated with them, on these journeys are just a handful of other characters, who while clearly playing a supporting role, are essential to the "success" (as in some logical conclusion) of the journeys, and are enchanting in their own right.
Murakami is very successful in illustrating the key themes of the book by the end (and in fact through most of its course), even though the plot is full of events that are oftentimes difficult to follow and challenge ones understanding. The book clearly demands a suspension of physical belief (refer fish example above), much in the vein of the magic realism of Marquez and Rushdie, but somehow, it doesn't feel the same. Similarly, while it deals extensively with the abstruse and the subconscious, it does not feel like surrealistic. Instead, all the unreal parts feel very natural, and it's very easy to accept them, just like it's easy to accept the myriad of contradictions that Japan (where this book is set) seems to be. Pulling this feat off is one of the most admirable stylistic achievements of this book. Another superb aspect of this book is the characters that Murakami has created. The breadth of the characters from the two protagonists through the hilarious avatar of Colonel Sanders to the confused gay "woman-in-man's-mind" is only matched by the depth of exploration of each character. The characters draw the reader into their minds and lives, allowing the reader to understand and empathize with them to very great extents, which is remarkable given the complexity and unreal nature of a lot of the characters.
The one aspect of the book which I can imagine some readers will find frustrating is the number of events, fringe characters, situations, dialogues, and sub-plots that seem to have no bearing on the main story or the plot. I, personally, learnt a new lesson from Murakami's narrative escapades and fertile imagination. Murakami very explicitly talks about metaphors throughout the book, and I think it has a purpose. The purpose was exactly to help the reader get rid of conventional thinking and reading approaches. After being perplexed for a while, I realized that all these inexplicable things were themselves metaphors, or analogies, or abstract concepts, which needed to be accepted as such without being taken literally. Once you stop doing that, and just feel them and the impact they make on your mindset rather than looking for literal bearings on the story, everything falls into place and the reading gets taken to a new level of beauty altogether. I think this is the greatest strength of the book, not its greatest weakness, and would urge readers to take this approach so that they can truly relish this wonderful adventure.
In conclusion, I strongly recommend reading, and even owning this book. I can easily imagine that this is a book you will want to go back to again and again, if not for the whole book, for many small aspects at least. Have fun!
Kafka on the Shore is at once familiar and unfamiliar to readers of past Murakami stories: in story and in plotting it is reminiscent of past works of Murakami; the Tamura Kafka storyline is in many ways a re-telling of Hard-Boiled Wonderland, and the split narrative style also reminds one of that book. Indeed, many times throughout the book I found myself thinking that Kafka on the Shore felt like a kind of summation of Murakami's works, all the way from Hear the Wind Sing through After the Quake in terms of style and plot elements.
Despite the many familiar elements, there are several significant deviations from the usual formula, starting with the protagonist Tamura Kafka. Unlike the typical 30-something "everyman" familiar to readers of Murakami, Kafka on the Shore features the young and proactive Tamura Kafka and to the best of my knowledge is the first of Murakami's novels to be written half in the third person, giving Murakami a bit more freedom in telling this tale from different characters' perspectives. More important than narrative technique was Murakami's approach to the story: whereas many of Murakami's novels are full of a sense of loneliness and a feeling that the characters are chasing after something which is already beyond their reach, Tamura Kafka is very much in charge of his own destiny as his choice at the climax of the novel indicates.
Although Kafka on the Shore started off wonderfully, by the second half of the book, the plot became unusually linear and predictable for a Murakami novel. The Nakata/Hoshino plotline in particular was cryptic without the scope or wonder of Wind-Up Bird, for example. Oshima, one of the most interesting characters Murakami has created (and that's saying a lot) is sadly underused in the second half. Murakami's use of corporate icons and feminist figures is awkward and a bit forced. In general, what starts off with the potential to be Murakami's masterpiece falls a bit short in the end.
Part of the problem is that Kafka on the Shore feels like Murakami is undergoing a shift in style and in substance but it is a little unclear where he is trying to go to. Unfortunately, his latest novel, After Dark, does not clear up the issue either. As Murakami has aged, his protagonists have gotten younger (a 15-year old boy in Kafka and a 19-year old woman in After Dark) ... but they often seem like a middle-aged "everyman" trapped in a young person's body. It will be enjoyable to see what direction Murakami takes in the future, but compared to his works of the '80s and early '90s, Murakami's recent works have retained his energy ... but lost a bit of the soul that make a Murakami novel an experience greater than the sum of its parts.
on July 27, 2005
Reading Murakami is a bit like going into therapy. The images and dreams can seem familiar and identifiable to others, but they are also full of personal meaning. Each book tightens the web of associations and memories for Murakami readers; as result they end up talking about other books in order to understand the novel at hand. (This is true with other writers as well, of course, but Murakami intentionally ventures into the dark psychological realm.) I loved this novel, and found it a very satisfying extension and refinement of his work, particularly Hard-Boiled Wonderland, Wind-Up Bird, and Dance, Dance, Dance. I particularly enjoyed the ending, the writer's usual area of weakness. But the book doesn't depend on the ending -- anywhere you enter, there are mental puzzles and verbal delights galore.
I dreamt more than usual while reading this book. Murakami sends me deep into myself, where I examine those feelings and forces that churn and charge forward, driving me to express my true self and to take control of my own life. As with some of the other books, I had the feeling that I was becoming more fully myself while I followed the developing situation. Much of the novel exists between two worlds, which resonated deeply with me because of the death of my mother six months ago and my heightened awareness of her lingering presence. I swam everyday when I was reading "Kafka on the Shore," and being in water was an ideal medium for coming to terms with Kafka's progress through the labyrinth of familial obligation, anger, and self-knowledge. I read Tony Kushner's "A Dybbuk" while floating in the pool one afternoon -- a play in which a "living soul" inhabits the body of his beloved. The rabbi entrusted with her exorcism fails and love triumphs in a very uneasy world: it felt like I was reading a gloss on "Kafka." I had just finished a surf novel, "Tijuana Straits," before I started this one, and I kept hearing echoes from that work (by Kem Nunn) echoed as well as sections of Richard Linklatter's first film, "Slacker." This is the process many go through reading Murakami -- all sorts of elements come to more vivid life and stick to the psychological fly-paper.
Like most Murakami novels, this felt improvised, as if he weren't sure where he was headed, but the prose was more polished and the story more buffed than the early novels. It seemed more like "East of the Sun" or the short stories, which is just fine by me. The national amnesia about the horrors of World War II was not explored as deeply as in Wind-Up Bird, but it was suggested enough to lead the reader to reconsider in light of current events in China and Japan. Among other things, Murakami is working things out in real time -- our time; as concerned as he is with the eternal, he is also writing quickly enough to let the present flicker through his words.
There are surprises, recollections, jokes, and profundities aplenty. This seems an excellent introduction to the world of Haruki Murakami as well as a step forward into the unknown that is his particular turf.
on March 22, 2007
This was my first Murakami novel and perhaps my awe with his style and craftsmanship are reflected in the five stars I'm giving it. It's not that there's any question in my mind that this novel deserves five stars, but it seems regular Murakami readers regard this book as a weak effort and if that is so, then I have quite a treat ahead of me.
On the surface this is a retelling of Oedipus, with Kafka playing the role of the son destined to unwittingly kill his father and marry his mother fulfilling the curse of prophecy. More deeply the book is an homage to Franz Kafka, playing masterfully with surrealist dreams and decaying realities. This is the story of the odd chapters, of Kafka the runaway, a fifteen year old in body but a wise older man within. On the even chapters Murakami tells the magic-realism story of Mr. Nakata, an older man who'd been in a strange accident when he was fifteen that left him without the intellectual ability to read or write. It left him as a simpleton with the unique ability to communicate with cats. Nakata, man in body - boy in mind, is Kafka's polar opposite, and their lives and destiny must intertwine throughout the tale.
Murakami analyzing the pointlessness of political positions on the liberal and conservative side of the aisle, first through a rebuttal of the feminist priorities toward a small private library where Kafka has found home and employment, and later through the voices of two Japanese soldiers who had deserted rather than fight in a war where they'd have to kill men they felt no animosity toward. The author shows the futility of forcing people to do what they don't want to do, all in the context of a story about a boy fulfilling a prophecy that he abhors.
Of particular note in the novel was his use of music as a metaphor for the actions and abilities of people. From the Beatles to Beethoven he deconstructs musical elements and parallels them to Kafka's moral failings and coming of age redemption. Just the sheer beauty of his musical descriptions was enough to awe me with the prose as poetic as any author I can recall reading.
It may not be Murakami's best, but it's worthy of five stars as it stands.
- CV Rick
I am a prodigious reader of literary fiction, yet "Kafka on the Shore" is the first that I've read so far by Haruki Murakami. He is widely popular (particularly among the young) all over the world. He has won numerous literary awards including the Gunzo New Writer Award (1979), the Noma Literary Award (1982), the Junichiro Tanizaki Prize (1985), the Yomiuri Literary Award (1996), the Kuwabara Takeo Award (1999), the Franz Kafka Prize (2006), the World Fantasy Award (2006), and the Kiriyama Prize for fiction from the Pacific Rim (2007). His fan base is worldwide and legion--most are rooting for him to win the Nobel Prize sometime soon. So, I thought it was high time that I read one of his novels. I am glad that I did.
I found "Kafka on the Shore" intellectually intriguing and compulsively readable--overall, a stunning surreal Cirque-du-Soleil kind of literary experience. When I finished the book, I was intellectually stimulated and exhausted. I was also a tad bit let down by an ending that did not seem to measure up to the magnitude of the whole. But most of all, I was powerfully confused. I am the type of reader who loves to uncover thematic meaning within works of literary fiction, but this book had me stumped.
The book is a surreal coming-of-age tale. There is an eclectic mix of genres, including sci-fi, fantasy, psychological, detective, erotica, mystery, thriller, spirit quest, and romance--they're all here--and the scaffolding that holds the plot together is nothing less than a postmodern Oedipal myth! It's positively brilliant, deliciously bizarre, and enjoyably brazen.
The more I struggled with uncovering the thematic meanings hidden in the whole, the more it became obvious that enjoying the journey thorough the story is far more important than deciphering whatever themes and riddles may be there. Nonetheless, I persisted, trying desperately to piece together a set of coherent symbolic themes. Yet every time I thought I was onto something, the interlocking concepts fell apart in the details. It was a pleasurable mental exercise, nonetheless.
Personally, I found the book intellectually profound mostly because of the small bits and pieces of stimulating intellectual dialogue and description that pop up routinely throughout the book--discussions of philosophy, symbolism, metaphysical systems, modern culture, musicology, etc. These make the reading complex and fascinating, and contribute to making the surreal appear real.
As an academic research librarian, I was challenged to try to find what interpretive spin others had placed on this novel. So I did my research as thoroughly as I could, given the time and resources I had at my disposal. There are countless reviews, on blogs, in academic reference sources, and in newspapers worldwide. There are also numerous interviews with the author about this work and others. I have digital access to all these resources and have spent many more hours than I would like to admit combing through them trying to find whatever there was that might shed light on what the author meant to convey with this work.
In the end, I actually found precious little in terms of a cohesive thematic unraveling of the meaning behind the text! What I did find that seemed significant, were various interviews with the author where he shares with us how he writes, what themes he is trying to convey when he writes, and what he was trying to do with this book in particular. Here are some of the most relevant quotations I found from these interviews.
1) SOURCE. "Author's Q and A" for "Kafka on the Shore" posted on the Murakami's Random House Website.
QUOTE. Murakami writes: "'Kafka on the Shore' contains several riddles, but there aren't any solutions provided. Instead, several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It's hard to explain, but that's the kind of novel I set out to write."
2) SOURCE. Interview with Murakami in the "Irish Times" (May 17, 2003, p. 60).
QUOTE: The interviewer writes: "Murakami writes as if in a dream. Not a sleeping dream--he is no richer in night dreams than anyone else, he says--but a waking dream, one he can control. And he demonstrates--hands outstretched, fingers moving on an imaginary keyboard, eyes drooped. 'And dreaming like this, this is fiction,' he says. 'It is exciting. I don't do any planning when I start to write. I just begin and follow my dream.'"
Further on, Murakami says: "Young people today are so helpless. The world they are in is so controlled it's not easy for them to find a way out. They are very thirsty and they absorb anything, naturally and eagerly. And stories, if they are good, they offer a way out. Not in reality perhaps, but in their heads, and that's a help. In that inner-space world you can find a special place for yourself. My books offer a sense of freedom from the real world."
Later in the same interview, Murakami says: "I believe the purpose of writing a novel is to write in a very simple, neutral prose and to write a very complex, deep story...Some writers do the reverse. They are using very complex language to make up a very simple--I would even say shallow--story. And I don't think that's right."
3) SOURCE. Interview with Murakami in the "Paris Review" (Summer 2004, Issue 170, p. 115-151).
QUOTE. Murakami says: "We are living in a fake world; we are watching fake evening news. We are fighting a fake war. Our government is fake. But we find reality in this fake world. So our stories are the same: we are walking through fake scenes, but ourselves, as we walk through these scenes, are real. The situation is real, in the sense that it's a commitment; it's a true relationship. That's what I want to write about."
4) SOURCE. Interview with Murakami in the "The Times" (London, Jan 22, 2005, p. 36).
QUOTE. Murakami says: "In this age, you don't know who is a friend and who is a foe--terrorism is just one example...They could be anywhere, any time, in any form. It's a more postmodern world than the Cold War era, but that's the reality whether we like it or not. Honestly speaking, this world is getting closer and closer to the world of my fiction-- more chaotic, more surrealistic and risky."
Further on, the interviewer comments: "As the Sixties became the Seventies, the student avant-gardists were transformed into obedient salarymen. 'We said that we could change the world, but nothing has changed,' he (Murakami) has said. 'The world has changed us.'"
Later in the same interview, Murakami says: "I want to be optimistic, but as a writer I tend to be pessimistic. If you don't believe something, you're nothing as a person or a writer. I want to see the good side of society but I know that sometimes it doesn't turn out that way. I guess I write about bad things in my stories, I write worst-case scenarios. Fiction is just like a dream. You have nightmares--worst-case scenarios of your mind--and they release possibilities. I try to keep dark sides in my stories--it helps to keep the balance in actual life."
Further on, Murakami says: "When I was young I thought I could write anywhere, I wanted to be free. But as I got older I realized that I can't be free. No one can be free."
5) SOURCE. Interview with Murakami in "The New York Times" (New York, Oct 15, 2001, p. E1).
QUOTE. Murakami says: "What I write are stories in which the hero is looking for the right way in this world of chaos. That is my theme. At the same time I think there is another world that is underground. You can access this inner world in your mind. Most protagonists in my books live in both worlds--this realistic world and the underground world. If you are trained you can find the passage and come and go between the two worlds. It is easy to find an entrance into this closed circuit, but it is not easy to find an exit."
Later Murakami says: "In Japan most people think that terrorism is the United States' own problem. The U.S. is the strongest country in the world and Islamic people don't like America, therefore there is a terrorism problem. But that isn't right. The same thing can happen at any moment, in Tokyo, Berlin or Paris, because this is war between closed and open circuits, different states of minds. This is not about nations or countries, and not about religion, but about states of mind."
6) SOURCE. Interview with Murakami in the European "Wall Street Journal" (Brussels, Dec 11, 2006, p. 12).
QUOTE. The interviewer writes: "The protagonist in 'Kafka on the Shore' is uneasily semiconscious of a murder he may have committed in the past. Themes of history and memory clearly run through Mr. Murakami's books. Yet he seems loath to analyze his own work for political messages or historical lessons, saying that he just wants to 'write a story.' Sending overt political messages is simply not the job of a fiction writer, he says. That's not to say that Mr. Murakami's colorful prose doesn't address serious issues. It just does so in an indirect way--which, in Mr. Murakami's view, may be even more effective. 'If you say, "I'm very sad, my dog died," it's a message--a statement. Nobody sympathizes with you,' he explains. 'In that case, you have to change your statement into another kind of story. When you're sad, when you lost your dog, you should not write about your dog. You should write about another thing. If you write about the dog, it's an essay, not fiction.'"
I hope these quotes prove helpful as you think about "Kafka on the Shore." They were helpful to me...in the end, they helped me to stop trying to find answers to the riddles. I just let the enjoyable experience of reading this novel knock around in my brain for a while, providing me with all kinds of personal intellectual introspection.
My recommendation: read the book, enjoy the journey, and if the journey awakens any special meaning for you...well, enjoy that, too.
on September 12, 2007
The title above says it all, and perhaps the reason why I have responded so negatively to the book, is because I have read everything Murakami has ever written prior to Kafka on the Shore. I am noticing many of the reviews pertain to first-time readers of Murukami, and so I can completely understand how this blatantly esoteric miscellany of all his other works might come across as the beautiful dream-like introspection, first-time readers deem it to be. What startles me however, is all the heaping praise from the regular murukami enthusiasts. It has, honestly, got me wondering if I am not completely OUT-OF-MY-GATDAMN-MIND?!?! Haha..No Seriously.
The beauty of many of Murukami's prior works such as Wind-Up Bird..[an understated masterpiece] is the subtlety in the writing, the uniqueness of the different characters [in nuanced ways] and his ability to incorporate somewhat fantastical elements, but in a very balanced manner. All of that is missing in Kafka on the Shore, where you've got hair-brained clowns like Colonel Sanders and Johnny Walker monkeying around along the way to wherever this book is taking you.
If you've read Murakami before you know that kafka always plays central but lo-key in his books, yet here the book is titled as such and the point is made over and over throughout the storyline. If you've read Murakami before, this book should read like his personal writer's exercise book from which allegories, characters, and sketches of plot have been culled to create all the books he wrote before. In Summary, this book is the hither-thither effluvia swimming in his mind that he draws from to create masterful work. Its messy and we shouldn't be reading this, I prefer not to see the little man with the greasy comb-over pulling the ropes behind the velvet curtain....that's just me.
This story appears to be about two people, Mr. Nakata and Kafka Tamura, but it's really about everyones search for the other half of their identity. There is a myth that in the beginning there were three types of people, male/male, female/female and male/female. They were cut apart, and we all spend our lives looking for our other half. Nakata and Kafka are followed on their search. There are also three minor characters who make the whole story possible, Hoshino (for Nakata) and Oshima and Miss Saeki (for Kafka).
It's interesting to note that Kafka is Czech for CROW, Shima can mean island or stripe and saeki means a marginal profit. A crow is usually a metaphor for change (neither good or evil), most of the action occurs on Shikoku which is the smallest of the "Home Islands" but the most mystical in japanese myths, Oshima is of a different stripe (read the book you'll get it), and Miss Saeki is actually a 'marginal' person. I wish I knew more or that the translator had notes to explain some others that I missed or don't know, they would make the book more enjoyable.
Interestingly enough this is simply the story of a boy going through a 'right of passage' and another being released from his mental prison. Kafka, is a fifteen year old boy, searching for a lost mother and sister, but in truth he is searching for himself.
Murakami is an amazingly well read man; this you will find out from the quotes of his characters and the knowledge of different cultures that they possess. He quotes such diverse people as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Beethoven, Hegal, Dickens and many others. They are always quoted in context and are never just thrown in the way people bandy about names to show how cool they are.
This story is a journey, and like all journeys start with the first step. The first step of your journey is to pick-up a copy and begin to read. It is definitely worth the trip.
Haruki Murakami said, in an interview, that he was trying to use simple language to tell a very complicated story in KAFKA ON THE SHORE. He lamented the fact that most authors seem to be doing it the other way around. He might be right about that, but I'm not sure why that's such a bad thing. In fact, if you take KAFKA as his argument for a new stylism, then I've gotta vote on the side of the complicated words telling simple stories.
The unfortunate thing is that KAFKA reads like the shadow of something much, much better. Or, better yet, like a mosaic of pieces that have broken off of better ideas. It's a complicated story, alright, about the intertwining fates of a fifteen year-old runaway with an Oedipal curse and a mentally handicapped man named Nakata (who, incidentally, can speak the language of cats). Punctuated throughout both stories are seemingly disconnected eccentricities: soldiers who never age, a Colonel Sanders pimp, otherworldly coincidences, dream-shifts, transdimensional beings, and -- possibly -- incest. Lots of incest.
There's a very real possibility that I found the novel so distasteful because the first tale is told from the point of view of the runaway, Kafka, who, it turns out, is a really bad storyteller. "Artists are those who can evade the verbose," Murakami writes in this novel, and yet Kafka never fails to describe in droning detail the clothing and accoutrements of everyone he meets. Maybe that's just a testament to Kafka's shallowness, his pervasive pubescent indigence, his inability to see beyond his own needs. (Although, instead of "needs," I should write "sexual desires.")
Ironically, Murakami includes a discussion on Chekhov halfway through the book. Chekhov wrote that if, in a play, we see a gun on the table in Act One, buy the final act, that gun should have been fired. It's an excellent rule, an argument not just for necessity and meaning, but also for narrative import. Murakami writes, on behalf of Chekhov, "What doesn't play a role shouldn't exist." And then he fills this book with the most bloated nonsense: an out-of-place argument against women's rights that contributes nothing to the story, detailed explanations of food and forests, and lots of lingering descriptions of Kafka's genitalia.
I get that Kafka is fifteen, and perhaps obliged to be phallocentric, but it doesn't make him a very sympathetic character, which is unfortunate, because he's half of the book. He is running away from a dark and foreboding family life, and he carries with him a disturbing, sexy prophecy, handed down by his father. Kafka behaves, at first, as if he is running away to avoid this prophetic curse (and believing this makes the first half of the book bearable), but Kafka eventually embraces his fate, rationalizing his actions by saying that he doesn't want to be at the mercy of anything but his own decisions. Romeo makes the same delusional argument at the end of Shakespeare's play, just before he kills himself. The argument in this case has a similar effect, although instead of resulting in the death of a character, it simply kills the story.
The trickiest thing to this kind of off-the-wall fiction is focus and meaning, and Kafka has none of either, although he does a lot of aimless searching for the latter. The most effective part of the book is the half that follows Nakata, a man who appears to be mental disabled, but who has strange and intersting powers. Nakata is being led by some unknown force on a quest for an "entrance stone," and along the way he encounters whisky mascots, some unusual precipitation, and a surprisingly helpful trucker. Nakata is an endearing character, if not one-note, and his story -- even with some of its unexplained nuttiness -- has some drive and consistency.
Unfortunately, it doesn't batten down the emotional mess with which it is paired. Murakami is trying to make a much larger point, he's trying to demonstrate the subtle geometry of love and loss, and longing and belonging. It's like using math to explain the motion of waves on the shore: the equations are complicated, dark, and perhaps unending (and, ultimately, unsolvable). It's intriguing, I'll give him that.
But even the best ideas need limits, and this book sprawls all over the place like a stoner who's passed out on your couch, spouting pseudo-philosophical non sequiters and self-referential witticisms that aren't nearly as sly as they think they are. Characters get into herky-jerky dialogues just so Murakami has a chance to make a quick comment on the nature of symbols, or consciousness, or what it means to exist. He crams these bite-sized philosophy prompts and lectures into the lines and instead of being profound or thought-provoking, they cripple the already glacial pace of this book.
There's nothing wrong with absurdism that a little humor and self-deprecation won't fix, but there's none of those things in KAFKA ON THE SHORE. Instead, it's a pastiche of barely edible egoism, a shotgun approach to metaphysics and spiritualism. In the last third of the book, Murakami writes, "Taking crazy things seriously is a serious waste of time...Pointless thinking is worse than no thinking at all."
I can't say I agree with that statement -- not 100%, anyway -- but if you do, then you're better off not reading this book.
The title alone, KAFKA ON THE SHORE, signals that what's inside is out of the ordinary, and it most certainly is. Haruki Murakami has filled this 436-page novel with a mysterious object in the sky, talking cats and an alter-ego black crow, an old man who sleeps for forty hours at a stretch, a hemophiliac hermaphrodite librarian, "concepts" who appear in the form of Johnny Walker and Colonel Sanders, ghosts, leeches raining from the sky, a giant slug that inhabits human bodies, and a magical stone portal to an earthly Limbo deep in the forest. Toss in some Beethoven and Haydn, Adolph Eichmann, Napoleon's invasion of Russia, Oedipus Rex, the Trojan princess Cassandra, The Tale of Genji, the Arabian Nights, and American jazz and rock music, and the result is a cultural rollercoaster ride through a sort of secular, pop mysticism.
The story line alternates between two distinct threads. The odd-numbered chapters trace the coming of age escapades of Kafka Tamura, a fifteen-year-old high school dropout and runaway. Kafka is preternaturally mature and unusually self-disciplined for a dropout, but his childhood has been marked by the sudden departure of his mother and sister and the upbringing of a cold and distant father. He encounters a series of sexual adventures on his sojourns, complicated by a bizarre connection to his father's stabbing death and his apparent completion of the Oedipal triangle by sleeping with an older woman who might be his mother.
The second story line involves Satoru Nakata, an aging man-child who collapsed as a youth into a sudden sleep along with fifteen of his classmates while they were in the forest on a mushroom-picking excursion. Unlike the other children who woke up shortly after, Nakata remained in a coma for several weeks. When he finally awoke, he could no longer read or write and had lost his memory. However, he had a newfound ability to speak with cats. We follow Nakata on a grail quest that even he cannot understand, aided by a truck driver named Hoshino whose life is changed by his experiences with the old man he calls "Gramps."
Ultimately, Nakata's and Kafka's stories merge in Shikoku, a small Japanese island, where Kafka has been simultaneously hiding from his father and from the police. Nakata unknowingly opens a door that enables Kafka to confront the truth about himself and his feelings toward his mother, a truth that allows the boy to proceed with life on his own terms, to sit at the metaphorical shore and contemplate both his past and his future.
Fans of Murakami will likely enjoy KAFKA ON THE SHORE for its offbeat brazenness and its kinky ride through modern culture, while those new to the author may find this book uncomfortably strange. Either way, Murakami's is a unique voice in modern literature, full of humor and intriguing speculations, offering a fascinating perspectives on the meaning of life and how we each find our own way to live it.
KAFKA ON THE SHORE is a literary three-ring circus, but as everyone knows, the circus is always fun. And it's also a magical place we sometimes dream of running away to join, a place where we, like Kafka Tamura, can escape the burdens of real life.