Introduction to Kafka on the Shore
by Dennis Abrams
If Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World was an odd (albeit wonderful) introduction to Murakami, and if The Wind-up Bird Chronicle was too long and unwieldy, then you’re in luck, for in my opinion, Kafka on the Shore is Murakami’s most “perfect” and (at least to date) best novel.
I mean, who wouldn’t enjoy a book that along with Murakami’s usual assortment of extraordinary characters and happenings and philosophical musings also offers up such delights as fish falling from the sky, conversations between man and cat, a truly supernatural Colonal Sanders, ghostly lovers, a deep-thinking prostitute, World War II soldiers untouched by time, and much more.
To give you a little taste of what you’ve got in store for you — from Jay Rubin:
“Murakami had long been wanting to write a sequel to Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and Kafka on the Shore was as close as he felt he could come. Too much time had gone by, he said, for it to be an immediate sequel, and so it followed the earlier work more ‘in spirit’ than as a continuation of the story, but the echoes are unmistakable. As in Hard-boiled Wonderland, there are two parallel narratives from beginning to end, and the reader is held in suspense as the developments seem to draw the separate groups of characters in each narrative closer together in time and space towards an anticipated climactic intersection. Unlike Hard-boiled Wonderland, however, the separate narratives do not occur on different levels of reality. Indeed, in both stories a more or less ‘real’ world and a distinctly metaphysical or metaphorical ‘other world’ intersect so that, in effect, the reader is drawn into four separate levels of existence.
The central character in odd-numbered chapters is a trouble boy who runs away from his Tokyo home on Monday, 19 May 1997 (or 2003), the eve of his fifteenth birthday. We never learn his real given name but he tells people that it is Kafka, his family name in Tamura…”
And from Laura Miller’s review in The New York Times on February 6, 2005:
“It is easier to be bewitched by Haruki Murakami’s fiction than to figure out how he accomplishes the bewitchment. His novels — in America, the best known is probably “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” — lack the usual devices of suspense. His narrators tend to be a bit passive, and the stakes in many of his shaggy-dog plots remain obscure. Yet the undercurrent is nearly irresistible, and readers emerge several hundred pages later as if from a trance, convinced they’ve made contact with something significant, if not entirely sure what that something is.
Murakami’s latest, “Kafka on the Shore,’ is no exception, although it is a departure for this Japanese novelist in other ways. Most of his protagonists have been men in their 30’s, easygoing military types with spotty romantic histories and a taste for jazz, whiskey, and American films. This time, Murakami’s hero, a runaway boy calling himself Kafka Tamura, is only 15. Kafka is fleeing from his father, a man whose shadowy malevolence takes the form of an Oedipal prophecy: Kafka, he insists, will kill his father and sleep with his mother and older sister, both of whom vanished when the boy was 4.
Kafka relates his adventures in chapters that alternate with another story, that of Satoru Nakata, an elderly man. When he was 9, near the end of World War II, Nakata was part of a group of school children who, while on a school trip in the local woods, inexplicably lost consciousness. When he came to, weeks later, Nakata had lost all of his memories, his ability to read and write, and most of his intelligence. On the upside, he acquired the ability to talk to cats, and so he supplements the small subsidy he gets from the government with fees his neighbors pay him to find their lost pets.
‘The best way to think about reality,’ the narrator of ‘The Wind-up Bird Chronicle’ declares, is ‘to get as far away from it as possible.’ (This is just before he decides to cope with the disappearance of his wife by sitting at the bottom of a dry well for hours at a time.) You could call this Murakami’s own method, except that in his fiction, the unreal elements are handled so matter-of-factly that they could hardly be called ‘far away’ from the realistic ones; the two coexist seamlessly. Nakata may talk to cats, yes, but their conversations always begin with polite chitchat about the weather.
Murakami is an aficionado of the drowsy interstices of everyday life, reality’s cul-de-sacs, places so filled with the nothing that happens in them that they become uncanny: hallways, highway rest stops, vacant lots. Although the dreamlike quality of his work makes the film director David Lynch his nearest American counterpart, Lynch’s palette is primarily nocturnal while Murakami’s welcomes the noontime sun. No one is better at evoking the spookiness of midday in a quiet neighborhood when everyone is at work.
A lot of things happen in Murakami’s work, but what linkers longest in the memory is this distinctive mood, a stillness pregnant with…what? Some meaning that’s forever slipping away. The author achieves this effect by doing everything wrong, at least by Western literary standards. Although Murakami is both an admirer and a translator of Raymond Carver, this simplicity isn’t the semaphoric purity of American minimalism. Partisans of the beautiful sentence will find little sustenance here.
Murakami can turn a pretty metaphor when he chooses — headlights that ‘lick’ the tree trunks lining a dark road, the ‘whooshing moan of air’ from a passing truck ‘like somebody’s soul is being yanked out’ — but he’s just as likely to opt deliberately for a cliche: ‘Sometimes the wall I’ve erected around me comes crumbling down.’ He also makes free use of brand names. In American fiction, the sanctum of the literary must not be polluted by the trash of commercial culture — not, that is, unless it’s coated in a protective layer of satire. But when Murakami tells us that a character drinks Diet Pepsi or wears a New Balance cap it’s not to sketch a withering little portrait of this person’s social class and taste, but to describe exactly what he or she drinks and wears, creating a small tether to a shared reality.
Later in the novel, Kafka finds refuge in a job at a small, private library in a seaside town, while Nakata attracts the attention of a sinister cat catcher who wears leather boots, a red tailcoat and a tall hat. The cat catcher introduces himself as Johnnie Walker, but any inclination to see this is a bit of whacky humor is promptly squashed by the sadistic violence that follows. Colonel Sanders, who appears farther on in the novel in a more helpful capacity, professes to be taking on the appearance of ‘a famous capitalist icon’ as a convenience, when really, he says, ‘I’m an abstract concept.’
Cliches, the ephemera of pop culture, characters who proclaim their thematic function — these sound like the gambits of postmodernism, tricks meant to distance the reader from the narrative and the sort of tactic that gets a novel labeled ‘cerebral.’ But ‘Kafka on the Shore,’ like all of Murakami’s fiction, doesn’t feel distant or artificial. Murakami is like a magician who explains what he’s doing as he performs the trick and still makes you believe he has supernatural powers. So great is the force of the author’s imagination, and of his conviction in the archaic power of the story he is telling, that all this junk is made genuine. Johnnie Walker becomes frightening, and Colonel Sanders a lovable if irascible incarnation of, say, the god Hermes.
The story, of course, is a very old tale in contemporary trappings. Can Kafka escape the legacy of violence he has inherited from his father, the DNA he equates with fate? The question has resonance for Murakami, who is keenly interested in his country’s role in World War II and who has described himself as profoundly transformed by a nonfiction book he wrote about survivors of the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. Toward the end, deep in a forest, Kafka will encounter two imperial soldiers who stepped out of time during the war because they couldn’t stomach the kill-or-be-killed nature of their lot. They haven’t aged, but they also haven’t lived.
The soldiers aren’t the only characters in “Kafka on the Shore” who have chosen suspended animation over suffering the depredations of time and loss. This links ‘Kafka’ to an earlier keystone novel of Murakami’s, ‘hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World,’ which uses the same two-story format. In that book, a noirish science fiction yarn alternates with eerie dispatches from a walled fairy-tale village where nothing ever changes. The village is eventually revealed to be a cordoned-off section of the narrator’s own unconscious mind. Because of some botched neurosurgery, he’ll soon be confined there — a kind of death, but also a kind of immortality, since in the unconscious there is no time.
The weird, stately urgency of Murakami’s novels comes from their preoccupation with such internal problems; you can imagine each as a drama acted out within a single psyche. In each, a self lies in pieces and must be put back together; a life that is stalled must be kick-started and relaunched into the bruising but necessary process of change. Reconciling us to that necessity is something stories have done for humanity since time immemorial. Dreams do it, too. But while anyone can tell a story that resembles a dream, it’s the rare artist, like this one, who can make us feel that we are dreaming it ourselves.”
This is going to be good.
My next post: Tuesday August 5, Kafka on the Shore, Chapters 1-12