I have a streak going of two novels in a row written by people who aren’t old white men. I have been trying to become more conscious of not necessarily what I am reading as much as who I am reading. A writer’s experiences shape their style and their themes, and as much as I love Thomas Pynchon, there is value in being aware that Thomas Pynchon cannot tell me as much about racism as a black writer, he cannot tell me about misogyny like a woman can (in fact, I find myself struggling with the misogyny that is in all of Pynchon’s novels, and I can attribute the overwhelming misogyny at times as being one of the reasons I struggled to “get into” V.), and he cannot tell me about homophobia like a gay writer could. Pynchon is just the writer that comes to mind first, since I have read more Pynchon this year than anyone else.
But this is not a post about the inherent whiteness of the authors I typically read, it is a review of Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. The most difficult part of writing about KotS is finding where to begin. The novel is not really that long, my copy having 467 pages, but as the story progresses the exposition and themes that Murakami is exploring become dense and difficult to unpack. I would be confident in saying that for 320 pages I knew exactly what was going on in this novel. Not only that, but I was absolutely loving every moment of it (enjoying enough that the book was significantly more interesting than the third round of NCAA tournament games that were taking place on every TV in my house). There is a point, however, where I felt the book had a significant drop off in quality of reading. I’ve read and watched other reviews that have accused KotS of being 150 pages too long, but I disagree. I don’t think the book is too long; I instead think that Murakami is much more talented as a writer of dialogue than he is as a writer of of setting.
Kafka on the Shore is a puzzle, in the end. It is a unique ride from start to finish that spends more time attempt to explain the Wholly Other than it does repeating what is familiar to its reader. Murakami did not attempt to write a story in which Aristotle could find himself overjoyed by its use of cause and effect. There are things that happen in KotS that simply don’t make sense. However, Murakami does something much more interesting with this idea than I believe is typically done. In Murakami’s universe his human characters have rules that they abide by and operate through, but there is another step into the beyond that is taken. Murakami’s not-so-human or not-so-human-anymore characters also betray with their psyches that they also struggle with nonsensical rules of life, tiresome emotions and feelings, and other characteristics that they share with humanity while remaining quite other. This reveals a fascinating side of KotS as part Greek Myth.
Of the two main characters, the young protagonist, Kafka Tomura, is in part struggling the prophecy of Oedipus. The other, Satoru Nakata, has the ability to speak with cats. I will leave it up to you to piece that together. Murakami uses a chorus to explain things and also influence characters, though I will not say who/what this is, though I feel it is apparent.
Aside from the actual structure of Murakami’s writing, which I could possibly drone on about endlessly, Kafka on the Shore is a novel that, to me, is about what it is to be human and to feel alone. I certainly did not expect to make this connection, but the author and book that I am reminded of most by the story is J.D. Salinger and his novel The Catcher in the Rye. Although strikingly and importantly more metaphysical and purposefully dealing with the unknown and that part of the human experience, Kafka on the Shore rivals The Catcher in the Rye particularly in it’s young protagonist. I don’t see that much difference between Kafka Tomura and Holden Caulfield. Both are very much caught up in their own problems and have little regard for the people around them, sans one or two. Now, this is not to say that people whose favorite book is Catcher will love KotS, because I think that is far from true. However, I found myself having similar feelings toward Kafka and Holden.
Much like Salinger, Murakami’s characters are dynamic and interesting. Each one is very much alive and demands the reader’s emotional investment. It’s not often that I can say that after reading a book with wide variety of characters that none of the characters reminded me of another, previous one. Even Murakami’s small, “insignificant” (that is really not the right term, as Murakami makes you feel like every character is extremely significant. In fact, the moment you run into a character you think is truly throw away, is the moment that you begin to realize that this character is going to be there the rest of the book) characters play a role that is worthy of being deemed important.
In the end, Kafka on the Shore is a great book that I feel gets bogged down in its own world as it concludes. I felt hopelessly devoted to all the characters and was invested in every situation, even when the characters had simply sat down to order coffee and talk music. It assuredly requires a second read or even third read to understand what exactly happened, but the first read was worthwhile and rewarding.
Recommended to: Those who have not yet read Murakami, those looking for a book in which anything (and I do mean anything) can happen, and those who are looking for a mind altering book that doesn’t require solitude and silence to read. AKA You can read it on the beach… or shore 🙂 (Unprofessional emoticon)
Avoid as if you’re a referee and a chance to make a controversial goal-tending call arises: Those who, despite enjoying dense works, need your fiction to remain in the “real world,” and those who hate cats.