Kafka on the Shore

By Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore frustrates all expectations, including some of the most basic narrative ones. Something, though we’re never sure what, seems to get resolved at the end, but absolutely nothing is explained. For 436 pages we inhabit a dream, the interpretation of which is futile.

The story proceeds normally enough. Alternate chapters describe the two main characters. Kafka Tamura (an assumed name) is a fifteen-year-old who has run away from home to avoid his father’s Oedipal curse (he will kill his father and sleep with his mother). He winds up living in a private library, befriended by a transgendered hemophiliac and a strange lady who may or may not be his mother. Satoru Nakata is an old man whose brain was apparently wiped clean as a child by what may or may not have been a UFO. He is unable to read, but can talk to cats. After a run-in with a supernatural figure dressed as Johnnie Walker (the guy on the whiskey bottle), he leaves Tokyo and follows in Kafka’s footsteps in order to find a secret “entrance stone” that must be closed.

It is an unreal plot, but not that hard to follow in outline. A lot of Murakami’s technique derives from pulp fiction, and for all its literary allusions and time-outs to discuss the meaning of metaphor (even Murakami’s prostitutes quote Hegel and Bergson), the kind of work Kafka seems closest to is something like Stephen King’s It. Like King, Murakami never lets go of the reader’s hand and even the most obvious plot constructions are laid bare. As Kafka’s friend observes,

“It started out weird and is getting even weirder as it goes along. Impossible to predict what’ll happen next. One thing’s for sure, though. Everything seems to be converging right here. The old man’s path and yours are bound to cross.”

By the time we read this it hardly needs explaining.

The reason it’s “impossible to predict what’ll happen next”, and Murakami himself has admitted that he didn’t know what would happen next while writing it, is because of the way things keep getting dropped. It is a novel of fragments and changing gears. Take Kafka’s curse. Kafka runs away from home to avoid killing his father. But does he? It’s impossible that he does, and yet he wakes up the morning after his father’s murder with his shirt covered in blood. Meanwhile, Nakata apparently does kill someone who might be Kafka’s father, but there is no blood and he has no memory of doing it. And that’s all we know.

Or take the matter of the UFO. This story is developed at great length in the first part of the novel, with medical and army reports and personal letters providing a detailed background story for what happened to Nakata. And then it is simply dropped for the rest of the book. Was it a UFO? Why does Nakata only have half a shadow? How does he talk to cats? What’s going on?

When Kafka’s father dies the newspaper obituary says that his “chief theme was the human subconscious.” This is Murakami’s territory as well. His writing patrols the border state between reality and the supernatural, the waking world and the world of dreams, conscious and subconscious states. In Kafka on the Shore the line between these two worlds is its blurriest yet, and the whole book, if not a dream, is probably best understood as Kafka’s “walking by the shores of consciousness”:

Waves of consciousness roll in, roll out, leave some writing, and just as quickly new waves roll in and erase it. I try to quickly read what’s written there, between one wave and the next, but it’s hard. Before I can read it the next wave’s washed it away. All that’s left are puzzling fragments.

Puzzling fragments indeed. Eels rain from the sky and ghosts share the stage with talking cats and Colonel Saunders. At times it all seems like an experiment in automatic writing, “bypassing procedures like meaning and logic” and using words (when words are at all adequate to convey what words can’t express) to create a symbolic “prophetic tunnel” to the reader.

But bypassing meaning makes it difficult for an author to communicate anything beyond puzzling, weightless fragments. The result is a visionary novel without substance. Some readers will cherish the experience. Others might find it a metaphysical cheat.

Review first published March 19, 2004. Is Chip Kidd, who did the artwork for the dustjacket of this book, the worst graphic designer of his generation? This one is just plain ugly.


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