Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Jess Sauer, Fri., Jan. 21, 2005
Kafka on the Shoreby Haruki Murakami
Knopf, 448 pp., $25.95
It would be an understatement to claim that Haruki Murakami's newest novel is a departure from his other novels. For starters, the book's two protagonists are a precocious 15-year-old runaway (Kafka), and a lovable mentally challenged man who refers to himself inconsistently in the third person, communicates with animals, possesses the ability to make things rain from the sky, and doesn't quite comprehend the gravity of murdering someone (Nakata). These characters are certainly new for Murakami, but if their archetypes seem like well-worn territory to you, you're not alone.
Murakami also doesn't stray far from the comfortable in terms of plot. The story borrows elements from Oedipus Rex, Macbeth, and a host of ancient Japanese texts. One needn't figure this out for oneself, though. Murakami painstakingly explicates the similarities through secondary characters, who often seem little more than vehicles for tired platitudes about the nature of life, obvious foreshadowing, and a freshman survey course's worth of quotations from well-known thinkers (a short list includes Sophocles, Aristotle, T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Yeats, and Marx).
The book does share elements that fans will recognize from Murakami's other work: a short-lived affair between star-crossed lovers, forays into the realm of the unconscious ... missing cats. About two-thirds of the way through the book, Murakami hits a temporary stride and a bit of his old self peeks through. However, when one thinks back to his most masterfully rendered images Sputnik Sweetheart's Ferris wheel scene, for instance there is undoubtedly something missing.
Murakami's strongest point has always been his restraint: The veracity of his characters, their emotions and relationships, has always overshadowed the strangeness of their worlds. There is a fine line between surrealism and absurdity, and Murakami has finally overstepped the boundary. Here, he crosses from a dark world of unsettling but beautiful imagery into a place that is often too ridiculous to take seriously. It lacks cohesiveness and never fully absorbs the reader into its reality. When sardines rain from the sky, or a formless spirit adopts the persona of KFC's Colonel Sanders, one does not wonder at the phenomenon so much as wonder why Murakami chose to confuse his story with so many unnecessary elements. The world distracts the reader from the characters, none of whom are strong enough to compensate.
The best compliment one can give for this novel is that it is strikingly uncharacteristic of Murakami. Perhaps this is the point, though. Murakami has certainly reached the level of celebrity that most great writers abhor. Whether he has become sick of fame or drunk on it is unclear. He does leave us hints, though: In one particularly curious moment, a character describes a nonfiction book she wrote about survivors of lightning strikes, a book that sounds remarkably similar to Murakami's Underground. "It barely sold," she says. "The book didn't come to any conclusion, and nobody wants to read a book that doesn't have any conclusion. For me, though, having no conclusion seemed perfectly fine." It is possible that Kafka, with its uncharacteristically neat conclusion and its dumbed-down overexplanation, is an attempt to give the people what they think they want. Whatever the case, it confirms the restrictions on Murakami's artistic license, restrictions that most of us probably didn't realize existed.