Kafka on the Shore / by Karie Luidens

My review of...

Kafka on the Shore
Haruki Murakami
Vintage, 2006
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Kafka on the Shore has only existed in English for ten years, so it’s probably too soon to declare it a classic. Still, it’s received all sorts of critical accolades and sits atop The New York Times “10 Best Books of 2005” list, so I essentially assumed it would be one when I pulled it off the shelf. I dont believe I was mistaken, but by the time I reshelved it I’d shifted my reasons for identifying it as such. To quote Mark Twain, “it meets [the] definition of a classic—something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”

That summarizes my month-long struggle to get through Haruki Murakami’s novel. I quickly found I did not want to be reading it, I just wanted to be done.

The book’s failure to engage me is all the more disappointing given its promising premise. The cast of characters is fascinating: a teen runaway who converses with his alterego, a mysterious family history, a musician whose first heartbreak drove her to decades of reclusion, a fastidious gay transgender librarian, an illiterate retiree who talks to cats, a trucker with a love of big breasts and Beethoven. Plus the cats. Plus a few “concepts” personified as modern brand mascots.

Their plots initially run parallel but are gradually, irresistibly drawn together by—by what? By an Oedipal prophecy? By Johnnie Walker’s amoral rules for roles and behavior in the universe? Themes of fate and free will course through the book, pulsing in and out of focus with each chapter. Questions abound: what is the nature of time? What is the relationship of the mind to the body, or of gender to sexuality? What’s with all the falling fish and cawing crows? Sprinkled in for extra flavor are countless references to other works of art, literature, music, and philosophy.

In other words, there is plenty to entertain the self-satisfied intellectual who reads “insistently metaphysical” novels for fun in the twenty-first century.

Yes, I probably fall into that category. But no, I did not have fun with Kafka.

The stories are good, but the storytelling is unbearably tedious. Narrative exposition prattles on in scene after scene, boring the reader with details about the brands of all shirts and sunglasses, the order of exercises in training routines, and the ingredients in each meal. Every character’s backstory is explained in detail, as are the thoughts of even minor characters who appear for a page or two. So much for the declaration that “Artists are those who can evade the verbose” (chapter 25).

All the excessive information is sometimes also excessively crude. I tallied over two dozen descriptions of the protagonist’s “nice cock” relaxing, hardening again, glistening, hurting, stinging, or slapping. Don’t worry, the protagonist does “a good job of washing my cock, not too many years out of its foreskin, and under my arms, balls, and butt” (chapter 7)—in other words, he takes baths. There are also a dozen uses of the phrase “take a dump” and such wonderful exchanges as this:

“Are you really Colonel Sanders?”
Colonel Sanders cleared his throat. “Not really. I’m just taking on his appearance for a time.”
“That’s what I figured,” Hoshino said. “So what are you really?”
“I don’t have a name.”
“How do you get along without one?”
“No problem. Originally I don’t have a name or a shape.”
“So you’re kind of like a fart.”
“You could say that.” (Chapter 30)

Indeed, the novel is “insistently metaphysical,” full of things that are intangible yet realyou know, like a fart. This is just one instance in which all those lovely themes listed earlier just stumble over themselves into what feels disappointingly like nonsense. Here’s another: “The Earth, time, concepts, love, life, faith, justice, evil—they’re all fluid and in transition. They don’t stay in one form or in one place forever. The whole universe is like some big FedEx box.” Wait, what? (Chapter 30.)

To be fair to Murakami, a portion of the blame for my irritation can be cast on Philip Gabriel, whose translation from the original Japanese is often grating. Slang, idioms, and casual contractions abound, as do descriptions that are just plain awkward or confusing. “She’s hidden, asleep, like a 3-D painting in the forest of her heart” he/they write, to which I can only say again: what? (Chapter 25.)

Much as I wanted to, I could not like Kafka on the Shore. It was too much—not too rich or too subtle or too absurd, as some have complained, just too tedious. If only it had been edited down by a third and translated with more music and nuance, it could’ve won me over.

Murakami writes on his website that

the key to understanding the novel lies in reading it multiple times. This may sound self-serving, but it’s true. I know people are busy—and it depends, too, on whether they feel like doing it—but if you have the time, I suggest reading the novel more than once. Things should be clearer the second time around. I’ve read it, of course, dozens of times as I rewrote it, and each time I did, slowly but surely the whole started to come into sharper focus. 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.

To be frank, I can barely justify reading that meandering paragraph a second time, let alone the entire novel. There are far too many books that I want to read to devote more energy to one I merely wanted to have read.