January 27, 2011
Kafka on the Shore (Murakami Haruki)
Kafka on the Shore by Murakami Haruki, translated by Philip Gabriel (audiobook)
This is the 7th book by Murakami that I’ve read and so far I find his works to be a mix of the passable, the very good, and the mediocre. Kafka on the Shore belongs squarely to the last category. I was unimpressed by this long novel about incest, animal cruelty, music, destiny, and growing up. The translation by Philip Gabriel reads well but Murakami comes across as a minor writer, a mere crowd-pleaser. The repetitions of sentences and phrases are irritating. Granted that repetitions are used to imitate a piece of music, the flat Hemingway-esque prose can't save it from sounding contrived and didactic. The title refers both to a musical composition and a painting. But references to these art forms cannot help this piece of fiction approach the level of a good read. The plot just plods along, the disparate themes woven into a pointless puzzle. The puzzle is like a Scrabble board, the pieces being letter tiles that are sharply cut at the edges. There's no challenge to deciphering it, no net benefit to be had. Norwegian Wood is, I think, more worthwhile pointlessness than this. The novel is, moreover, a poor example of a "magical realist" novel, in which magic is utilized without "logic." My benchmarks for a good magical novel are One Hundred Years of Solitude, where fantastical elements are tightly integrated into the story, and The Literary Conference by César Aira, where magic is uncontrollable, wreaking havoc as it escapes from the grasp of the writer. The magic of Murakami here is neither mysterious nor crude. It is just plain dry old magic. A multitude of fishes falls from the sky, period. Leeches fall from the sky, period. The surreal worlding of magic and mystery in this novel is not to be accepted as inevitable but unbelievable. Very unlike the stifling nightmare world of its namesake writer Kafka, or the logical labyrinths of a Borges, or even the sustained suspension of disbelief in Murakami’s own brilliant A Wild Sheep Chase. The magic of Kafka on the Shore is without flair or drama. In its pure form, wry and deadpan, magic redounds to an unintended humor. Finally, the novel suffers from overkill: too much explanation trying to “justify” the incest, too much self-help crap undermining the characters’ consciousness. This self-help streak is prefigured in Dance Dance Dance but reached a young adult fever-pitch here. Save for some interesting scenes with the old man Nakata, the book is otherwise overrated.