Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Kafka on the Shore

It took many months but last night I finished reading Haruki Murakami's 'Kafka on the Shore'. The reason it took so long to get through it is that, to be honest, I really wasn't feeling it. I'm mean for saying it since Meghan was so kind to lend me her copy, but I found 'Kafka' to be a tedious read. Murakami's 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle' is probably my favourite book: I savoured every page. But with 'Kafka', I wasn't at all compelled by the storyline or the characters. I found the whole thing to be juvenile, slow and frustrating. Even the setting (Shikoku, one of my favourite places) did little for my enthusiasm. The only element of the story that really intruiged me was the WWII subplot at the start of the book, which was not so much unresolved as it was abandoned.

What bugs me is that Murakami seems to rely on very specific types of characters in every one of his full-length fictional works. After a while, it's hard to tell the stories apart. And you start to wonder if it would be possible for him to, you know,
try something different. Sure, authors always have a writing style: Murakami's into thick description and far-out storylines. But Murakami has a character dependency which goes beyond style...

The archetypical Murakami protagonist is an every man, no-one special. This every-man is somehow free of the contraints that most other Japanese men endure: career and family obligations, the need to earn money... He's got nothing to hold him down, everything he needs is provided to him. The main character is always extremely cool and level-headed: he's constantly buying supplies, cooking simple fare, sitting quietly, listening to high-brow music, being sensible. He couldn't be more straight-laced. The male character, despite his sensible ways, makes his major decisions based on feeling: he's always drawn along by some unknown power. And this protagonist always has easy access to casual sex from an equally straight-laced, intellectual female hottie who has some sort of
urgent and deep-seated need to get it on with him. And there's almost always a cat in the story. Unless it's a sheep.

I don't care that Murakami's stories are implausible (that's the point, I guess) and I don't care that there is never a resolution (Japanese literature ancient and modern doesn't require ends to be neatly tied up). But still, I was very disappointed by 'Kafka on the Shore'. Sorry, Meghan!

4 comments :

Hikaru said...

i am convinced people can only enjoy what they can relate to.

having said this, i think murakami's core readership must be middle aged males with a great sense of loss/regret -- just like bronte readers must be prissy females who have problems expressing their emotions...

you know, it's not just the same characters and motifs you've mentioned. it's the same themes and the same underlying world every time. to say style would imply artifice. murakami cannot write in any other way. this is the only way his world works. each book is just the same world from a different perspective.

as for the protagonist, it may be that he has been released from typical constraints: family, job. however, every single one of his protagonists is inextricably tethered to an intangible woman from his past.

most female critics i've read regarding murakami always seem to bring up the sex. contextually, i believe murakami is recounting his collegiate and bachelor days of japan in the 1960's. even in modern japan, sex is a casual and open affair, moreso than in the world of the modern occidental woman's. murakami and his protagonists are as much sex-driven creatures as jazz-driven creatures. sex, jazz, and the surreal.

i'm not passing judgment on the work, just trying to explain the method to his madness, as someone who can relate/understand.

personally, i'm a huge fan of his earlier work, and hardboiled and kafka were eh at best.

Andrea said...

I don't mind that many motifs are repeated (eg. sleep deprivation, WWII, vanishing people), or that it's always the same strange world we're reading about.
My problem really is the characters. Every one is totally robotic. I can't relate to Murakami characters because they aren't human!
Take an ordinary man, then subtract ambition, individuality, free will and weakness. Now you have a one-dimensional Murakami hero.
As for the sex stuff, it's not the casual, open nature that irks me. The fact is, even though I am indeed a "modern occidental woman", my experiences are more typical to Japan than North America (my surprised/amused friends will concur). Murakami's women use sex as a treatment to cure some other problem. In this way it's not really about sex, it's not about two people enjoying each other. It's always about private suffering and sadness, and the women never seem to be able to choose who they take to bed. I just find the sex scenes to be overwrought and unrealistic. I wish Murakami could find those girls some other way to heal themselves, but as you said, his target audience probably really likes this aspect of his stories...

Hikaru said...

about "sexual healing" -- maybe i'm missing it. his characters are overly sexual for me, personally -- i probably skim over those sections, not because they're offensive, but because they're unmemorable.

now that i recall kafka, i know the sex there must definitely have been awkward for anyone reading it. however, i don't really feel it's typical to his work.

have you read "south of the border, west of the sun" or "norwegian wood?" i recommend those highly, if you want to read more murakami.

they're both closer to the real, than the surreal, and i don't think you'll feel the protagonists are flat every-mans.

i don't agree with your breakdown of murakami's protagonists. it's not that they're unambitious. it's that they're stuck. it's not that they have no free will. it's that they're being snared by destiny, which is extremely strong in his world. they are extremely unique -- the boy named crow is a clear example (even if he's one of my least favorite).

and they're all weak men on a journey to become whole. they're cowards who eventually confront their fears and weakness and destiny and become whole. it's this journey that makes them human.

i think this is why i say middle aged males are his readership. they can relate, and murakami's stories inspire them. most women, i suspect, come to completely different conclusions, if put in the protagonists' shoes.

on a different subject, have you read any kawabata yasunari? i've read more murakami, but kawabata is my favorite japanese author. "snow country" and "beauty and sadness" are must reads. his narrative style is unconventional, yet easy to read. the characters and the era are truly japanese, as opposed to the highly westernized japan of murakami's books.

Mister Id said...

Haruki Murakami is a male writer who writes for males. The sadness and loss is always from the point of view of the male and I am inclined to see the narrator as Murakami himself.

Why a fifteen year old boy? Perhaps Murakami needed to work some things out. Personally, I loved it...although not as much as Wind-up Bird Chronicles

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