How many books do you try out from an author before deciding whether you like them or not? This is my third book by Murakami, and before this I just wasn’t 100% sure how I felt about his work. After this one, I’m thinking he might just not be for me. For a few reasons that this book really highlighted for me, and I will of course lay that down later in this review.
But in the meantime: Kafka on the Shore incorporates two stories in alternating chapters, which ultimately tie together. One follows a teenage boy who goes by Kafka, as we runs away from home and ends up living in a library, all while wondering if he may encounter his mother and young sister who left at a young age may be. The other follows an old gentleman named Nakata who had experienced a strange trauma at a young age and now does not think the same way as others do: though he does have strange abilities such as talking to cats, and embarks on a journey wherein he isn’t quite sure of the way or goal, just that he will know when he gets there.
I was really enjoying this novel to begin with, as it’s a bit whimsical and quirky (much like the other Murakami books I have read), and he really has a beautiful and poetic way of speaking. I sometimes get a little annoyed because characters will go off on strange tangents or discussions just to drop pearls of wisdom, and I think, “people don’t talk like this”. It seems unnatural, yet I let these things slide because it really is a pretty way with words. A little before half way through the novel, however, I started to get a little weary and distanced as things went a bit off the rails.
Up until that point, I was really curious by the strange, twisting tale unfolding before me: how would these things connect? What was the greater meaning or concept at play? But as things got stranger and more abstract, I found myself almost feeling like nothing was going to be explained. Now, I understand that not everything always has to be spelled out, and reading between the lines can actually lead to a great reading experience, but there’s a difference between abstract representations/metaphors and just plain absurdity, which I’m afraid I found this novel falling into. That’s not to say I don’t like things that are bizarre and absurd: I thoroughly enjoyed David Wong’s John Dies at the End, but that was almost set up to be bizarre and unexplainable by nature, while Kafka on the Shore seemed to be trying to set up some sense or relation to the real world with an “explanation” or “connection” at the end which didn’t really come into fruition. “It’s hard to explain”, okay but can you at least try? I just needed one more piece of information. Just one. That’s all I ask. I was so confused as to what the point of the whole trudging thing was.
My other major issue with this novel, in relation to the confusion, was how extraneous certain things seemed to be. Things would happen, characters would show up, and time and detail would be spent on them just for it to not really relate in the end, or truly connect in any meaningful way to the overall story. In particular, however, I realized that I have an issue with extraneous aspects of Murakami’s stories when it comes to sexual relations and depictions/descriptions of women (spoilers ahead). There’s a preoccupation with using such a male gaze to describe how women look, always making sure to let us know how attractive the main characters find the women, and how their clothes cling to their breasts, etc. And of course, having a teenage boy as the protagonist of Kafka on the Shore makes it seem reasonable that he’d be full of hormones and interested in how women look, but it happens all the time in other novels too. And was it necessary to have Kafka experience such a Oedipus complex of having sex with the woman who he thought may be his mother? They could have bonded in so many other ways, and this did indeed occur without the sex so I really don’t know why that was needed. Was it necessary to have a young girl who was just helping him give him a handjob, and to have this act brought up time and time again? What was the point of having him dream about raping this girl who he thought of as a sister? (it literally added nothing to the book in my opinion?) Was it necessary for Nakata’s young travelling partner to go off on a side-journey wherein he has sex with a “knockout” of a prostitute, only to repeatedly bring this up again as well? I would think not. Because seriously, I get it. You got off three times with a gorgeous woman and there was really no need to have that in the story as it didn’t have any implication on the plot or the character’s side-quest at all.
All this of course is presented in a gentle and poetic way, and I sometimes get by with reading these things without thinking much of it. But coupled with the confusion and need to be so fantastical while still somehow expecting me to understand with nothing but abstraction leads me to have a bitter taste in my mouth. So many pages and so much meandering about. What was the purpose of it all.
And so, while I was very engaged and curious by the beginning of Kafka on the Shore, ultimately, my curiosity led me nowhere. Nothing made sense to me, and I was left feeling unfulfilled and a little weirded out by how critically some aspects of the novel were looked at (ie; music and it’s way of communicating to people, which truly is a remarkable thing), but not others (ie; sexual relations and the power dynamics therein). Some things I just couldn’t gloss over, and I’m thinking maybe it’s time for me to shelf Murakami as an author for a little while.