Thursday, August 18, 2011

Kafka On The Shore: "The World is a Metaphor"

There's a common joke about literary over-analysis (specifically in regards to teaching literature) involving blue curtains. Why did the author make the curtains blue? What does the curtains' blueness symbolize? Most times, the answers are pretty simple, the author would say: The reason the curtains are blue is because they are f$#%ing blue.

In Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore, however, the curtains are not just f#@$ing blue. Indeed, every detail of this ethereal, intricate novel means something, is connected to something, is a symbol or metaphor for something, or is a key to puzzling out some of the novel's central riddles. And guess what? It's up to you to figure out what it all means. There are no easy answers.

That may sound daunting, but don't worry. The novel's far from impenetrable. And it's actually a lot of fun to try to figure it all out. But even if that sort of literary sleuthing isn't your thing, the story itself at the surface level is pretty entertaining as well.

There are actually two alternating threads of story, and they both hum along pretty quickly. Kafka Tamura, 15, runs away from his Tokyo home and takes up residence in a room in a small library (a metaphor for memory?) in a seaside town. Nakata is a strange old man who had been the victim of an mysterious accident in his youth that has left him mentally incapacitated, except for his unique abilities to talk to cats and make it rain fish and leeches. He undertakes a mission beyond his understanding with the aid of a young man named Hoshino, who is looking for meaning in his own life. There's a bit more to it that, but that should be enough to give you a flavor for the plot that provides the framework for Murakami's metaphysical playground.

As the stories converge (or don't?), the reader is left to tangle with notions of metaphor, consciousness, personal identity, fate and love. It's heady stuff, sure, but again, not completely beyond the realm of comprehension. Murakami is infinitely quotable (see quotes below) and a lot of the fun of the novel is to turn these over and over in your head to figure out meaning both on their own and also how they relate to the rest of the story.

Along the way, Kafka and his buddy Oshima (the receptionist at the library), use music, literature and historical figures (like Adolf Eichmann and Beethoven) to try to understand Kakfa's situation. I loved that as a sort of reverse meta-fictional storytelling strategy — instead of a story that is "self-aware," this story uses fiction and "characters" from history to help the reader burrow deeper into its own fictional world. I know that's not unique to Murakami, but especially in a high-concept novel like this that can easily set readers adrift, Murakami does his readers a great favor by mooring us in real-world fiction and history. Does that make sense?

Anyway, I loved it. Yes, Kafka On The Shore is a novel that requires (gasp!) a re-read to fully grasp. But a once-through is enough to get you hooked; that is, to spend hours combing message boards and other websites to search for meaning. There are definitely some right answers, but there's also much open to discussion. At least I hope that's the case, because I certainly don't know what all the right answers are.

Do you?

Quote Well:
"Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe."
"Reality's just the accumulation of ominous prophecies come to life."
"Actually getting closer to a metaphorical truth? Or metaphorically getting closer to an actual truth? Or maybe they supplement each other?"
"A reciprocal metaphor. Things outside you are projections of what's inside you, and what's inside you is a projection of what's outside."
"For every theory, there has to be counterevidence — otherwise science wouldn't advance."  But, later, Crow says, "A theory that still doesn't have any good counterevidence is one worth pursuing."


  1. I've read maybe 3 or 4 Murakami novels (including Kafka, which I did like) & after each one I find myself understanding less and less of what I've just read. I've skipped the last couple, despite the fact that I love the way he writes - that sort of ethereal, flowing prose that puts me in kind of a trance. It all just tends to make me feel kinda stupid. And the thing is, I don't think his huge fans get it either.

    That said, I can't wait to read his magnum opus, 1Q84, due out this fall. So I guess I am stupid - or at least a glutton for punishment. :)

  2. I feel like Murakami somehow creates his own logic. I don't always understand it, but I feel emotionally satisfied when I'm done reading it.

  3. @Seth: Kafka is the most "ethereal" of his novels, I find. Wind-Up Bird is pretty up there too, but it's still pretty straightforward.

    Glad you liked it, Greg.

  4. I found the last line of your previous post interesting--setting the goal of writing down "somewhat coherent thoughts" on your reading of Murakami. For me, the real joy of reading Murakami is in turning off my more analytical, English-major-trained, critical self, and for a little while just drifting around in the strange, beautiful feel of his worlds. I have read Kafka, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and all three were distinct, wonderful reading experiences. But I struggle with articulating how and why the books are special--I struggle with generating coherent thoughts about them. I look forward to reading your thoughts on 1Q84, and may use them as a sort of pre-reading exercise (not sure I'll be able to approach such a huge book until winter). In the meantime, thanks for recommending Matterhorn--I'd not heard of it, and it ended up keeping me awake for an entire twelve hour plane ride. It's now high on my own "recommend to others" list.

  5. @Seth - Trance is a good way to put it - that seems to capture the experience of reading Kafka more than "dreamlike" or many of the other words that are tossed around. I agree, anyone who says they understand all of Murakami is pretending to be smarter than they are.

    @Domey - That's a good way to describe reading Murakami, too. Kafka certainly does have it's own logic - a world within our world. It's a really interesting read!

    @Ben - Yeah, I did - a lot more than I thought I would. Next up: Wind Up, before 1Q84.

    @Sam - Struggling to puzzle out every ounce of meaning and form coherent thoughts about everything would drive you nuts. I read several interviews with Murakami in which he stated the novels (Kafka especially) mean different things to different people. You're right, you sort of just have to go with the flow and see what you can pick up along the way - and not worry about picking up everything. Glad you like Matterhorn - yeah, that is a riveting novel!