The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
Canon
, Ted Gioia reviews  
Kafka on the Shore
 by Haruki
Murakami.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
Kafka on the Shore
by Haruki Murakami

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Nakata, one of the two key protagonists of this novel,
commits a murder in the early pages of
Kafka on the
Shore
.  Or so it seems—the details are so surreal, the
whole scene might be a hallucination.  Nakata has
stumbled upon a strange figure dressed in the garb of
Johnnie Walker, the famous
figure from the logo for a
popular brand of Scotch whisky,
who murders cats and eats their
entrails.  Nakata is not just a
cat lover, but he regularly
converses with felines—yes,
you can already see that this
a peculiar book—and in a fit
of passion he kills Johnnie
Walker by stabbing him
twice in the ribs.

Kafka Tamura, our other protagonist, is nowhere near
the scene of this crime, but he wakes on the site of a
Shinto temple, covered with blood—but not his own.  He
soon learns that his father, the famous sculptor Koichi
Tamura—who may or may not be the aforementioned
Johnny Walker—has been murdered, and that the police
are seeking the missing son for questioning.   

These two heroes Nakata and Kafka, pursue their
complementary but distinct stories in alternating
chapters, in a story in which other identity confusions
abound.  To amplify the Oedipal overtones of the murder
mystery, Murakami also develops an eerie relationship
between Kafka, now a runaway in a distant city, with a
mysterious woman, Miss Saeki, who may or may not be
his own mother.   Talk about a riddle, wrapped in a
mystery, inside an enigma; no wonder, when the
Japanese publisher of
Kafka on the Shore set up a
website allowing readers to ask questions of the author,
some 8,000 were submitted.  

Welcome to the murky world of Murakami.  Fifty years
ago, if you had asked literary critics to forecast the future
course of the novel, they probably would have predicted
a great awakening of wordplay and experimentation with
language. But they would have been wrong. Many of the
most provocative writers of recent decades have stuck to
conventional sentences and normal syntax (pace Joyce).
Yet they have made daring explorations of the nature of
reality. In short, their progressive tendencies have
proven to be metaphysical rather than linguistic.  This re-
examination of the real is at the heart of the fantastical
landscapes of
Gabriel Garcia Márquez, the pulp fiction-
ish narratives of
Philip K. Dick, the 'alternative universe'
histories of
Michael Chabon and Philip Roth, and the
quasi-science fiction scenarios of
Wallace's Infinite Jest,
McCarthy's The Road and Atwood's The Handmaid's
Tale. Indeed, the pervasive incorporation of sci-fi plots
into serious fiction, from Kazuo Ishiguro to
Jonathan
Lethem, is a recurring and unmistakable sign of this
pronounced shift in the literary weather.

Few writers have poked more holes in conventional
notions of reality than the Japanese novelist Haruki
Murakami. Other authors have explored what has come
to be known as "magical realism," but most of them—
such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alejo Carpentier and
Ben Okri—have set their visionary tales in Third World
locales where myth and folklore loom large over the
cultural landscape. In these environments, magical
realism seems a natural extension of an on-going and
tradition-laden literary dialogue. But Murakami concocts
his magical stories in the midst of affluent modern-day
consumer settings. When fish start falling from the sky or
cats talk to humans—typical occurrences in the world of
Kafka on the Shore—it is amid the hustle and bustle of
contemporary Japanese urban life. This ability to capture
the phantasmagorical in the thick of commuter traffic,
broadband Internet connections and high-rise
architecture is the distinctive calling card of Murakami.
Like magician David Copperfield making the Statue of
Liberty disappear (or at least
seem to disappear),
Murakami mesmerizes us by working his legerdemain in
places where reality would seem to be rock solid.

Murakami started off as the J.D. Salinger of Japan, rising
to fame with his very successful
Norwegian Wood
(1987). This was straight-forward narrative, without any
talking cats, but even here the novelist showed a
pronounced interest in off-kilter characters with mental
problems of various sorts and degrees, thus presaging his
later shift into murkier psychic waters. By the time we
get to his masterful
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994),
the reader can no longer tell the difference between
reality and fantasy. The protagonist can walk through
walls and heal people by laying on hands. Or can he? The
closer you look at the story, the more it blurs around the
edges.

With
Kafka on the Shore, Murakami combines the
coming-of-age theme of
Norwegian Wood with the
magical realism of
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The
result is a novel that defies the laws of physics as well as
the less easily enforced rules of conventional narrative
fiction. Yet Murakami also relies on elements familiar
from romance and mystery novel.   Is Kafka guilty of the
murder of his father?   Can this question even be
answered using the conventional clues and evidence of
crime novels?  In typical Murakami fashion, the author
sets out a trail of surrounding circumstances that seem to
undermine conventional notions of guilt and innocence.  

Several other rich, puzzling stories are woven into Kafka's
tale. Satoru Nakata, a strange old man with paranormal
powers he can scarcely control or understand, is one of
the most engaging characters in Murakami’s oeuvre.  
After getting mixed up in the same murder scene that
Kafka is fleeing, he embarks on a strange vision quest to
set things aright, accompanied by an amiable truck
driver. Much of this extraordinary sub-plot seems to
take place in some middle ground between quotidian
reality and dream landscape.

Then we have Miss Saeki, manager of the private library
where Kafka takes refuge. She also appears to be running
away from something, and the loose ends of her
enigmatic past may hold the solution to our young
runaway’s own personal tragedy. Along the way, we
encounter a rogue’s gallery of magical personae drawn
from consumer goods—in addition to Johnnie Walker,
Colonel Sanders makes an appearance—who play some of
the strangest cameo roles you will find anywhere in
contemporary fiction.

The end result is a novel of constantly shifting ground. At
times,
Kafka on the Shore takes on the overtones of
Greek tragedy, but then a short while later it seems to
plunge into the mystical world of Jungian archetypes. It
mixes Bildungsroman and fantasy and conventional
urban narratives into a strange combination that defies
the reader’s best attempt to categorize and pigeonhole.
In short, this is Murakami territory, a beguiling
landscape that only exists inside his visionary novels, and
which is realized with particular intensity in
Kafka on the
Shore
.

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death)
of the Cool
.
Click on image to purchase
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