Wednesday, February 08, 2006

More like KRAPka

A Review of Kafka on the Shore

Once when I was a lad I read The Cider House Rules and liked it very much. I must have been around 16, the age at which one is most susceptible to John Irving’s adolescent sexuality and capable handling of language. I decided, as teenagers do, to become a John Irving fan, so I began reading his books one after the other. A Prayer for Owen Meany was the last on my list and I only read the first hundred pages. A Prayer for Owen Meany was so preachy, boring, contrived, egregious, and profoundly annoying that not only did it suck in and of itself, it caused all of John Irving’s other novel to suck by association. Where before I had seen sense and beauty now all I saw were vile reflections of Owen Meany.
I fear that Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore may have the same effect on the Murakami that I’ve read (notably The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, which everyone seemed to be reading about a year ago). In Kafka, Murakami indulges in every sin that mars Japanese pop culture – irresponsible allusion, woefully abstract language, and weirdness for its own sake. The irresponsible allusiveness is what bothers me the most – by irresponsible allusion I am referring to the Japanese taste for selecting Western materials in much the way I decided to become a John Irving fan. John Irving sounded like an interesting, sexy author, so I picked him out without actually knowing much of anything about him. If you have ever played a Japanese RPG you will know what I’m talking about – characters with names from Wagner show up, they throw in figures from Mesopotamian or French mythology, any big spaceship is named The Durandal, yet none of it actually bothers with the substance of allusion – it’s bricolage in which the author has assembled the pieces based on an extremely shallow appreciation of them. They have picked names out of a hat.
Take the title – the book only makes one direct reference to Kafka (a rather shallow remark on “In the Penal Colony”), and unless I am being deliberately thickheaded, it makes no implicit comments on any of Kafka’s work at all. The problems really arrive when Murakami actually tries to allude responsibly, because he doesn’t know as much about his interlocutors as he thinks. Sure, we have a bunch of public-library biographical detail about various famous composers thrown in, which is fine and probably accurate, but he seriously mars his story with, say, his vapid reflections on the Oedipus myth.
Most of these reflections come from the mouth of Oshima, who claims to have a woman’s body but the mind of a gay male. The mystery of Oshima’s body seems thematically tantalizing at first, by the way, but Murakami doesn’t really go anywhere with it and it ends up merely seeming like another piece of charming Murakami weirdness. It’s clear that Murakami thinks that Oshima is very smart, since Oshima frequently and volubly discusses everything from German philosophy to classical music with Kafka, the Mishima Yukio-esque protagonist. The problem is that Oshima sounds like he’s contented himself with the back covers of most of these books (and before you fire across my bow, E. Hastings, I maintain that Murakami ACTUALLY wants us to think Oshima is smart, and is not providing him as a comic pseudointellectual).
Murakami also suffers from a very bad ear for dialogue (and I don’t blame the translator for this). His character spend most of their time discussing things in extremely abstract terms They ask questions like what kind of life should one lead? What is the purpose of memory? Why do men make war? Stoned teenagers ask the same kind of questions, and nobody wants to read about them. Also, and this may border on the racist, but the characters take a typically Japanese conversational track and repeat questions (and quite a few statements) back to the people who ask them. Such a realistic touch feels out of place in the middle of such profoundly mawkish, unrealistic dialogue, plus it is boring as hell.
Murakami also loads the book with an astonishing amount of clichés. On occasion his language indeed does become beautiful, arresting, unique, but more often than not he contents himself with telling the reader what things are like instead of showing. For instance, Oshima keeps patting and grasping and otherwise reassuring Kafka – every time he does this, Murakami tells us it’s a “completely natural gesture.” Why? He also describes a bizarre, otherworldly chord in the song that lends the book its title – he doesn’t, actually, describe it, just tells us that it is bizarre or otherworldly.
His characters lean on clichés as well (which, up to a point, is OK as long as the clichés are in dialogue – people do use them). In some cases, notably Nakata’s frequent non sequiturs about “taking a dump,” this works to comic effect, but most of the time it just reads as if Murakami was trying to pad out the novel. All of his writer’s tics are here: frequent overlong descriptions of meals, uninteresting ruminations on pop music, people driving or getting driven around, things getting compared to wells, cats, missing women, sexually voracious 2-dimensional women, prostitutes, etc. Many people told me that Kafka on the Shore read like a remix of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, which is apt, but I found that Kafka lacked the charm and vulnerability of its predecessor. And I worry that if I ever re-read Wind Up Bird I will be blind to its virtues and focus instead on the faults it shares with this mannered, useless novel. I would recommend reading some decent Warhammer 40,000 novelizations instead (or Steven King’s dopey but entertaining Cell, which I may review anon).

[The image, by the way, is Mishima Yukio as Saint Sebastien. Mishima used to get a boner whenever he saw paintings of Saint Sebastien, so posing for this picture must have been very special for him. I am aware the Murakami and Mishima are not the same person.]


Boots said...

I mean I basically skimmed the whole way through Kafka, and you have to acknowledge that Murakami is eminently skimmable. Still, I read KoTS before W-uBC (these acronyms make me feel like I'm actually talking about Final Fantasy VII summons in a GameFAQs discussion board, and I like that), and although KoTS is a hideous, mannered literary abortion, I found its effect on W-uBC was mercifully negligible. However, once I read about the third or fourth Murakami novel, I found his puerile obsessions basically insurmountable obstacles, and found myself, as I compulsively read everything he's ever written, longing, much like Van Veen in his sexual couplings, to reclaim the Bergsonian thickness of the moment that had so deliciously haunted my reading of W-uBC. And with that, I am going to go read some tendentious garbage about Leon Krier, who called modern architecture "fascistic" and then went on to become the principal apologist for an actual Nazi architect, ALBERT SPEER. Postmodernism is amazing.

segrant said...

I'm willing to forgive Murakami for his monstrosity based on the facts that 1. The Colonel from Kentucky Fried Chicken is a character in his sad, mentally masturbatory novel, and 2. We'll always have The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which was, fittingly, penned somewhere just off of Nassau Street in Princeton, NJ.

I like the real Kafka too much to like any book entitled, irresponsibly, "Kafka on the Shore." More like "KAFKA ON THE WHORE." Zing. How's that for punching a whole in the frailties of Japanese culture?

But, seriously, sometimes when I get sad about this failed book, which is often, I climb inside a dried up well, and think dried up thoughts, riding the fine line between catatonia and consciousness. In a very Gogol flight of fancy, or perhaps in reality, I found a giant talking milkshake and a giant foot in a lush apartment at the bottom of the well last time I visited. The elevator was out and I had to take the stairs.

Let this be a lesson to us all: a bad novel is no substitute for a bout on the stairmaster.