Thursday, November 8, 2012

Book Review: Kafka on the Shore

I consider myself to be a fairly well-read guy, but that doesn't mean that there aren't a few thousand gaping holes in my reading resume.  Until very recently, Haruki Murakami represented one of the largest holes in said resume.

I honestly didn't really know where to start with Murakami, I'd heard friends and book reviewers mention a few of his titles, so I just grabbed a few of the familiar sounding titles off the shelf at the bookstore, read the blurbs on the back of the book, and settled on Kaka on the Shore  based on the fact that it promised talking cats and a couple of protagonists who aren't the typical folks I come across in my usual reading habits.

Kafka on the Shore is a novel the derives much of it's power from the two protagonists.  The first is a fifteen year old boy named Kafka, who at the start of the book, runs away from home for three good reasons: His Dad is an asshole, he's escaping a creepy oedipal prophecy, and he's searching for his long-lost mother and sister. The last reason is sorta at odds with the second reason, but hey, he's fifteen.  As far as most fifteen year old's go, Kafka is one incredibly well put together young man.  He's mentally regimented, he's clever and resourceful...all which help him get by in a world where he has no one to help him on his way.  The kicker is, like any fifteen year-old striving for self-sufficiency would find, he's incredibly vulnerable, and completely lacking in the life experiences and common sense know-how that comes with growing up, and is essential to "making it" in the real world.  This combination of strengths and weaknesses makes Kafka a very interesting person to read about.

The other main character is an aging man, Nakata, who lost much of his cognitive ability during a strange episode during his youth which left him in a coma for an extended length of time.  Nakata has been getting by thanks to a government subsidy, and his freelance cat finding side work.  Nakata excels at finding people's missing cats due mostly to the fact that he has the ability to speak to cats.  It is the search for one particular missing cat that leads Nakata on a path towards life changing events, and inextricably, towards Kafka.

Both narrative paths were quite interesting to read and both Kafka's and Nakata's paths introduced a number of other characters that were equally interesting and amazingly well developed.

The characters in Kafka on the Shore are amazingly well written.  Murakami is flat out one of the very best character writers I've ever read.  I felt like I could see each and every character so clearly in my mind's eye. While reading this book, I had an incredibly clear picture of what each character looked like, what sort of facial expressions they made, their idiosyncrasies and more. Each character feels so life-like it was amazing.  What's more amazing is that Murakami pulled this off and I have no clue how he did it.  What I'm saying is that it was nothing obvious or overt that made these characters stand out. It is hard to put my finger on just how Murakami pulls this off, but the fact is he writes some incredibly fleshed out and "real" characters in a very subtle way.

On top of great characters, Kafka on the Shore is a book this is easy to get lost in.  This is a novel that has incredibly blurry lines between reality and the fantastical.  It challenges the reader to decide what is real, what is imagined, and what is possible within the bounds of reality that is represented in the story.

I believe everyone's journey from youth into adulthood has a little bit of magic in it no matter what.  There's no doubt that relationships, love and life can take on a magical quality during those times, and Murakami takes this phenomenon a step further with Kafka's coming of age story.  There's some beautiful moments, some brutal moments, and some that are just flat out weird.  This blend of fantasy-literature/magical realism made for an enjoyable read.

Despite these great qualities, Kafka on the Shore has been sitting in my review queue for some time, getting actively ignored in favor of books that are easier for me to talk about.  Obviously, I really enjoyed this book, but it's one of those books that is hard for me to articulate why I found it so enjoyable. Even the things I just wrote about ring hollow when I think about how I really feel about this book in my heart and mind.  Sure, this is a fantastic book on a technical level.  And it's a great book on a readability level.  But it's frustrating when I can't point to why I like something so much.  Maybe it's that combination of technical skill and storytelling that makes this book feel so different and special to me.  Whatever it is, reading Kafka on the Shore sorta feels like receiving a really awesome gift.

My shortcomings as a reviewer aside, Kafka on the Shore is a book that shouldn't be missed.

Grade: A+


Bryce L. said...

I may have to give this a shot some time. I've heard lots of praise for Murakami but had kind of written it off as something I personally wouldn't like. We have pretty similar tastes so that just throws all my plans out the window.

Ryan said...

It's definitely worth giving Murakami a shot. He's an incredibly skilled writer. I'm looking forward to reading more of his stuff.

Socrates81 said...

Great novel, my first Murakami many years ago. I recommend A Wind-Up Bird Chronicle many years ago.

Ryan said...

Thanks Socrates 81. I think I have that one on my shelf, so I'll definitely be checking it out soon!