It is easier to be hex by Haruki Murakami’s fiction than to figure out how he accomplishes the hex. His novels, in USA, the best known is probably “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” — lack the usual devices of suspense. His narrators tend to be a bit passive, and the stakes in many of his shaggy-dog plots remain obscure. Yet the suggesion is nearly irresistible, and readers emerge several hundred pages later as if from a trance, convinced they’ve made contact with something significant, if not entirely sure what that something is.
Murakami’s latest, “Kafka on the Shore,” is no exception, although it is a departure for this Japanese novelist in other ways. Most of his protagonists have been men in their 30’s, easygoing solitary types with spotty romantic histories and a taste for jazz, whiskey and American films. This time, Murakami’s hero, a runaway boy calling himself Kafka Tamura, is only 15. Kafka is fleeing his father, a man whose shadowy malevolence takes the form of an Oedipal prophecy: Kafka, he insists, will kill his father and sleep with his mother and his older sister, both of whom vanished when the boy was 4.
Kafka relates his adventures in chapters that alternate with another story, that of Satoru Nakata, an elderly man. When he was 9, near the end of World War II, Nakata was part of a group of schoolchildren who, while on a school trip in the local woods, inexplicably lost consciousness. When he came to, weeks later, Nakata had lost all his memories, his ability to read and write, and most of his intelligence. On the upside, he acquired the ability to talk to cats, and so he supplements the small subsidy he gets from the government with fees his neighbors pay him to find their lost pets.
“The best way to think about reality,” the narrator of “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” declares, is “to get as far away from it as possible.” You could call this Murakami’s own method, except that in his fiction, the unreal elements are handled so matter-of-factly that they could hardly be called “far away” from the realistic ones; the two coexist seamlessly. Nakata may talk to cats, yes, but their conversations always begin with polite chitchat about the weather.
Murakami is an expert of the drowsy interstices of everyday life, reality’s cul-de-sacs, places so filled with the nothing that happens in them that they become uncanny: hallways, highway rest stops, vacant lots. Although the dreamlike quality of his work makes the film director David Lynch his nearest American counterpart, Lynch’s palette is primarily nocturnal while Murakami’s welcomes the noontime sun.
A lot of things happen in Murakami’s novels, but what lingers longest in the memory is this distinctive mood, a stillness pregnant with . . . what? Some meaning that’s forever slipping away. The author achieves this effect by doing everything wrong, at least by Western literary standards. Over the years, his prose has become increasingly, and even militantly, simple. Although Murakami is both an admirer and a translator of Raymond Carver, this simplicity isn’t the semaphoric purity of American minimalism. Partisans of the beautiful sentence will find little sustenance here.
Murakami can turn a pretty figure of speech when he chooses — headlights that “lick” the tree trunks lining a dark road, the “whooshing moan of air” from a passing truck “like somebody’s soul is being yanked out” — but he’s just as likely to opt deliberately for a cliché: “Sometimes the wall I’ve erected around me comes crumbling down.” He also makes free use of brand names. In American fiction, the sanctum of the literary must not be polluted by the trash of commercial culture — not, that is, unless it’s coated in a protective layer of satire.
Later in the novel, Kafka finds refuge in a job at a small, private library in a seaside town, while Nakata attracts the attention of a sinister cat catcher who wears leather boots, a red tailcoat and a tall hat. The cat catcher introduces himself as Johnnie Walker, but any inclination to see this as a bit of wacky humor is promptly squashed by the scene of sadistic violence that follows. Colonel Sanders, who appears farther on in the novel in a more helpful capacity, professes to be taking on the appearance of “a famous capitalist icon” as a convenience, when really, he says, “I’m an abstract concept.”
Clichés, the ephemera of pop culture, characters who proclaim their thematic function — these sound like the gambits of postmodernism, tricks meant to distance the reader from the artificiality of narrative and the sort of tactic that gets a novel labeled “cerebral.” But “Kafka at the Shore,” like all of Murakami’s fiction, doesn’t feel distant or artificial. Murakami is like a magician who explains what he’s doing as he performs the trick and still makes you believe he has supernatural powers. So great is the force of the author’s imagination, and of his conviction in the archaic power of the story he is telling, that all this junk is made genuine. Johnnie Walker becomes frightening, and Colonel Sanders a lovable if the irascible incarnation of, say, the god Hermes.
The story, of course, is a very old tale in contemporary trappings. Can Kafka escape the legacy of violence he has inherited from his father, the DNA he equates with fate? The question has resonance for Murakami, who is keenly interested in his country’s role in World War II and who has described himself as profoundly transformed by a nonfiction book he wrote about survivors of the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. Toward the end, deep in a forest, Kafka will encounter two imperial soldiers who stepped out of time during the war because they couldn’t stomach the kill-or-be-killed nature of their lot. They haven’t aged, but they also haven’t lived.
The soldiers aren’t the only characters in “Kafka at the Shore” who have chosen suspended animation over suffering the depredations of time and loss. This links “Kafka” to an earlier keystone novel of Murakami’s, “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World,” which uses the same two-story format. In that book, a noirish science fiction yarn alternates with eerie dispatches from a walled fairy-tale village where nothing ever changes. The village is eventually revealed to be a cordoned-off section of the narrator’s own unconscious mind. Because of some botched neurosurgery, he’ll soon be confined there — a kind of death, but also a kind of immortality, since in the unconscious there is no time.
The weird, stately urgency of Murakami’s novels comes from their preoccupation with such internal problems; you can imagine each as a drama acted out within a single psyche. In each, a self lies in pieces and must be put back together; a life that is stalled must be kick-started and relaunched into the bruising but necessary process of change. Reconciling us to that necessity is something stories have done for humanity since time immemorial. Dreams do it, too.
But while anyone can tell a story that resembles a dream, it’s the rare artist, like this one, who can make us feel that we are dreaming it ourselves.A healthy amount of fear and respect might be a good idea From “Kafka on the Shore.”