Mar 18, 2010

Book review: Kafka on the Shore

I had high hopes for this work by Haruki Murakami, as I was a big fan of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. I was mildly disappointed, though.

A quick aside: I listened to this book rather than read it. I reckon that has nontrivial effects on the enjoyment of a work. First there's the reader--a bad read can make a good book a slog, while a great reader can turn some pulpy schlock (like Clive Cussler) into an enjoyable experience. Second, the writing itself can sometimes not lend itself so well to being read aloud. (Try listening to The Catcher in the Rye, for example.) A third issue is translation. The writing often sounded repetitive, like the editor was lazy with the white-out. This was especially apparent during exciting or suspenseful scenes--the main characters had a tendency to narrate the action to death. But with a translated work, one always wonders if that would have played better in the original language.

On to the actual story. It's a a 15-year-old boy who calls himself Kafka. He runs away from home to escape his father, who has prophesied an Oedipal fate for Kafka. Meanwhile, an old man named Nakata who suffered a terrible accident as a child and is mentally handicapped as a result (but who can talk to cats) is sent on a quest with a truck driver named Hoshino.

That's not even the nickel summary, but I'll leave it there. The characters and the supernatural forces involved remain mysterious throughout. It's classic Murakami magical realism where everything is vague and somewhat sinister, but much more vague than usual. I enjoyed the atmosphere of the book, though the lack of explanation or context sometimes drove me nuts.

Possibly the biggest weakness aside from the loose ends is the protagonist Kafka. He's 15, and the sections involving him are written as an angsty teenager would write. It's kind of a coming of age story, but his motivations (when they are discussed) are often dull or nonsensical. Often I was just shaking my head waiting for the next chapter. (I'm not saying a book has to have a likeable protagonist, but a juvenile, irritating one can be a downer.)

The remainder of the book, though, was a real pleasure. Roughly half is spend following Mr. Nakata and company around, and that part was a lot more interesting and less self-absorbed (at certain points during the Kafka section, Murakami breaks into second person, which just about made me switch to something else). Mr. Hoshino, in particular, goes through a rather remarkable transformation that was a delight to experience.

Overall, an interesting and mysterious book marred only by an irritating protagonist and a mild case of overwriting. Worth reading.

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