Reading Haruki Murakami is like falling into something, a slumber, it may be, or a rabbit hole. Murakami’s prose is light as air; it doesn’t let on how deep you are going, not only into the trance of reading, but into the knotty matters that Murakami ultimately concerns himself with: the will to power, the acceptance of death, the ethical burden imposed upon us by the presence of evil in the world. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997), his masterpiece, was a well so deep that even Murakami seems to have had trouble recovering from it; his recent novels have been relatively slight. In Kafka on the Shore, however, Murakami has gone back to work with the heavy equipment and tunneled a little farther toward the center of his planet.
And a strange planet it is: The Kafka of the title is a 15-year-old boy, on the run from his malevolent father and a more than usually literal oedipal curse. His story takes up half the book; the other half belongs to Nakata, an old man who lost the ability to read in the course of a mysterious wartime incident, but who, by way of compensation, can speak to cats and make fish rain down from the sky. Their paths converge in a private library on the southern island of Shikoku, presided over by a hermaphrodite and a former pop star who, in the late 1960s, threw the world out of kilter by opening an entrance to the world of the dead. A careful reader will be able to assemble a fairly clear picture of what happens next and why, but that kind of detective work isn’t necessary in order to enjoy the book, any more than you have to know chess in order to enjoy Through the Looking-Glass. Nor is causality really the point. As Kafka observes late in the novel, “[B]eyond any of those details of the real, there are dreams. And everyone’s living in them.”
That’s a big statement, but Murakami has never been shy of big statements; given the choice between trees and forest, he’ll take the forest every time. The amazing thing is that he is able to cobble together a world that’s lifelike enough to hold the reader’s attention out of what are, at bottom, gross abstractions. Here’s a building, as seen by Nakata: “A shabby, miserable sort of building. The kind where shabby people spent one shabby day after another doing their shabby work. The kind of fallen-from-grace building you find in any city, the kind Charles Dickens could spend ten pages describing.” Not Murakami. He has been compared to the American minimalists Chandler and Carver, but the comparison is inapt; minimalists believe in getting the details right, whereas for Murakami the details are an impediment to seeing the whole picture. This isn’t an aesthetic decision so much as a claim about morality: The forest is good, and the trees are evil. No wonder Kafka reads a book about Adolf Eichmann; who more than Eichmann was blinded by details? “There were heavy snowfalls. Power outages. Not enough poison gas to go around. . . . At his trial he described all this, no emotion showing on his face. His recall was amazing.”
Murakami’s fiction has always had a moral dimension. The ghostly visitations of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the mysteriously uncombusted barns of “Barn Burning,” the fantastical goings-on that make Murakami one of the few writers worth reading in The New Yorker‘s stable all serve to excite the reader’s imagination, not for its own sake, but because it is only by means of imagination that we can apprehend those most fantastic notions, good and evil. This moralism can be heartening—it’s nice to think that the imagination is actually good for something—but in Kafka on the Shore, it often comes across as heavy-handed. The novel’s weakest scene pokes fun at a pair of nail-bitingly stereotyped feminists; Kafka’s mentor, Oshima, subjects the reader to a lecture about the dangers of ideology that concludes, “Each person feels pain in his own way, each has his own scars. So I think I’m as concerned about fairness and justice as anybody. But what disgusts me even more are people who have no imagination. The kind T.S. Eliot calls hollow men. People who fill up that imagination with heartless bits of straw . . . ” It’s as if Murakami were tired of turning the key in the wind-up bird of fiction, and had let the bird run down until it simply croaked out what was on his mind.
In another book, the lapse would be fatal, but Kafka on the Shore is so strange that even its chestnuts take on an air of mystery. It’s like a recording in which you hear the scraping of a musician’s chair: If the music is good enough, even the chair belongs to it. As Oshima says, “[A] certain type of perfection can be realized only through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect.” This is a clunker too, but it’s delivered by a hermaphrodite who is driving a 15-year-old boy named Kafka to his mountain hideout, discussing Schubert all the while. The forest is rescued by the trees.