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J.A.A. Purves

Kafka on the Shore (2002) - Haruki Murakami

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I've finished reading, and my thoughts run a bit long (about 1500 words) so I've posted it on my website ... I look forward to hearing other people's responses/responses to my response.

Ok, I don't think there are very many of us who have finished this yet. And anyhow it's still March, so let's not discuss any of the spoilers just yet. I'm a little concerned that even a discussion without spoilers may potentially discourage the others from finishing the book (at least this book). Sometimes, it doesn't take much to convince me to put particular books down and not pick them up again for a couple years as I tear through a ton of more enjoyable books first. So, even though we'll be expressing disappointment, I'll qualify my disappointment by saying that it was still worth reading, if for no other reason than we need to have discussions about books like this once in a while.

It is hilarious. It is disgusting and offensive. It is exciting. It is confusing and frustrating. My overall impression of it is negative, and I’ll try to explain why below.

I certainly enjoyed Murakami's writing style (even in a translation). But to say my overall impression of it was still negative would be an understatement. Having finished it, the only thing I haven't decided is whether it rates in the "books I hate" category (rating it a 0 out of 5) or the "books I dislike strongly" category (a 1 out of 5 for good writing).

Of course, it’s also worth thinking about KotS as a work of art. I say: Murakami has clearly honed his craft. Every bit of every chapter contributes, and my overall sense was of being in strong, well-accustomed hands. I don’t have any misgivings about KotS on grounds of craft.

It is for this reason and this reason alone that I'm not giving up on Haruki Murakami yet after just one book. I do need to take a break from him for a while.

Perhaps it will be helpful if I quote what a young woman says about “Kafka on the Shore”, a lyric poem that the novel is named after:

I think she [the author of the poem, Miss Saeki] found the right words by bypassing procedures like meaning and logic. She captured words in a dream, like delicately catching hold of a butterfly’s wings as its flutters around. Artists are those who can evade the verbose. (p. 225)

It would be a mistake to try to explain exactly what the meaning of KotS is. Instead, I think we can examine each image as it goes by and see what it evokes.

Maybe it's because I'm also currently gritting my teeth through Rob Bell's latest right now, but I'm am starting to get really tired of all this talk about bypassing old-fashioned methodology like meaning and logic, tradition and reason, absolute claims to truth and doctrine. I realize it could be a mistake to try and explain the meaning behind Kafka on the Shore because Murakami himself could potentially have decided for it not to have a meaning. I keep being told that it would be a mistake to try and "label" "judge" or "categorize" Bell's beliefs on hell because Bell never intended to use his theological book to advocate for a particular doctrine. But, it's probably not fair, I know. Kafka on the Shore is a work of dreamy fiction, Love Wins is, well, that's another thread.

What I think I will do, David, is disagree with you. There is a meaning in Kafka on the Shore, and there is one because it is impossible to write a fictional story without the way you look at the world (your philosophy) affecting how you write the story. I think it's worth trying to explain what that meaning is. I actually don't think that it would be a mistake to try. The things in this story all happen for a reason. Just as the events in the novels of Shusaku Endo all happen for a reason. The author put them there on purpose.

Even if an author intends for his book to have no meaning, he's still taking a side whether it likes it or not. A story where the world the characters live in has no meaning, and their actions are all pointless in the end, is a story of a world according to one particular philosophical point of view.

On a separate note, while I'm not absolutely against reading another book along this vein for our club again, let's try and go in a different direction for our next book selection.

We'll lift the spoiler ban in discussion here sometime in early April.

Edited by Persiflage

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While I'm excited to hear more reactions about the book (my general thought was that I liked it, but it was beach read last summer), I'd like to suggest anyone put off by some of KOS's more...ethereal, fantastic elements not to put off Murakami entirely just yet. I think NORWEGIAN WOOD is very interesting and good book, and quite different from some of Murakami's other work.

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I have to admit, I'm kind of reluctant to start reading this book after these super-negative reactions.

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I have to admit, I'm kind of reluctant to start reading this book after these super-negative reactions.

Don't let them put you off. I really want to know what you think of it. (Plus, I'm pretty sure that they are disliking the book on the level of philosophy, rather than craftsmanship).

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Thanks for the response, Jeremy. I agree that spoilers should be avoided... so I'll limit myself to a brief, general response for now...

What I think I will do, David, is disagree with you. There is a meaning in Kafka on the Shore, and there is one because it is impossible to write a fictional story without the way you look at the world (your philosophy) affecting how you write the story. I think it's worth trying to explain what that meaning is. I actually don't think that it would be a mistake to try. The things in this story all happen for a reason. Just as the events in the novels of Shusaku Endo all happen for a reason. The author put them there on purpose.

Even if an author intends for his book to have no meaning, he's still taking a side whether it likes it or not. A story where the world the characters live in has no meaning, and their actions are all pointless in the end, is a story of a world according to one particular philosophical point of view.

In general, whether I'm reading Scripture, philosophy, fiction... whatever: I draw a firm line between different senses of "meaning". Maybe we're going to disagree about meaning in KotS, maybe not. But if we do then we'll have to distinguish between the literal meaning (what happens) and the other types of meaning (how is the author trying to describe indescribable things -- whether those things are moral, emotional, spiritual, whatever).

If you think I was wrong to say, "It would be a mistake to try to explain exactly what the meaning of KotS is," then I look forward to hearing your explanation of its exact meaning. :) I'm partly teasing you here, but I know that if I tried I would flounder and drown... but that could just be me.

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I'd like to suggest anyone put off by some of KOS's more...ethereal, fantastic elements not to put off Murakami entirely just yet.

Yeah, it's absolutely not the ethereal, fantastic elements that are putting me off.

I have to admit, I'm kind of reluctant to start reading this book after these super-negative reactions.

Don't let them put you off. I really want to know what you think of it. (Plus, I'm pretty sure that they are disliking the book on the level of philosophy, rather than craftsmanship).

It's an eastern cultural fairy tale full of philosophy discussion. The fact that I disagree with the philosophy doesn't mean I don't enjoy reading Murakami's writing. On the plus side, it has mystery, philosophical talking cats, luridly described libraries and woods, and a dream-like, ethereal quality to the story as noted above. On the negative side, I believe it's coming from an essentially Pantheistic and deterministic worldview, and therefore has an abysmal amoral element to it that I find both false and depressing.

In general, whether I'm reading Scripture, philosophy, fiction... whatever: I draw a firm line between different senses of "meaning". Maybe we're going to disagree about meaning in KotS, maybe not. But if we do then we'll have to distinguish between the literal meaning (what happens) and the other types of meaning (how is the author trying to describe indescribable things -- whether those things are moral, emotional, spiritual, whatever).

I guess the question is - does every author write even fiction under the auspices of a worldview or philosophy?

If you think I was wrong to say, "It would be a mistake to try to explain exactly what the meaning of KotS is," then I look forward to hearing your explanation of its exact meaning. I'm partly teasing you here, but I know that if I tried I would flounder and drown... but that could just be me.

As the discussion continues, and later after more of the group have finished the book and we can finally specifically mention some spoilers, I think I'm going to say that the story is an example of a Pantheistic and Determinist world. That this sort of world is abhorrent. And that hopelessness and despair are a direct result of believing specific things, things which the characters in this book say they do actually believe.

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As the discussion continues, and later after more of the group have finished the book and we can finally specifically mention some spoilers, I think I'm going to say that the story is an example of a Pantheistic and Determinist world. That this sort of world is abhorrent.

Is it somehow especially more abhorrent than any other non-Christian (or, I should say, non-monotheistic) worldview?

Edited by Ryan H.

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Ryan, it's more that Murakami takes the idea of an unavoidable curse (I suppose this is part of what is deterministic), and pushes it to its furthest end, what I called (in the spoilered section of my essay) "among the most horrifying images I can imagine".

Edited by David Smedberg

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Is it somehow especially more abhorrent than any other non-Christian (or, I should say, non-monotheistic) worldview?

No. Other worldviews and philosophies are at least not amoral.

It's any philosophy that finds itself without, or beyond, or transcending good and evil that I always find most abhorrent.

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Murakami has a short story in the new New Yorker, but a subscription is required for full access.

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Finished KotS this evening. I'll defer making lengthier comments for the time being. A very good read, but I think I prefer Windup Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood. Even if I didn't find it as engrossing as these other two works, I find the label amoral overstrong: certainly Murakami tosses around the notion of 'beyond good and evil' a couple of times, but I found more evidence for notions of right and wrong behavior. There are some loathsome goings-on here, but I don't think they're endorsed as good conduct. Similarly, I see a tension and balance between (pre)destiny/determinism and individual choice in the world depicted herein, rather than the weight falling exclusively on one side of the issue.

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Glad you liked it, Andrew. I'm plugging away at the book -- won't be finished with it by April 1, but I'm confident I'll finish it in the next couple of weeks -- and have been a bit surprised at the negativism of some of the earlier posts here. I realize certain characters' behaviors are distasteful, and their belief systems aren't my own, but I find the book consistently compelling. I'm not sure it's great literature -- it's a bit all over the map -- but I like the strangeness of it.

Edited by Christian

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Finished KotS this evening. I'll defer making lengthier comments for the time being. A very good read, but I think I prefer Windup Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood. Even if I didn't find it as engrossing as these other two works, I find the label amoral overstrong: certainly Murakami tosses around the notion of 'beyond good and evil' a couple of times, but I found more evidence for notions of right and wrong behavior. There are some loathsome goings-on here, but I don't think they're endorsed as good conduct. Similarly, I see a tension and balance between (pre)destiny/determinism and individual choice in the world depicted herein, rather than the weight falling exclusively on one side of the issue.

When you have time, I hope I can ask you more about what you think of the conclusion. That was the part that I have the most intellectual difficulty with -- particularly Kafka's reconciliation with his mother. The next-to-last 2 paragraphs of my review get into my problems with this part a bit -- how I felt it was in contradiction to a lot of what was good that had come before.

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Finished KotS this evening. I'll defer making lengthier comments for the time being. A very good read, but I think I prefer Windup Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood. Even if I didn't find it as engrossing as these other two works, I find the label amoral overstrong: certainly Murakami tosses around the notion of 'beyond good and evil' a couple of times, but I found more evidence for notions of right and wrong behavior. There are some loathsome goings-on here, but I don't think they're endorsed as good conduct. Similarly, I see a tension and balance between (pre)destiny/determinism and individual choice in the world depicted herein, rather than the weight falling exclusively on one side of the issue.

When you have time, I hope I can ask you more about what you think of the conclusion. That was the part that I have the most intellectual difficulty with -- particularly Kafka's reconciliation with his mother. The next-to-last 2 paragraphs of my review get into my problems with this part a bit -- how I felt it was in contradiction to a lot of what was good that had come before.

I hope we can get into some deeper discussion in general, in the near future. I've been swamped with work and baseball practices lately, so not much time spent at A&F lately. I promise I'll read your full blog post, soon...

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Is the "official" discussion underway? I still have 85 pages to go, but progress has been good and I see myself finishing the book this week. Thought it was worth stokin' the fires here since it's now April.

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Is the "official" discussion underway? I still have 85 pages to go, but progress has been good and I see myself finishing the book this week. Thought it was worth stokin' the fires here since it's now April.

Sure, I've been preparing another post on this, so I'll finish and post it this evening after I get off work. Since it's April, I'll officially lift our spoiler ban for purposes of discussion now (so finish those last 85 pages asap).

Edited to add: sorry guys, that post I was writing on a word document somehow got deleted, so I am now rewriting it. Hope to have it up sometime tomorrow.

Edited by Persiflage

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Finished!

Time to go read through the thread.

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I'm actually having a hard time summing up my reaction to this book.

As I noted earlier, I obviously disagree with the pantheist / determinist worldview, but that's an easy generalized objection. But the worst part of about it was my gut reaction. I got caught up in the eerie dreamlike fairy-tale quality of the book for the first half, but then my enjoyment of the writing simply turned to revulsion. I just have absolutely no interest in discussing the philosophical worth of raping your sister or f**king your mother. I'm disappointed with Murakami because I know he could do better than this. Trying to explore Oedipal complexes just doesn't interest me. I'm sure there was some sort of symbolism that Murakami was aiming for in all this, but I didn't care because I just felt sick to my stomach.

Yes, I know this is just fiction. But why should I ever be interested in reading stories about guys who screw their sisters and mothers? This does not interest me. I tried years ago and then threw Chuck Palahniuk's Rant in the garbage can. I just don't know why these stories are worth my time. I'm currently right in the middle of reading Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin, Ten Ways To Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen, Addicted to Mediocrity by Franky Schaeffer and A War Like No Other by Victor Davis Hanson. Every single one of these other books seems like a breath of fresh air after reading Kafka on the Shore.

More thoughts soon ...

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But why should I ever be interested in reading stories about guys who screw their sisters and mothers?

Well, there are a few in the Bible.

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I just have absolutely no interest in discussing the philosophical worth of raping your sister or f**king your mother. I'm disappointed with Murakami because I know he could do better than this. Trying to explore Oedipal complexes just doesn't interest me. I'm sure there was some sort of symbolism that Murakami was aiming for in all this, but I didn't care because I just felt sick to my stomach.

That revulsion can have value in the right context. Joe Carter, at First Things, did a better job than I think I could of defending this in his article "In Defense of Disgust":

Because we lack an innate sense of what to avoid, the full range of disgust triggers must be taught. Disgust, as an emotion, must be learned. And as with any knowledge that is not inherently in our biological makeup, disgust can be culturally relative and passed on through successive generations.

By this we can conclude that there is such a thing as what bioethicist Leon Kass calls "wisdom of repugnance," at least with regard to core disgusts such as our taste for food.

Speaking for myself, when I called KotS "disgusting", I didn't mean that as an unconditional condemnation -- more as an initial reaction that I needed to push past.

Edited by David Smedberg

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I am 100 pages from the finish line. This has turned from pleasure to homework. I have finished six books since I started KotS.

The dream-like quality Persiflage mentioned is a perfect description for how the early part of the book worked for me. I am out of my usual Twain-Hemingway-Hammett comfort zone, so I am sure much of the problem is on my end.

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But why should I ever be interested in reading stories about guys who screw their sisters and mothers?

Well, there are a few in the Bible.

True, but those are true stories about real people that demonstrate the consequences of sin. I see no similar redemptive value in Palahniuk's Rant or Murakami's Kafka on the Shore or any given number of stories where incest is not portrayed as wrong, but is instead used for shock value, symbolism, or psychological explorations of Freud's favorite Sophocles' play. I gotta side with Tony Soprano on this one - "And all this crap about Freud and every boy wanting to have sex with his mother, that's not gonna fly here."

That revulsion can have value in the right context. Joe Carter, at First Things, did a better job than I think I could of defending this in his article "In Defense of Disgust":

Those who reject the concept of the wisdom of repugnance must be prepared to deliver solid arguments against incest, bestiality, necrophilia, and other moral horrors that lie within the Pandora's Box of taboo behaviors. If all ethical arguments must withstand the rigors of analytical reasoning then we will have to reject a great deal of our deepest moral presuppositions. Are we prepared to do that in order that radical individualism may advance unimpeded?

So there is disgust and there is moral revulsion. It seems like the type of disgust Carter is defending is moral revulsion, a good and necessary thing for anyone who hasn't lost their God given conscience. On a side note, accepting the "wisdom of repugnance" does not mean there aren't still solid arguments against the moral horrors that Carter lists.

Speaking for myself, when I called KotS "disgusting", I didn't mean that as an unconditional condemnation -- more as an initial reaction that I needed to push past.

"Push past" to get to what? An appreciation for Murakami's writing? I've got that already. But I can't say I find any of the ideas advanced by this story here in the least useful, redemptive, interesting, or even that thought-provoking when it all comes down to it. Halfway through the novel, the philosophy being discussed looked like it might go somewhere and it therefore held my interest. Well, after reading the second half, I found that it did go somewhere.

I am 100 pages from the finish line. This has turned from pleasure to homework. I have finished six books since I started KotS.

This describes my experience precisely. I began Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale (for the first time) when I was already halfway through KotS, just the moral difference between the two fictional worlds of both books was a difference between fresh air and drowning.

Edited by Persiflage

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True, but those are true stories about real people that demonstrate the consequences of sin.

But your objection seemed to be more categorical, i.e., "If it features incest, I just ain't interested."

Still haven't read the book, BTW. I do have it sitting here.

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Speaking for myself, when I called KotS "disgusting", I didn't mean that as an unconditional condemnation -- more as an initial reaction that I needed to push past.

"Push past" to get to what? An appreciation for Murakami's writing? I've got that already. But I can't say I find any of the ideas advanced by this story here in the least useful, redemptive, interesting, or even that thought-provoking when it all comes down to it. Halfway through the novel, the philosophy being discussed looked like it might go somewhere and it therefore held my interest. Well, after reading the second half, I found that it did go somewhere.

This question -- "to what?" -- is exactly the one that we need to discuss. But I've already articulated at least some response to the question in my thoughts:

I think that if I stick to my resolve, to see [the resolution of the story] as an image whose meaning is veiled, it fails, because it has become a didactic tale of redemption. The veils of its mysteries are stripped away — like how pornography strips sex of its mystery. If I take it as a parable or a morality tale, it fails also, because Kafka has invited the darkness into himself and never admits to his sin, so it can’t ever be redeemed. I’m not sure if there’s another way to look at the climax of KotS which resolves my dissatisfaction. I would like to be able to say that Murakami successfully evades the verbose, but I can’t.

I'm looking forward to hearing someone step up to the plate and offer a more satisfying interpretation, which I'm sure can be done. I started the ball rolling, but I don't think I've really grasped the heart of the book yet.

Edited by David Smedberg

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Sorry for yesterday's now-deleted post, folks (and Jeremy in particular, who's been gracious in our PM exchange about this). A few days' sleep deprivation around caring for a sick child - now thankfully on the mend - plus feeling protective about an author whose work is meaningful to me do not make a good combination. I should've waited to post until I could do so more thoughtfully.

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