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Kafka on the Shore (2002) - Haruki Murakami


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#41 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 04 April 2011 - 01:12 PM

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, 05 April 2011 - 10:58 PM.


#42 Christian

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Posted 09 April 2011 - 06:27 PM

Finished!

Time to go read through the thread.

#43 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 10 April 2011 - 11:26 PM

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 ...

#44 Ryan H.

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Posted 11 April 2011 - 09:02 AM

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.

#45 David Smedberg

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Posted 11 April 2011 - 09:10 AM

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, 11 April 2011 - 09:12 AM.


#46 J. Henry Waugh

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Posted 11 April 2011 - 01:18 PM

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.

#47 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 11 April 2011 - 01:37 PM

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, 11 April 2011 - 01:43 PM.


#48 Ryan H.

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Posted 11 April 2011 - 01:42 PM

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.

#49 David Smedberg

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Posted 11 April 2011 - 02:48 PM

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, 11 April 2011 - 02:54 PM.


#50 Andrew

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Posted 12 April 2011 - 02:18 PM

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.

#51 David Smedberg

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Posted 12 April 2011 - 02:48 PM

:)

Christian? I'm eager to hear your thoughts... Did you continue to find it compelling (much more, enjoyable) through the end?

Edited by David Smedberg, 12 April 2011 - 02:48 PM.


#52 Christian

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Posted 14 April 2011 - 06:58 PM

:)

Christian? I'm eager to hear your thoughts... Did you continue to find it compelling (much more, enjoyable) through the end?

I've been hesitant to post here because
1) The book took me a while to get through, and by the time I was finished with it, I had a hard time remembering what my questions/observations about the earlier parts of the book had been. I'm thinking that the chapter-by-chapter approach to earlier discussions, which didn't seem to work, might be preferable in some ways if it helps me to put my thoughts down as I read through a book. I could have done that in handwritten/diary form and then typed up those notes, but I've never been that kind of reader. I know many readers love to jot notes in the margins of their books, to dog-ear pages, etc. That's never been my style. And that sort of thing doesn't sit well with the librarians!

2) I allowed myself to be pulled into the narrative despite some misgivings that the story might go no place ... well, I was going to write "redemptive," but the broader term that comes to mind is simply "satisfying." I sensed that I might be pouring a lot of time into a book without a payoff.

3) So why did I keep reading? Because I've come to believe that in books and movies and other forms of art, payoffs are overrated. The cliche is true: Sometimes it's more about the journey than the destination, and Murakami's journey had me interested enough to keep reading. The early pages with the school kids and the strange thing that happens to them was a fantastic hook, and I wanted to know more. I also liked Oshima and his/her relationship with Kafka, although Kafka himself was a bit hard for me to relate to as a protagonist. I'm only realizing that now as I type this -- guess there's a point to actually writing down our responses, huh? Miss Sakei was distant, but her character's role in the story became clearer to me as the novel developed.

4) I liked the idea of running away from home only to end up spending one's days reading in the library. Forget the running-away bit; the notion of whiling away our days in a library, reading and learning, seems romantic to me, but it also makes me wonder how many kids spend their days in libraries waiting for moms and dads, or nannies. I once read a book by a librarian about the librarian's daily work, and how the "regulars" would arrive at the same time every day. These included school kids who had nowhere else to go. The librarians disliked being made to take on the role of babysitters for parents who were at work and who had instructed their kids to use the public library as an after-school waiting area until the end of the work day. The kids would goof off, and would work out aggressions and energy built up over the course of their school days. But what if they pulled books off the shelf and read, as Kafka did? What if I'd done that on my bored-to-tears summer days growing up? Would I have knocked out books at the same rate as Kafka? Would I have had the patience, or the interest?

5) No one has discussed Nakata, probably my favorite character in the book. I felt a strange compassion for him, and I enjoyed his friendship with Hoshino. I suppose Nakata could be said to represent ... well, I don't want to speculate. I took his character straight, didn't think about Murakami's literary purpose beyond the plot mechanics, to which Nakata is essential. And I liked the way his story intersected with Kafka's.

How's that for now? My wife is about to arrive home with ice cream, and I want to watch "American Idol." So, I'll stop.

BTW, when I started this post I thought it would be one-sentence long, and would boil down to, "I didn't really get it."

Edited by Christian, 14 April 2011 - 07:03 PM.


#53 Crow

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Posted 15 April 2011 - 04:18 PM

I have finished the book, but I really haven't been able to get my head around the whole thing well enough to write much about it. I think the book is a collection of interesting things that happen: some really disturbing, some that are darkly humorous, and some that are just plain weird. But I am struggling to come up with a sense of the what the book is about as a whole. I feel there is a lot intertwined with Japanese culture and religion and philosophy that I don't understand.

I do agree that the first half of the book is really engaging, but as things go on, the ending turns out to be a letdown, particularly because of Kafka the main character. I was sympathetic toward him in the beginning, and to his friendship with Oshima. But I was put off by the incestuous stuff toward the end. Although Murakami is a skilled enough storyteller to keep me engaged enough to hope for some kind of redemption. Then the end came, and all I can say is, meh.

I liked the friendship between Nakata and Hoshino. That is what kept me reading. I liked that Hoshino seems to have a kind of awakening, in learning the value of reading and in his realization that there's more to life than working a lousy job and random casual sex. But as amiable as Nakata was, I don't think his character arc received a true sense of closure.

So all in all, an intriguing but at times frustrating read. Although I will never think of Colonel Sanders the same way again.

#54 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 15 April 2011 - 04:38 PM

But as amiable as Nakata was, I don't think his character arc received a true sense of closure.

I've been told, but I don't know for sure, that Nakata appears in at least one other Murakami novel.

Edited by Persiflage, 15 April 2011 - 04:38 PM.


#55 Christian

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Posted 15 April 2011 - 04:42 PM

FWIW, I picked up a copy today of Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, but am not sure I'm going to read it. The library has Norwegian Wood on audiobook; I think that might be my next Murakami.

#56 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 17 April 2011 - 11:04 AM

So why did I keep reading? Because I've come to believe that in books and movies and other forms of art, payoffs are overrated. The cliche is true: Sometimes it's more about the journey than the destination, and Murakami's journey had me interested enough to keep reading. The early pages with the school kids and the strange thing that happens to them was a fantastic hook, and I wanted to know more. I also liked Oshima and his/her relationship with Kafka, although Kafka himself was a bit hard for me to relate to as a protagonist. I'm only realizing that now as I type this -- guess there's a point to actually writing down our responses, huh?

This is why I really enjoyed the first half of the book as well. It was both fascinating and gripping. The problem, for me personally at least, was that it isn't all just journey. There is a "destination" Kafka arrives at in this book. As I understood it, it was a "destination" both predetermined and amoral.

BTW, when I started this post I thought it would be one-sentence long, and would boil down to, "I didn't really get it."

I'm tempted to say I didn't get it either. But I've been exposed to enough pantheism and determinism in my past reading, that I'm afraid I did get it. If certain things are true, then the ending, and Kafka's choices (which really aren't supposed to be choices as we understand them in our world) at the end, don't really matter. But it's saying the end doesn't matter that is exactly one of the things that bothers me.

But I am struggling to come up with a sense of the what the book is about as a whole. I feel there is a lot intertwined with Japanese culture and religion and philosophy that I don't understand.

I explained early in my reading how the book seemed to me to be about a pantheist and determinist view of the world. I get the sense that not everyone here agrees, but no one's really explained why yet.

Although Murakami is a skilled enough storyteller to keep me engaged enough to hope for some kind of redemption. Then the end came, and all I can say is, meh.

So I guess an obvious question would be why not just settle for enjoying the "journey" that Kafka takes in the book without worrying about the end?

#57 Andrew

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Posted 17 April 2011 - 04:18 PM

OK, let me try to condense my 3 pages of notes into something cohesive and more concise. And I think the ‘obnoxious ass’ switch in my brain is securely in the off position for the time being, so here goes:

- The notions of omens and dreams are fascinating in this story. My sense is that the omens discussed here are not otherworldly but are rather contained in human/sinful nature (p 11) and in the tragic mechanisms of the world (p 336). As Mimi the cat says, “This world is a terribly violent place. And nobody can escape the violence” (p 83). This violence may manifest itself in a bizarre wartime experience (Nakata), a mother’s abandonment and father’s cruelty (Kafka), or a lover’s senseless, violent death (Miss Saeki). Determinism or fate, in other words, is simply the ways things are, but each character has a choice in whether to react to this fate In a moral or immoral manner. One can become an empty shell waiting for death like Miss Saeki, or choose to enter the twisted labryrinth and find forgiveness like Kafka.

- Kafka’s abhorrent behavior in his dreams primarily indicates to me the utter baseness of which every single one of us is capable. It’s horrifying but true. ‘The world of the grotesque is the darkness within us’ (p 225-6). With all of his talk about repressed labryrinths and the mirroring of the external natural world of dark forests and deep wells, I think Murakami’s characters are telling us semi-plainly that ignoring this potential is perilous, leading to further bloodshed, evil, and intrapsychic misery. Ergo, the Yeats quote (p 132) stating, ‘In dreams begin responsibilities,’ and a page later, the comment that ‘what I imagine is perhaps very important for the entire world.’

- I disagree with the comment that the world of KotS is an amoral one. This seems pretty clear from the depiction of Kafka’s rape of Sakura, which Sakura labels repeatedly as wrong (pp 370-1), with Kamura’s semen likened to ‘some illegitimate child born of the darkness.’ Kafka’s murderous and sexually violent behavior is shortly thereafter described as having branded his curse even more deeply upon him (p 387). As the soldiers in the forest say, it’s hard to tell right from wrong sometimes, but we still have to do it (p 444).

- I love all the parallels and contrasts in Murakami’s writing, how for instance Nakata’s emptiness is contrasted with the emptiness imposed by civilization (p 328). How, also, each main character has his commenting koros: Nakata has his Hagita, while Kafka has Oshima. Murakami also seems to like deep wells in which one can get lost, a motif repeated in Wind Up Bird Chronicle and Norwegian Wood. The contrasting setup of an ethereal versus a more grounded woman is also repeated in Norwegian Wood – like Miss Saeki, one of the main women in Norwegian Wood pleads for the protagonist to remember her, above all.

- While the last hundred or so pages felt like a slog to me initially, in rereading my underlined passages, the book seems to cohere more effectively. It was touching how the loss of his mother’s love felt like a fundamental defect to Kafka, and how finding forgiveness made it possible for him to smile and cry by book’s end, yet still remaining the world’s toughest 15 year old.

- Effective, too, are the asides and pithy insights drawing from all sorts of literary sources: Haydn, Arabian Nights, Soseki, Plato’s Symposium, The Tale of Genji, etc. I starred and underlined Oshima’s comment on p 111: ‘You discover something about that work that tugs at your heart – or maybe we should say the work discovers you.’ Beautiful, too, when we see this exemplified in Hagita’s discovery of the Archduke Trio and Truffaut.

#58 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 25 April 2011 - 07:51 PM

Thanks for taking the time to put your thoughts down, Andrew. I appreciate the effort.

I also found the dreams and mystery at the beginning of the book fascinating. While I didn't particularly like this book, I'm not forgetting about Murakami. A number of his other books sound worth reading, and I look forward to trying them. I guess I just didn't understand the Determinist bit of the story. Kafka overcomes what he is fated to do by deciding to do it? How is that making a free decision. He knows he has to do evil so he chooses to do evil and that sets him free? This is what I don't get.

I do get that the crimes he commits in his dreams are reflective of the evil every single one of us is capable of. Our hearts and minds and imaginations are full of darkness, and therefore we often are guilty of imagining or fantasizing about evil in ways that - even if they didn't lead to action - still reflect upon our moral state. It is confronting this that I was looking forward to as I kept reading the book, and it was how the book dealt with it that left me with the impression of emptiness.

I'm willing to admit my impression of the book being amoral wasn't quite right. The characters do know right from wrong in this story. One of the reasons I liked Nakata was his ability to act to prevent wrong in spite of himself. I got the impression in the first place because Kafka's wrong choices didn't seem to matter at the end. But I could just be misunderstanding the ending.

I'm interested in the forgiveness element to the story - could you explain this more?

#59 Andrew

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Posted 25 April 2011 - 09:23 PM

Thanks for taking the time to put your thoughts down, Andrew. I appreciate the effort.

I also found the dreams and mystery at the beginning of the book fascinating. While I didn't particularly like this book, I'm not forgetting about Murakami. A number of his other books sound worth reading, and I look forward to trying them. I guess I just didn't understand the Determinist bit of the story. Kafka overcomes what he is fated to do by deciding to do it? How is that making a free decision. He knows he has to do evil so he chooses to do evil and that sets him free? This is what I don't get.


Thanks, Jeremy. I don't think I 'get' the determinism/free choice thing either, but by the same token, I don't 'get' the tension of predestination/free will in Christian theology either. To paraphrase Professor Gopnik's cheating/not-cheating student in A Serious Man, maybe I'm willing to embrace the mystery.

Then again, to judge by the dialogue between Kafka and his sister/not-sister in the rape dream, I don't think he's exactly set free by his violent choices, even if we don't have a satisfying closure/wages-of-sin ending to the story. She indicates, too, in one of their phone conversations that Kafka is existing in a very perilous state by associating with all of the strange, other-worldly people at the library.

I do get that the crimes he commits in his dreams are reflective of the evil every single one of us is capable of. Our hearts and minds and imaginations are full of darkness, and therefore we often are guilty of imagining or fantasizing about evil in ways that - even if they didn't lead to action - still reflect upon our moral state. It is confronting this that I was looking forward to as I kept reading the book, and it was how the book dealt with it that left me with the impression of emptiness.


I think I see what you mean here, and perhaps this is the source of some of my own dissatisfaction with the last hundred or so pages. Despite my praise of Kafka here, those last 100 pages took as long and probably considerably longer to finish than all of the preceding pages.

If I'm remembering correctly from the other Murakami books that I've read, his stories have a definite ending to them, even if they're not tidy or overly satisfying.

I'm willing to admit my impression of the book being amoral wasn't quite right. The characters do know right from wrong in this story. One of the reasons I liked Nakata was his ability to act to prevent wrong in spite of himself. I got the impression in the first place because Kafka's wrong choices didn't seem to matter at the end. But I could just be misunderstanding the ending.


Perhaps this is grace at play in Murakami's world, even if he wouldn't use that theologically-laden term. Towards the beginning of the book, one of the characters cites a Buddhist proverb about blessing/meaning found in chance encounters, and in a way, it's Kafka's chance encounter with his sister/non-sister on the bus that keeps him grounded and continues to extend kindness towards him, in spite of his neglect of her and then his horrific mistreatment of her in the dream.

I'm interested in the forgiveness element to the story - could you explain this more?


I guess I was thinking of my work with traumatized individuals or those who have suffered horrible losses early in life, whose experiences have left them numb intrapsychically and detached in relationships with others (or just utterly pissed off with the world and themselves). They may feel like the world's toughest 15- or 50-year old, but most people see them as cold, walled-off, or angry. Doing the hard work of deep, meaningful forgiveness - coming to terms with the emotions and consequences of their early experiences, letting go of bitterness and resentment - frees them to feel deep emotion and connect with others, free to feel affection, tenderness, and grief - free to smile and cry again.

Sorry if this is a bit rushed, but I wanted to use a bit of free time in a fairly busy week ahead to post a response to your comments.

Edited by Andrew, 25 April 2011 - 10:03 PM.


#60 Christian

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Posted 24 June 2011 - 07:24 PM

This book has been short-listed as a nominee for the Atlantic's next read-along.