Explain Me a Story – A Review of Kafka by the Shore 

This is the last of Murakami’s work I will read; I do not know if it is partially an issue of translation and cultural differences, but I do not like his writing style. I have heard (although I have not looked into this) that Murakami started writing later in life, almost on a whim.  I have not looked into this, because it seems evident through reading his work. The writing seems like it comes from someone who enjoys literature – specifically the symbolism and metaphor found in well-renown literature – but thinks about writing as storytelling, rather than as a hard-earned craft.  There were some good ideas in Kafka, but the writing did not do them justice, and it was difficult to enjoy the forest for the trees.  I would have liked the story better if it was told more as a parable than as a modern novel, to allow the writing to focus on the major themes (the ever-evolving view of self, the transformative nature of time, the importance of memory), which are overworked in Kafka as it exists. 

My biggest struggle while reading Kafka was that dialogue was too blunt and informative.  When I say this, I mean that Murakami has his characters talk to each other as a way of explaining to the reader what he wants them to know, rather than the characters having a conversation. Murakami has Kafka – the main character in Kafka – walk you through the kill father/marry mother prophecy he received as a child multiple times, always reminding the readers that this was the same prophecy given to Oedipus in Oedipus Rex. This is the major plot point in the book: Kafka running away from a prophecy, all too aware it is from one of the most well-known Greek tragedies.  

The over-explicit dialogue is also shown in the many references to the name Kafka, and the explanation of Chekov’s gun (which was also done in 1Q84, and quite possibly the rest of Murakami’s novels). None of this is handled subtlety. None of this feels like you are coming to a realization as you read. It feels force-fed. Murakami’s characters are all too aware that literature exists and contains symbolism and plot devices, and they have no trouble referencing that awareness in their dialogue, or looking for (and believing in) that same symbolism in their ‘real’ lives. It is almost as if the characters know they are in a novel. It feels like slopping writing and a lack of trust that readers will (a) know what Kafka is alluding to, or (b) look into references they were unaware of. 

The heavy-handed description carries into the plot details and character development as well. Day-to-day tasks were over-described, and irrelevant background stories were given to characters; neither served the tone of the story, character development, or plot, and came off as filler more than anything else. This is not to say that I think every word in a story has to be calculated to move an element forward in some way, but it would be nice if some of them did. It seemed like the characters were a bit too aware of which part they were supposed to play, rather than the characters lending themselves to the full development of the story’s ideas; in that way, the characters never became more than characters or plot devices. It seemed like the novel wanted to reach for the highly metaphorical, but that Murakami didn’t trust his readers to be grasp the metaphor if it wasn’t handed directly to them (or he failed at weaving his themes into the story in a way that was subtle).

Take Murakami’s decision to have a major character come out as transgender after being confronted by two feminists about the (clearly unfounded since the male character we were introduced to was actually a female transitioning to a male all along) sexist practices at that character’s place of work.  This plot point could have played into the idea of time being transformative for individuals, but the way it was worked into the plot was heavy-handed, and felt out of place in the context of the larger story.  We know almost nothing about that character other than their transition, and it was announced in a way that made it seem inconsequential to the story’s themes. Moreover, that same character had no idea why Kafka would not be comfortable with his own body, since he was an attractive boy (I would think someone who transitioned would be more understanding toward someone who is uncomfortable in their body). 

Overall, I can see why people would enjoy this book, but I do not think it is a great work of literature.  To someone who reads more casually, there are a lot of fantastical elements that probably make for an interesting novel (a man who can talk to cats, a portal to the afterlife, incest), but these elements were scattered within a sloppily-written work. I think that either Murakami’s writing is not strong enough to hold up the weight of his ideas, or he is trying to appeal to as large an audience as possible (I tend toward the former, since the latter could have been achieved more skillfully). Again, this may be due to some of the subtlety of his language being lost in the English translation, or my lack of knowledge of Japanese culture, but I think the larger points of my criticism would still stand if I were able to read the original Japanese.

As a side note, I would like to see how rating distribution differs between the original work and its English translations, but that’s a task for a different day. 

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