I have been reading Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. I can't say that I recommend it, but I think it is at least worth mentioning.
I went out of my way to find a copy of Kafka on the Shore because I read somewhere that it had won the 2006 World Fantasy Award for best novel. Which isn't an infallible guide to something that I might like, but I live in hope.
As it turns out I wasn't enthralled by the book. In fact I wouldn't have read beyond the first twenty pages had I not known that somebody, somewhere, must have seen something in it. So I persevered. Right, with some skipping, to the end, 500 pages later.
Kafka on the Shore is fantasy all right. Not much about it makes sense, in terms of the real world. Very little is explained. And nothing in it is what you might call normal.
There are two principal characters: Kafka himself, a 15-year-old boy who has run away from home; and Mr Nakata, aged 60-something, who has been left with a very low IQ as the result of a mysterious childhood experience, but who can talk to cats.
Kafka and Mr Nakata wander their separate ways through various mildly interesting adventures and experiences, in alternate chapters, until in the end their stories intertwine. Sort of. Kafka is a vaguely Oedipus-related figure, and Mr Nakata is some sort of savant, possessed by a spirit perhaps. Certainly something emerges from him when he dies.
So this novel is all very slow, very odd, and definitely an acquired taste. I imagine it works better if you're Japanese.
In fact, round about page 382, it occurred to me that the Japanese may find it hilarious; or at least certain parts of it. In chapter 38, Mr Hoshino hires a car. He tells the car-hire firm that he wants a car which will not be noticed.
'Maybe I shouldn't say this,' the rental assistant says, 'but since we only rent Mazdas, we don't have a single car that stands out. So rest assured.'
Now I'm not sure, but I suspect that, at this point, Japanese readers will be rolling all over the carpet. And, just in case we haven't got it, the author tells us that the white Mazda was 'totally unobstrusive. Turn away from it for a moment and every memory of what it looked like had vanished. A notable achievement in the field of anonymity.'
It occurred to me, when I read that, that Japan is (as I understand it) such a highly structured, highly regimented and highly formalised country that the adventures of Kafka and Nakata may be fascinating to Japanese readers.
There are masses of references to European culture, covering everything from Beethoven to jazz. We learn, for example, that reciting passages of Hegel can prevent premature ejaculation; we are told (quite an interesting insight) that until Edison invented electric light, most of the world was covered in darkness: the physical darkness outside and the inner darkness of the soul were mixed together, with no boundary separating the two.
There are ghosts, mysterious visitations in the night, embodiments of Johnnie Walker (the whisky fellow) and Colonel Sanders (chicken), occasional flashes of graphic sex and nastiness -- and a lot more. For a fuller description, see Wikipedia.
Overall, however, the novel was not, for me, a success. It is more rewarding to think about in retrospect than it was to read. I found it far too long, too slow, and more than a little self-indulgent.
What really interests me about the book, however, is its reception in the critical world.
An average reader, picking up Kafka on the Shore, and just starting to read it without any knowledge of its author and his standing, would, as I suggested earlier, abandon it pretty quickly.
We may reasonably assume, I think, that any western publisher's reader, faced with this book in the form of a pile of manuscript from a totally unknown author, would quickly decide that it wasn't for him.
Haruki Murakami, however, has a track record. Details can be found on his official web site. And gradually, over the years, he has attracted attention all over the world. And I am struck, once again, by the question of how and why it should come about that Murakami should have made some sort of name for himself while a thousand others, writing the same sort of books, would have got nowhere.
My conclusion, not for the first time, is that the line between success and failure in the book world is an arbitrary one. The side of it on which you fall is determined, in my view, by a factor which is variously named as luck, chance, fate, happenstance, circumstance, karma... and by the term which, influenced by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I prefer, namely randomness.
For a fuller discussion of the role of randomness, see my lengthy (free) essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile. Or, for a shorter sniff of the same theory, see my essay on the Booker Prize.
All of which reminded me of something that I might have mentioned yesterday, except that there is no online link.
Last Saturday's Times told the story of Alison Penton Harper. The article is not, as I say, online, so you'll have to make do with a similar piece provided by her publisher. Alison entered the Richard & Judy competition for new novelists, and was one of 26 shortlisted finalists out of 46,000 applicants. She was eventually placed in the last four.
Side by side with this interview, the Times ran a piece on luck. This maintained that there is 'scientific evidence' that you can improve your luck by 'engaging with it positively'. If you want to know the details of this astounding technique, fear not. It is all set out for you in a book called The Luck Factor, by Dr Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire.
Personally, whenever I hear the term 'scientific evidence', I reach for my pistol, and I haven't read The Luck Factor either. On the whole, however, I would not hold out too much hope that reading it will enable you to write books like Kafka on the Shore and, as a result, become rich, famous, and successful.