Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Haruki Murakami and the workings of fate

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.


pundy said...

That's not true about Hegel

Anonymous said...

Success of Haruki Murakami is by no means a fluke, but it must be said "Kafka on the shore" isn't one of his best novels. I prefer the more realistic vein of his fiction, namely novels "Norwegian wood" and "South of the border, west of the sun". The latter one is perhaps the best literary account of infidelity that I have read. Both novels are suffused with a rather unique kind of tender sorrow. Images from these books have stayed with me for a long time, even made me reread both books. Not many books manage to do that with me.

Anonymous said...

My husband is a big fan of Steven Segal (see Marti gag ever-so-slightly - lol)

In one of his movies, the villain says, “Chance favors the prepared mind”. Husband adored the quote, even made me print it out and frame it. I’m torn. Do you think there is really any way to improve “luck” or “chance”?

Anonymous said...

I think you're being a bit unfair about poor old Murakami. As the previous comment(at)or remarked, he has written some beautiful novels, Norwegian Wood being a good case in point, and I would say the Wind-up Bird Chronicle as well, on the more magic realist side.

I didn't read this latest one but perhaps it just isn't as good as the others, or perhaps it's too far along the magic realism path for your tastes. But I don't think he can be dismissed as being successful purely by chance, at least not in the way you describe. I am sure that chance played a part in it, but only in the same way as it played a part in another very talented author's not being successful.

Murakami = talented author + success

There are lots of talentless authors out there who are successful too like Helen bloody Fielding.

Anonymous said...

Awards are a good way to market stuff (that they are a good way, is our, the consumers', fault). The last time the award went to a real giant of a writer was in 1990, when Jack Vance won it for finishing his Lyonesse trilogy up.

Anonymous said...

Might I ask if this is your first Murakami? Someone else pointed out The Wind-up Bird, which I recently just finished and I was wowed by his writing. I was intending to pick up his newest book but am now hesitating. I may read it despite negative comments simply because I enjoy his writing style while finding his storyline quite strange. He may not be to your taste, which is fine, but if his latest isn't as good as his earlier works, perhaps you would consider reading an earlier one before questioning his success.

Dr Ian Hocking said...

Interesting review, Michael. I have to say that I was sorely disappointed by Kafka on the Shore. Spurred on by others, I read South of the Border, West of the Sun and wrote a review here: Some pro-Murakami readers commented...

nessie said...

I got this book for my birthday - my degree is in East Asian Studies Language Lit. When my book club did Confessions of a Mask there were some serious problems on the whole with the 'lack of plot' & ' lack of explaination'. It's something that it seems transends because of the phonetic vs. the pictographic use of characters. I'm writing an entry on it at my blog but whats so fascinating about Asian Lit is that simplicity is presented in complex terms. The obsurd is the norm. Do you find?

Anonymous said...

Have nly read Bird Chronicle, and certainly enjoyed considerably. A kind of deadpan style that if it fails to grip one, would understandably lead one confused as to what the fuss is al about. However I thought there was a genuine depth and importantly, feeling in this book.
And just to recommend a real maverick, Victor Pelevin, particularly Clay MAchine Gun or Buddha's Little Finger as i is alternately knownn. Also Life of Insects.

SusanS said...

I can't say that I know that much about Murakami. But I do read alot. In two ways. I use books. But I also listen to an enormous quantity of audio books. Partly it's because I'm getting older. I love to read. My eyes are tiring. I stare at a computer screen all day working for a software/computer company. So when I get home at night, and even on the weekends, my eyes don't have much good time left. I read, but everything goes fuzzy. So I switch to being read to.

I love to be read to. And maybe my fascination with Kafka on the Shore is partly related to the experience I had having this book read to me. I have a good deal of patience with narrative shenanigans. And I could definitely go with the flow on Kafka on the Shore. It was a great experience. Mysterious. Broken up in terms of narrative. Fairly random. But I love the book and the experience of listening to the book. It kept driving me forward.

I plan to explore a little more of the oevre of this writer. But I have to say I was impressed by my experience. I can't say it was fun, easy, opent to explanation. Just weird, and for me definitely worth pursuing.

I just found your site. So I'll have to see how I acclimate with your view. I'm a trementous and omnivorous reader. So I hope I like this site.

Anonymous said...

Interesting point, Susan, about audio-books; a format I haven't really tried out. But surely there's a lot to be said for the spoken word. Makes possibly for a more sense laden and intimate experience. And with very little pretext, going with your mention of mysteries have you read Mysteries by Hamsun. One of my favourite readas.

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"Kafka on the Shore" is my first dose of Haruki Murakami, and one that I took up on a whim. After reading some reviews here, I also thought it was worth a shot. It was a shot I certainly in no way regret.

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