I think it’s probably best to start by saying I have no idea what I was reading, but I loved reading it. My first experience with Murakami was Norwegian Wood, which might have been a bit odd, but certainly not anything outside of the bounds of reality. I expected Kafka to be something similar, with a story of frustrated love, people who feel lost or displaced in the world, a bit of a melancholy reflection on life, and a succumbing to sexual urges. I certainly got all of that in Kafka, but I also got one of the most intensely ‘magical’ works of magical realism I’ve ever read. Like a Gabriel Garcia Marquez book filtered through the mind of William Burroughs.
At one moment I was reading a fairly simple story about a teenage boy who ran away from home because of his strained relationship with his father. A good hook for a coming of age tale, nothing too confusing about it. Murakami perhaps made Kafka a bit too mature for his age, but he did manage to convey the rash impulsiveness and desperate sexuality of a 15 year old boy. The book almost immediately goes off the rails though, with a second protagonist who can talk to cats and was left handicapped after some sort of bizarre mass coma/hypnosis event during WWII that’s never really explained. And this is before the literal personifications of Johnny Walker and Colonel Sanders start showing up eating the hears of cats and pimping women like whimsical gods. And it only gets stranger from there. Ghost sex, monsters, supernatural portals, murder, suicide and incest all play a role somewhere in the story.
The book reveled so much in the bizarre and unexplained, then radically shift gears back to the mundane so quickly that it was often frustrating. Whether it was intentional or not, I felt especially annoyed by how calmly the characters took everything that happened. Even when they did note that what they were doing was strange, they didn’t seem to be particularly put off by it. Much of the story involved completely bizarre turns and wild turnabouts that I wasn’t ever able to decipher that it took me out of the story to some extent. The saving grace was the language. Murakami, or his translator in any case, has a grasp on language that borders on poetic, and he is almost always able to evoke exactly the kind of emotional and tonal notes that the scene requires. Even as you’re thinking about how you’re totally out of your depth with the book, you want to continue reading.
I can honestly say that I have no clue what the intention of the story was, or if it was meant to be some kind of metaphor for youth or fate or the works of Kafka or something. Murakami suggests that multiple readings of the book will reveal the mysteries and meaning, but reflecting on it, I’m not sure I’ll ever really grasp it, or that I really want to. Kafka on the Shore is beautiful when segmented and baffling when taken as a whole, but it is certainly worth trying as a glimpse at experimental and magical storytelling.