Japanese author Haruki Murakami's latest offering, Kafka on the Shore, is vast, complex, odd, funny and strangely peaceful: business as usual, but more impressive business than some recent books. It describes two parallel odysseys across space and time (literally), linked by a strange, ambiguous pop tune written by one of the book's mysterious characters. Kafka Tamura, a 15-year-old runaway, struggles to dodge an Oedipal fate; simultaneously, Nagata, an illiterate old man who can talk to cats, searches for an all-powerful stone. The two stories link neatly and yet Murakami makes sure we are never entirely confident in their connection.
Murakami has written many novels about tough, disenchanted young men, and Kafka is no exception. Through his horny and visceral eyes, his sexual adventures, such as a non-therapeutic massage from a winsome teenager or sex with a woman in her mid-50s (who may be his mother), acquire pornographic rawness like his life, which has the simplicity of youthful fear behind it. And yet, by journey's end, Kafka experiences losses that ultimately deepen and empower him, making his juvenile panting and belligerence worth our tolerance.
If Kafka is the book's raging ego, the elderly Nagata is its unlikely id. Early in his quest, he fights with whiskey-label presence Johnnie Walker when he learns that the stolid advertising symbol has been disemboweling Nagata's feline soulmates. Everything from a rain of leeches to Colonel Sanders lies in his path as he pushes onward, and yet his dignity and calm go unruffled. The gradual union of these stories brings a pleasant release, despite the all-too-familiar difficulties leading up to it.
Murakami's progress here resembles that of novelists like Paul Auster and Jonathan Lethem, whose early storylines carried by external strangeness have of late given way to a dense burrowing into truly thorny human psychologies which, as we well know, could make the wildest novelistic creation seem more ordinary than checkers.
Max Winter writes from New York City.