One of the hazards of being a full-time fantasy and SF critic is that your reading schedule often doesn't allow for work outside the genre. (Or, more to the point, the genre's boundaries as the publishing industry defines them.) The books that publishers send you pile up so fast that reading anything else seems like an irresponsible luxury. Had Kafka on the Shore, released in the U.S. in 2005, not won the World Fantasy Award in 2006 — an award I consider among the more reputable in the field, in that it's willing to risk going far afield for its candidates, and embraces world literature in a way the Hugos and Nebulas usually don't — then I'd never have made the discovery of Haruki Murakami, and my life would be thus bereft. Happily for me, and now for you, that lack has been addressed. Murakami is one of the world's most exotic and extraordinary storytellers. He weaves magical realist fiction in a manner that cuts to the heart of his characters' deepest emotional conflicts, all the while avoiding pretention or bathos. Kafka in the Shore is 460 pages of dreamlike bliss.
It's a story about loss, and about being lost, but it's never maudlin even in its most profound moments, and is often quite funny. Like the best of magical realism, fantasy elements are spliced into quotidian settings as if they fully belonged there. The plot is anchored by two remarkable characters. Kafka Tamura runs away from his Tokyo home on his fifteenth birthday. He has no idea where he's going or what he'll do when he gets there. Kafka's mother abandoned the family when he was only four, taking an older, adopted sister. In part, Kafka is searching for them, but not openly. They occupy his thoughts, but aren't really the focus. He simply wants a change, to be part of a brand-new world. Kafka ends up at a private library in Takamatsu, where he befriends the assistant, the strangely androgynous Oshima, and whiles away his days reading — until circumstances change.
Nakata is a man in his sixties, an illiterate simpleton whose mind was quite literally bulk-erased by a strange childhood incident during World War II involving what can only be called a UFO sighting. Murakami cannily never explains the true nature of the phenomenon, because that isn't important. Its very strangeness is required by the story's increasingly dreamlike logic to establish Nakata's place in the world and his role in the plot. (Plus leaving it unresolved heightens its mystique.) It's enough to know that when he was a little boy, Nakata, usually a straight-A student, woke from a long coma unable to read, write, or remember anything about his life up to the incident. He can, however, talk to cats. They talk back.
Nakata now lives alone in the Nakano Ward of Tokyo on a government subsidy for the handicapped. He isn't lonely, because his map of the world doesn't include such complicated things as human relationships. He enjoys sleeping late and eating (he describes every dish someone offers him as his favorite, though he's partial to eel). He makes a little extra money on the side helping families in the area locate their lost cats, leading to some funny scenes where he interviews local strays and stuck-up house cats. It is while searching for one lost feline named Goro that Nakata experiences a shocking event that alters the direction of his life, and merges it with Tamura's quest for wholeness.
Murakami's characters all have a crucial piece of themselves missing. When it suits him, he allows the rules of fantasy to literalize this. A couple of characters, including Nakata, have shadows that are fainter than they should be. Murakami exercises great skill in using fantasy just effectively enough so that he can get away with concocting scenes that might not be entirely realistic, but that convey his themes about the search for wholeness most succinctly. We're often, especially at key points in the story, wondering whether what just happened really happened, or happened only in the characters' minds. The net result is a story with a profound sense of compassion for the lost souls who wander its pages.
Tamura finds himself drawn to the curator of the private library where he's now living and working, Miss Saeki, a desperately lonely and withdrawn woman in her fifties. Tamura becomes obsessed with the possibility she is his mother, but when Oshima fills him in on Miss Saeki's past, a different dynamic emerges. When she was young, Miss Saeki wrote a love song for her fiancee that became a huge hit single, but after his murder, she all but fled from the world. After the spirit of Miss Saeki at the age of 15 manifests in his room each night, Tamura finds himself falling more deeply in love with her. But what is the connection? Is Miss Saeki his mother after all, or is he the reincarnation of Miss Saeki's murdered boyfriend, or is it a little bit of both?
The image of a labyrinth figures in much of the story, and a labyrinth is what Kafka on the Shore is in a very real sense. There are secrets here waiting to be discovered, but only at the end of a hazardous journey. Murakami manages to slip in moments of trenchant satire (evil often manifests itself in the form of American corporate mascots) and pure whimsy, and occasionally plot threads are left dangling. Certain story elements are just plain unsettling, particularly those hinting at incest. It's possible some American readers — particularly those whose experience reading fantasy is solely informed by traditional Tolkien-inspired heroic epics, with their moral clarity all nicely wrapped up in a ribbon — simply won't know what to make of this. I've found that having some experience with Japanese storytelling, and their overall approach to fiction, helps. There were things here that reminded me of the films of Ozu (Tokyo Story), Imamura (Warm Water Under a Red Bridge), Mizoguchi (Ugetsu Monogatari), and both Kurosawas (Akira and Kiyoshi). This is the sort of demanding work that will be inaccessible to a lot of readers. But taking a chance on something new often yields great rewards.
By the end, adventurous readers are left with the feeling they've undertaken a journey of discovery not quite like any other. I loved the little homages Murakami occasionally pays his influences. Yes, Franz Kafka is referenced, but only briefly; Murakami has emphatically not written a Kafka pastiche here. François Truffaut films, especially The 400 Blows (which famously ends with the shot of its adolescent hero on — that's right — the shore), pop up frequently. A lot of themes are explored: the importance of memory, not as something to be clung to like a life raft, but as something to come to terms with, accept and move forward; the way in which the search for love is really just the search for the missing pieces of oneself. Often, it's the simple need to have a goal in life, to make things better for yourself and those around you. Nakata explains to one of his few friends that sometimes he feels like a library with no books in it. As he cannot read, he understands perhaps better than anyone what that emptiness means. But he manages to fill it by becoming a catalyst in resolving both Miss Saeki's past and Tamura's present. You emerge from Kafka on the Shore invigorated, stimulated, enlightened, feeling a lot like Tamura. You are part of a brand-new world.