Reading Novels Like a Novelist Attempt 13: Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

I thought since there aren’t A to Z posts on Sundays, I would change my RNLN posts to Sundays for April and see how that goes. As it is Monday evening, I would say that is still to be seen. I will try to have the next one up this Sunday.

Things I Learned

Kafka on the Shore reminded me a lot of A Widow for One Year by John Irving which was my RNLN Attempt 7. The main things they have in common are the way they focus on the body and bodily functions, and sexual taboos.

But before I get into that, here’s a quick overview of Kafka on the Shore:

Kafka on the Shore is the interwoven story of a fifteen year old runaway who calls himself Kafka, or “the boy named Crow”[Murakami writes in the novel that Kafka means crow in Czech, but it doesn’t (“kavka” in Czech means jackdaw)], and an older man, Nakata, who went through an incident as a child that removed his memory and gave him the ability to talk to cats. They both believe they may have murdered Kafka’s father through other-worldly means. The novel includes magical realism and unreliable narrators.

Format: The novel has some interesting changes in tense and POV. At first the chapters alternate between Kafka in first person present tense talking to himself (the boy named Crow) about his plan to run away, and Top Secret U.S. Department of Defense classified documents that are interviews about “The Rice Bowl Hill Incident, 1944 written in past tense. When the boy named Crow starts to talk, it is written in bold text and switches to second person (you). Later, the documents stop, but the chapters continue to alternate between past and present tense, the past tense chapters become Nakata’s story, and then, when Nakata sleeps for long periods of time, those chapters become his friend Hoshino’s story. A few times these narratives became unbalanced: one chapter would end on an exciting moment, and I would just skip over the next chapter to continue the narrative. When I went back to the chapter I skipped, nothing really happened. I didn’t feel like I missed anything not reading it.

Talking about the body: In A Widow for One Year, Irving talked about boobs to the point of obsession, Murakami’s focus was Kafka’s penis. The poor fifteen year old was very, very aware of his penis. At the beginning of the novel when I noticed the similarity to Irving, I thought that it was normalizing and bringing the real to the magical realism. But the novel was so full of bodily functions, that at one point I thought, “What could that possibly be adding to the story?”

Taboos: The sexual taboos in the story are brought in as part of a curse. Kafka says that his father told him he was destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother and his sister. This is part of the reason he felt he had to leave home. Though he says he remembers his mother taking his sister and leaving when he was four, he has only one picture of himself with his sister at the shore, and has no idea where his mother and sister are. When the strange masturbation scene with his “sister” happened, I thought, well at least they’re somewhat the same age and it’s not the statutory rape stuff from A Widow for One Year, but I thought too soon, that came later when Kafka falls in love with the fifteen year old spirit of the woman he believes is his mother, and then has sex with that woman who is in her fifties.

The other taboo in this novel had to do with killing cats to steal their souls and put them in a flute. The section was really disturbing, and made me physically sick and disgusted.

A Meaningful Song: The woman Kafka comes to believe is his mother, wrote and recorded a song that became a huge hit when she was in her twenties. The lyrics don’t appear to make much sense and are somewhat surreal, but later reveal that she knows about the same other-worldly place that changed Nakata’s life. Using the song as a connection between different characters, and different times is an interesting technique.

I thought this discussion of the song between Kafka and Oshima was fun for National Poetry Month:

“Do you think Miss Saeki knew what all the lyrics mean?”

Oshima looks up, listening to the thunder as if calculating how far away it is. He turns to me and shakes his head. “Not necessarily. Symbolism and meaning are two separate things. I think she found the right words by bypassing procedures like meaning and logic. She captured words in a dream, like delicately catching hold of a butterfly’s wings as it flutters around. Artists are those who can evade the verbose.”

“So you’re saying Miss Saeki maybe found those words in some other space—like in dreams?”

“Most great poetry is like that. If the words can’t create a prophetic tunnel connecting them to the reader, then the whole thing no longer functions as a poem.”

“But plenty of poems only pretend to do that.”

“Right. It’s a kind of trick, and as long as you know that it isn’t hard. As long as you use some symbolic-sounding words, the whole thing looks like a poem of sorts.”

So there you have it. The secret to poetry:

  1. find the right words by bypassing meaning and logic
  2. create a prophetic tunnel connecting to the reader
  3. use some symbolic-sounding words

As long as you know it’s a kind of trick, it’s not hard. 😁

Applying What I Learned

There wasn’t much from this novel that I would want to apply to my novel. Any ideas about adding bodily function normalization and taboos I talked about in the A Widow for One Year post.

I’m still thinking that a past and present alternating chapter format could be interesting for my novel. This novel taught me that if I do that, both the past and present story lines have to be equally interesting at all times and add to the present story. Using present tense and past tense is a good way to keep the timelines clearly separated.

One thing I could apply to my novel is the use of a song with meaningful lyrics connecting characters through time. I could have a song that my main characters made up, but had forgotten about until one brings it up to reconnect to their childhood. Or there could be a song that was on the radio when they were kids that they used to sing the lyrics to incorrectly that is re-released because it becomes popular in a show or movie, and suddenly the real lyrics have an important meaning.

And, of course, now I know the trick to poetry, so the rest of the month will be easy.