Summary: Kafka on the Shore displays one of the world’s great storytellers at the peak of his powers. Here we meet a teenage boy, Kafka Tamura, who is on the run, and Nakata, an aging simpleton who is drawn to Kafka for reasons that he cannot fathom. As their paths converge, acclaimed author Haruki Murakami enfolds readers in a world where cats talk, fish fall from the sky, and spirits slip out of their bodies to make love or commit murder, in what is a truly remarkable journey.
Genre: magical realism, fantasy
Rating: 1/5 stars
Kafka on the Shore has always been a someday book for me. Someday I’ll get around to reading it. Someday I’ll pick it up and fall in love with it. It probably would have sat on my shelf even longer had I not heard from so many friends how great this book is. I bumped it to the top of the list, ready to sink my teeth in and be completely in love and overwhelmed with the wonders of this book. That is not at all what happened.
Before I get to the real meat and potatoes of this review, I should preface this by saying I heavily associate this book with a Bad TimeTM. The week I started reading this, I went through a root canal procedure, which was actual hell for me thanks to my dental anxieties. I spent a grueling week avoiding solid food, barely existing on my living room couch, and not being able to sleep through the night because of the pain I experienced. I took countless baths to try to relax during that week, and each time I got in the tub I opened this book, crawling my way through it with gritted teeth.
Had I put this book on hold until I felt better, would I have enjoyed it more? Honestly, no. I don’t think Kafka ever stood a chance against me.
I have a lot of problems with this book, but the biggest issue is the writing. The actual story is interesting, and I loved watching the lives of Kafka and Nakata weave so closely together until they finally intertwined. But 85% of this book is pure filler, and had this been cut down considerably it would have been so much stronger. Kafka’s chapters were boring to me, since the magical realism aspect happens mostly during the chapters following Nakata, but also because so much of his story is unnecessary. Here’s an example, which actually came from a chapter about Nakata:
“Nakata set off down the hall, plastic bag with toilet kit inside hand, to the communal sinks. He washed his face, brushed his teeth, and shaved with a safety razor. Each operation took time. He carefully washed his face, taking his time, carefully brushing his teeth, taking his time, carefully shaved, taking his time. He trimmed his nose hairs with a pair of scissors, straightened up his eyebrows, cleaned out his ears. He was the type of person who took his time no matter what he did, but this morning he took everything at an even slower pace than usual.”
Look. I honestly do not have time to read a book like this. I do not have the patience to deal with a book like this. I was so sick of reading about Kafka’s workout routine every day, or how many times Nakata mentioned going to the bathroom, or what meals were made, although with how dense the details were I could probably have learned to cook from those paragraphs, but I digress. I kept waiting for the story to pick up, and by the time it finally did, I had lost interest. I actually put this book down and read two others before coming back to finish the last 60 pages. SIXTY! I was at the peak of the plot and still needed a break.
I don’t know if this was Murakami’s way of trying to world build, to make the reader feel so invested in the characters that they fall in love with them, but it did the exact opposite for me. I didn’t care about the miniscule details of their lives. I wanted excitement and a plot.
One of the bigger issues I had with this story is a specific plot point in Kafka’s chapters. We learn early on that Kafka’s father has prophesied that Kafka will kill his father and be with his mother and sister. Kafka runs away from home in order to escape an unhealthy home life and to search for his mom and sister, who left him when he was a child. Do you see where this is going? I mean, Murakami isn’t exactly subtle, but I wasn’t really in the mood for incest or rape.
In general the sex scenes in this book are strange because they involve a 15 year old boy who narrates the details in such a cold, direct manner. But the kicker is when Kafka meets a 52 year old woman and falls in love with her because sometimes he sees her teenage spirit. There’s a scene where he begins to put pieces together about the possibility of her being his mom, and she refuses to say if it’s true or not. They have sex multiple times before she finally calls off their relationship.
Murakami decided to leave the answer of whether they’re related or not open for speculation, and a majority of readers have said the relationship exists where they could both be what the other person needed. Miss Saeki saw Kafka as her long-lost lover returned and Kafka saw her as his mother. Neither, or maybe both, are true, but either way it was more than I bargained for.
The rape scene is equally as bad, with Kafka vividly dreaming of a girl he met early on in the story. He begins to assault her when she’s asleep, and once she wakes up she tells him to stop and get out of her dream. She tells Kafka she’s his sister and it’s wrong for them to have sex. And then instead of Kafka respecting that and realizing that if they’re siblings maybe he shouldn’t be assaulting her, he tells her it’s too late and he’s already decided to have sex with her. Even if this book is based on the theme of Oedipus, these scenes were uncomfortable for obvious reasons.
I rated this book one star for a reason, but truthfully I think maybe if I had read it as a teenager I would have enjoyed it more. I might have picked it apart less and found the prose to be endearing and earth-shattering. But as a grown adult, no matter how pretty some of the writing can be, there are certain aspects to a story that I refuse to work around or accept, and Kafka on the Shore hits on a few of them.
If you’re curious about the story or have heard good things and want to know where they could possibly be hidden in this 467-page dumpster fire, I highly encourage you to just skim through the quotes page on Goodreads. Save yourself the time, I promise.