Tuesday, February 08, 2005

HARUKI MURAKAMI'S KAFKA ON THE SHORE

I greatly admired Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, a strange yet often moving surreal tale that in many ways defied description. His latest, Kafka on the Shore, includes talking cats, ghosts, alien abductions, sadists disguised as brands of hard liquor, and a lot more. Most reviewers, even those who have liked the book, have have mentioned these elements in a disconnected way, as though Murakami has just tossed them all together with no rhyme or reason to make some kind of potluck dinner. However, I'm about 200 pages into Kafka on the Shore, and thus far it makes plenty of causal sense, and it seems almost certain the various threads will come together.



There's a lot in the novel about imagination--the uses of it, the mis-use of it--and this is always a topic that fascinates me, since in my own work the characters often succeed or fail based on the limitations of their imagination.

In one section, the fifteen-year-old runaway and narrator has a conversation about Schubert with a librarian.

"To get back to the question," I say, "why do you listen to Schubert's sonatas? Especially when you're driving?"

"If you play Schubert's sonatas, especially this one, straight through, it's not art. Like Schumann pointed out, it's too long and too pastoral, and technically too simplistic. Play it through the way it is and it's flat and tasteless, some dusty technique. Which is why every pianist who attempts it adds something of his own, something extra. Like this--hear how he articulates it there? Adding rubato. Adjusting the pace, modulation, whatever. Otherwise they can't hold it all together. They have to be careful, though, or else all those extra devices destroy the dignity of the piece. Then it's not Schubert's music anymore. Every single pianist who's played this sonata struggles with the same paradox."

He listens to the music, humming the melody, then continues.

"That's why I like to listen to Schubert while I'm driving. Like I said, it's because all of the performances are imperfect. A dense, artistic kind of imperfection stimulates your consciousness, keeps your alert. If I listen to some utterly perfect performance of an utterly perfect piece while I'm driving, I might want to close my eyes and dye right then and there. But listening to the D major, I can feel the limits of what humans are capable of--that a certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect. And personally, I find that encouraging. Do you know what I'm getting at?"


There's no real parallel in literature to the idea of performance--reading someone else's work isn't really the same thing, for example. We do have the idea of resonance and echo, of course, which are, in a sense, musical terms. And we do have the idea of writers offering corrections on prior works--either their own or the works of other writers. We often make judgments, too, of when a writer is paying an homage to another writer, tipping his or her hat to another writer, parodying another writer, unintentionally offering pastiche of another writer, mocking another writer, etc. (Even if we're often wrong or proven wrong over time, or, like the inventor of the steamboat, find that the imitator is ultimately more artistically successful than the innovator.) So these, too, could be seen as performance of another writer's work, I suppose, in a limited sense.

Also of interest is the idea of imperfection. It's an idea China Mieville has touched on in one context with regard to certain pulp writers--the theory that what makes a Lovecraft or a Clark Ashton Smith successful (the visionary quality of their imagination, for example) is entwined so closely to their manner of expression that to have tried to "correct" seeming stylistic deficiencies, characterization deficiencies, and even technical flaws, would be to in some ways diminish their originality. Their imperfection is as much part of their appeal as their strengths--or, actually, their imperfection is a strength.

It's certainly, on a more basic level, something that prose stylists in particular need to guard against: the idea that if you too perfectly hone your sentences in certain types of stories or novels, you suck some of the vitality out of them in that pursuit of perfection. (There are many other issues/questions that need to be addressed on this subject, but not in this blog post.)

Perhaps, too, Murakami (or at least his character) is saying that the reader creates the performance in literature. Each reader is like the pianist who attempts Schubert, and that thus each reading of a novel is imperfect and subjective but interesting because of that. (Certainly, critics would probably prefer this meaning.)

Later in Murakami's novel a character writes

It's all a question of imagination. Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine. It's just like Yeats said: In dreams begin responsibilities. Flip this around and you could say that where there's no power to imagine, no responsibility can arise. Just like we see with Eichmann [the Nazi].


The idea of dreaming well or dreaming poorly, the idea that the imagination--its fruition or deformity--is the core of our (moral and ethical?) being begins to show the lie of frivolous interpretations of the imagination. In the world I like to think I inhabit--whether it is the real world or not--imaginative play is not something whimsical (in the derogatory sense of that word) but something vital--a part of humane interaction and communication, even a springboard for or practice for the part of us in which the serious and the silly are indistinguishable, and one may rise out of the other with ease. The imagination is, in some sense, and quite simply, the world. (Am I sure I'm saying this correctly? No. Am I sure I'm investing it with melodrama? Yes.)

Even later in the book, Murakami, through another character, once again makes a statement about the imagination:

I think I am as concerned about fairness and justice as anybody. But what disgusts me even more are people who have no imagination. The kind T.S. Eliot calls hollow men. People who fill up that lack of imagination with heartless bits of straw, not even aware of what they're doing. Callous people who throw a lot of empty words at you, trying to force you to do what you don't want to...When I'm with them I just can't bear it, and wind up saying things I shouldn't...Of course it's important to know what's right or wrong. Individual errors in judgment can usually be corrected...But intolerant, narrow minds with no imagination are like parasites that transform the host, change form, and continue to thrive. They're a lost cause...


I'd argue that a well-developed and playful imagination does, in a sense, know right from wrong by default.

And another thought: Are there books we under-appreciate through no fault of the author's, but because our own imaginations as readers are not up to the task? And are there books we admire in part because we are not imaginative enough to see them for what they are?

In any event, I'm enjoying Murakami's latest novel so far. It is rather beautiful and strange and down-to-earth and surreal and realistic and meandering and focused--everything a good novel should be.

12 Comments:

At 7:47 AM, Blogger Jeremy said...

I'm not a very eloquent person, so you'll have to forgive me if I say what I'm trying to get across here in a crude way, but I think what the character says about Shubert has a direct parallel in writing/literature, on a couple of levels.

I've often heard it said that there are only a handful of _kinds_ of story. I'm not sure if this relates back to Campbell and _Mask of a Thousand Faces_ or not, but I always end up making the connection in my head, so I'll bring it up. Anyway, there seems to be a school of thought that there are a handful of archtypical stories. In this case, the archtype story is the Schubert, and each story written is the performance of playing the piece. That's one level I see.

We walk the same line with the definition of story as well-- stories having beginnings, middles, ends, characters, etc. They have parts that can be stretched, played differently, or in different places, but if you riff too much, stretch too far, then you start to slip out of the realm of story. I have a fellow writer who ocassionally will write something that she'll call an "unstory" because she's messed with something so much that it doesn't provide experience as one might expect from a story. Or something's just plain missing, but anyway...

I've never liked the idea that there are only a few different types of stories, and basically anything you write is just a variation on them. I rebel against anyone saying something that boils down to "it's all been done before" because what I enjoy most in fiction is originality. But I suppose if stories are all just variants on archtypes, and the writers just piano players riffing on the Schubert sonata, then the originality is in what you change, and, as you pointed out so nicely, what you do with imprecision.

I hope that makes a bit of sense!

 
At 9:27 AM, Blogger Jason Erik Lundberg said...

I really like that statement about imperfection and originality. When I recently read The Trial (speaking of Kafka), it was frustrating for me at the beginning becuase of Kafka's idiosyncratic grammar style, most particularly in his choice not to indent a new line for dialogue, so that the dialogue is incorporated within a long paragraph or description, and there could be pages and pages without a line break.

The reading of it becomes uncomfortable, claustrophobic, much in the way of Joseph K.'s experience, and it sets tone in the simple act of how the words are laid out on the page. It makes the text more dense, and, to some, more difficult, but it puts you right in Joseph K.'s frame of mind.

 
At 11:26 AM, Blogger Weirdmonger said...

Schubert's piano somatas (every damn one of them) are greatness incarnicate. I've loved them for years. They are greater than Beethoven's. Words are music. I am inspired by your post, Jeff, and I'm even more inspired by it because I don't know why I'm inspired by it, which gives added strength. Inspiration without inspiration is true inspiration. Maybe it's because I actually know the references, e.g. the Schubert and the TS Eliot. But, no, it is rather as if you've written music yourself.

 
At 12:41 PM, Blogger MF Korn said...

Back in the day, I memorized several Schubert sonatas for piano, one in G and one in F major I believe. If you go by the absolute, say, the famed Victor label recordings of Schnabel on the old 78s , you'll get perfect renderings of all of Schubert. And what did Schumann know?--He was so nutzo he basically commited hari kari by jumping into the River Rhine. But I guess I digress into the literal of the book quote...Schumann was a pretty good music critic and knew what he was talking about. I would doubtless agree that there are far more imperfect musical pieces to listen to for imperfect--for instance, how about 99 percent of pop music? Black Flagg? Meat Puppets? Sir Mixalot? Doubtless that it would not occur to the Beastie Boys to use the Dies Irae from Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique in their wondrous ouvre. Well, if a man were to drive his car and wistfully sojourn that Schubert was imperfect as he flipped over to the monstrous alternative of it, say, name anyone nowadays, then perhaps he would know the love theme from "The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey's Grave" or "Barbeque Pope".

 
At 1:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I memorized several Schubert sonatas for piano, one in G and one in F major I believe. If you go by the absolute, say, the famed Victor label recordings of Schnabel on the old 78s , you'll get perfect renderings of all of Schubert. And what did Schumann know?--He was so nutzo he basically commited hari kari by jumping into the River Rhine. But I guess I digress into the literal of the book quote...Schumann was a pretty good music critic and knew what he was talking about. I would doubtless agree that there are far more imperfect musical pieces to listen to for imperfect--for instance, how about 99 percent of pop music? Black Flagg? Meat Puppets? Doubtless that it would not occur to the Beastie Boys to use the Dies Irae from Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique in their wondrous ouvre. Well, if a man were to drive his car and wistfully sojourn that Schubert was imperfect as he flipped over to the monstrous alternative of it, say, name anyone nowadays, then perhaps he would know the love theme from "The Shah Sleeps in Lee Harvey's Grave" or "Barbeque Pope".

---MF Korn

 
At 3:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read an essay about literature--the importance thereof, etc.--once that suggested that "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" is a profoundly valuable song to sing to children, because of the line "How I wonder what you are". This, the essayist said, suggested to a child for, perhaps the first time in his/her life, that there was something outside of himself/herself, and that this was a thing to be wondered at.

The essayist was using this as an example of why imagination, even the fantastical imagination of wondering at a starry night, is anything but frivolous. Which resonated in me with something you said in this essay.

Good essay. I think I'll read this book.

 
At 3:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read an essay about literature--the importance thereof, etc.--once that suggested that "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" is a profoundly valuable song to sing to children, because of the line "How I wonder what you are". This, the essayist said, suggested to a child for, perhaps the first time in his/her life, that there was something outside of himself/herself, and that this was a thing to be wondered at.

The essayist was using this as an example of why imagination, even the fantastical imagination of wondering at a starry night, is anything but frivolous. Which resonated in me with something you said in this essay.

Good essay. I think I'll read this book.

 
At 9:19 AM, Blogger The Head said...

Perfectionism is the enemy of perfection.

 
At 12:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, seems like Murakami was setting readers up for his own crash-and-burn with the imperfection conversations in the novel. Because I found the last 100 pages a real disappointment.

JeffV

 
At 7:07 AM, Blogger dryokolapths said...

i am reading the book. i am on page 152. i think Murakami is indeed a writer with the real meaning of the word. His characters are so well worked in his mind, it's amazing! there are times that i can really feel their skin touching mine. i loved "wind up", and "wild sheep chase". "hard boiled wonderland" wasn't so good, for me. till now "kafka on the shore" do the rock! Great storyteller. To end this comment i wanna say that "wind up chronicle" had me terrified in a strange way that i cannot describe in words, and we are talking for no horror literature when it comes to Murakami.

 
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At 1:26 AM, Blogger Nikola said...

Can somebody explain what is the genre of this author. And does he write about car insurance quote. Thats whats bothering me now

 

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