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.