Kafka on the Shore
A teenager, a little too caught up in himself as teenagers tend to be, runs away from home. A confused old man commits a murder (maybe). An aging woman writes down her memoirs in a library where time seems to stand still.
Kafka on the Shore is a fascinating book that's difficult to pin down; like the cats that keep appearing throughout, it doesn't seem to have a fixed structure (ever try to hold on to a cat that doesn't want to be held?) and doesn't give up all its secrets. This is the sort of story I keep hoping for and so far have never gotten out of Canongate's myth project; while it's heavily intertextual, referencing and building on both ancient myths (Theseus, Orpheus, Oedipus), newer literature (Kafka, Conrad, Eliot, Salinger), music, corporate logos... it's often so overtly metaphorical that it even has the characters point out that life is just a metaphor; the fourth wall is never outright broken, but the characters occasionally brush up against it. It mixes in ingredients from fantasy and science fiction (UFOs, gateways to alternate realities, interspecies communication) and, come to think of it, pretty much follow's Campbell's The Hero's Journey almost perfectly. It's built on myths, on things that have come before, on things that have been proven to have universal relevance.
And yet at the same time, it's such a unique and beautifully told story. It takes a handful of outsider characters and makes them come alive when they run into each other. Kafka, the 15-year-old runaway; Oshima, the hermaphrodite forever trapped in between; Nakata, the old and slightly backwards man who cannot read or even remember his own past; Hoshino, the young lorry driver with no fixed point in life; and Saeki, the middle-age woman who might just be the central character here. Their stories slowly weave together while at the same time unravelling... not their pasts as much as what MAKES a past, the experiences and memories that make us human and make us relate to others. Having only read one of Murakami's fictional works before - Norwegian Wood - I get the feeling that this is sort of a central pillar of his storytelling; we are the result of what we experience, but also of what we make of those experiences.
There's one conversation in the book where one of the characters talks about a piece of music by Schubert, saying that the problem with it is that the piece as it's written is flawed - or rather, quite simply boring. And being a finished composition, the structure is already there and can't be ignored if you want to play it. The challenge to the musician playing it, therefore, is to put his or her own spin on it and MAKE it interesting. Somehow I don't think he's just talking about music.
It's lyrical, enigmatic, and still somehow strikingly straight-forward at times. This is only the third Murakami I've read, but the first two have remained with me for years and I've no doubt this one will as well. 4/5.