I have very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, as with many post-modern, magical realist or fantasy books, I loved that feeling that anything could happen at any time. Leaches could fall from the sky or a man could talk to cats, and it would be strange but not unheard of within the framework of this world. I also found the plot and subplots gripping, and enjoyed the way the book moved from very separate to entwined narratives.
I also ultimately liked playing with the idea that life and the people and events that fill it are or can be a metaphor…until they’re not. As with most post-modern devices, I cringed at the obvious gimmick at first and put up a stiff arm, but, again in my usual way, I was moved by it in the end. The use of the Oedipal legend works elegantly here, both as a method of ordering plot and making certain actions feel inevitable. The characters’ knowledge of Oedipus begs us to ponder how much power we really have when we’re working with a metaphor.
Most problematic to me was the character of Oshima, the transgendered librarian working at the library where much of the plot takes place. It is clear to me that Oshima is intended to be the philosophical heart of the book – the one who sparks the most change in Kafka’s life and gets him thinking in new ways. But… I found his philosophies very … high school. That is: profound and an important part of development, but not “metaphysically mind bending” as many of the reviews have suggested. Cherry-picking details from previous big thinkers and weaving them together into a philosophy that supports your own world view is hardly earth-shaking stuff.
This wouldn’t have been so problematic if Oshima hadn’t been so condescending and self-assured. He asks questions he believes are probing – and I know if I were in high school they would be (and I don’t say that to be condescending, because I do think these are very important thoughts) – all the while feeling like the greater world doesn’t understand his path or who he is. And yet, when he encounters people who aren’t like him, he has great difficulty *listening* to what they’re saying, which is exactly the kind of behavior that has lead to him being misunderstood.
This is most clearly on display when it’s revealed to us that Oshima is transgendered as he questions two feminists who ask for separate men and women’s bathrooms. Oshima insists (smarmily so) that gender is metaphorical, something he would know because of who he is and something these women can’t possibly understand. Then he largely dismisses these women (who, by the way, are painted pretty unsympathetically) by talking in parallel to them, deflecting his questions down other supposedly more worldly and weighty routes without *ever answering the freaking questions*.
This is what’s so bizarre. Just as Oshima (and through him, Murakami) dismiss the concept of gender, he is confirming a very stereotypical gendered behavior. This could be a powerful moment where Murakami could speak to this larger idea of futility within this larger metaphor, but instead I got the sense he had no idea he was even doing it. Which is the whole problem. This was something I felt in his depictions of most of the females throughout the book, who are sometimes wise, sometimes desired, sometimes objectified and sometimes inspiration for change, but who rarely *do* anything. Some of the women reflect on this in the book, but they do so half-heartedly as kind of an afterthought near the end. I found this intensely frustrating.
This is all the more aggravating because Murakami also has a habit of telling us what to think through other characters’ reactions to the protagonist, like telling us someone is shocked by how wise beyond his years Kafka is. I’ll decide that for myself, thank you very much.
Overall I did enjoy the plot, the way the author drew from many different types of storytelling devices, and some of the characters and would read more Murakami in the future.