Murakami's fiction deploys, side by side, as part of one marvelously webbed story, distinct--if multiply connected--independent narrative frames. Some of these story frames could pass for conventional social realism. A contemporary, urban world much like Tokyo, filled with references to mass consumer culture and peopled with wonderfully realized, "realistic" characters provides the grounding for the unfolding story. But alongside this story--folded through or underneath it--fantastic, chthonic worlds spring up and seep into normal existence, entwining and overpowering realism in their weird tendrils. "There's another world that parallels our own," Oshima assures Kafka in Kafka on the Shore (Knopf 2005), "and to a certain degree you're able to to step into that other world and come back safely. As long as you're careful. But go past a certain point and you lose the path out. It's a labyrinth...the principle of the labyrinth is inside you [p. 326]." (42)
...One of the great pleasures in reading Murakami lies in imagining just what links might unfold between these two worlds of banal realism and underground phantasmagoria. These worlds obviously hinge on each other, but the hinge is most often the story process itself. When the factual and the fabulous collide, we are left wonderfully shattered, waiting to see what new collages might emerge out of the shards of impact. Murakami has compared his protagonists to videogamers, detached yet engaged, moving through the startling landscape of their lives as through the levels of an open-ended role-playing adventure. We readers, too, are drawn along, on the far side of another tilted mirror, changed by the changing game, and even helping to alter its outcome.
The 1990s, officially proclaimed the Decade of the Brain, produced numerous discoveries about the brain as strange and marvelous as any Murakami plot. Where once the mind was a unitary thing, subsequently split by Freud and Jung into two or three independent parts, it is now divided into hundreds of distributed subsystems, every one of them a discrete, signaling agent inside a loose and tangled confederation.
In place of simple brain hierarchies with one-way flows of control, contemporary neuroscience gives us constellations of areas, each sharing reciprocal relations with many others. Eight mental maps are used to process hearing, and at least twenty-two areas combine to perform vision. Recognizing a face requires the coordination of dozens of networked regions. Even speaking a word is like getting dozens of musicians to perform a symphony. Clearly the self--floating on this jumble of processes--is not an identity, but a noisy parliament, negotiating itself into being, constantly updating and updated by all those other external selves that it brushes up against.
...Murakami knew all this, well before the Decade of the Brain. Hence his characters who move through a landscape unable to tell whether they are following some external physical rules or are constructing them internally. As Kafka learns at the beginning of Kafka on the Shore, "this storm isn't something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you." [p. 5]....
In contemporary neuroscience, the boundary between the inner map and outer physical reality results from tentative and multilateral negotiations, constantly in danger of breaking down. A break between two brain subsystems can upset the entire construction of self, producing a plethora of symptoms which might serve nicely for a Murakami plot. People cease to be able to identify familiar objects. They grow unable to tell whether oranges are smaller or larger than cherries. They lose their ability to distinguish between two faces. They deny that their left arms belong to them. They duplicate physical places, believing that their own, familiar houses are mere copies. They lose the use of concrete words while retaining abstract ones. They think that they are blind when they aren't, or that they can see when they're blind. They believe that their loved ones have been replaced by imposters. They hallucinate cartoon characters in a sea of actual people.
Such states of consciousness sound familiar to any Murakami reader. Think of Miu, stranded in top of the Ferris wheel in Sputnik Sweetheart (Vintage International, 2000), staring down on her own apartment and seeing herself making love to a man she abhors. Think of K., the narrator of that book, describing his own depersonalization: "My hand was no longer my hand, my legs no longer my legs...someone had rearranged my cells, united the threads that held my mind together [p. 170]....I can no longer distinguish between one thing and another, between things that existed and things that did not" [p. 205]. Or think of the narrator of A Wild Sheep Chase (Kodansha International, 1989): "The more I thought about it, the more that other me became the real me, making this me here not real at all" [p.245] (44-48)
....Murakami's books understand the terrifying disorientation of late, globalizing capitalism and our status as refugees inside it. As much as any contemporary writer, Murakami grasps the bewildering fluidity of commoditized life. All the countries of the earth are now party to that knowledge, and so his books speak to anyone who has felt how easily nationality, self, and all other traditional memberships disappear into the flows of global capital and commerce. (51)
....And our reward in reading Murakami is the pleasure of pirating, inside our own cortex, his neural cosmopolitanism. Real or surreal, global or local, familiar or strange: Murakami's fiction knows that all of these worlds are affirmed or rejected entirely inside the theater of the brain. Such an embrace of the ultimate neural nature of all experience might easily collapse into self-absorption, as it threatens to do in the extremes of conventional and postmodern fiction that flank Murakami's work. We would each of us be locked inside a sealed and unknowable simulation of self, were it not for the truth that globalization, neuroscience, and Murakami's fiction have all simultaneously hit upon: there is no self unto itself. The private life is always a propagating conversation, always mirroring of something far larger than it can ever formulate.
It comes as no surprise, then, to realize how dominated Murakami's stories are by all the varieties of love: Romantic, platonic, familial, companionable, comic, sexual, nostalgic, kinky, archaic, lonely, selfish, selfless: as many kinds of love as there are brain regions. If his work says yes to the uncanny oddity of existence, certainly the oddest thing it must affirm is the outlandish possibility--no, make that the outrageous necessity--of connection. If his work could be said to have one overriding theme, one irresistible attraction, it must be this deep and playful knowledge: No one can tell where "I" leaves off and others begin.
The maze of mind will always stand between us and the real. But the inescapable cavern of the brain leaves a single way out: the empathetic leap, transnational commerce, the mirroring neuron. We can never know the world, but in our shared bewilderment, we can know each other. As the schoolteacher writes in Kafka on the Shore: "As individuals each of us is extremely isolated, while at the same time we are all linked by a prototypical memory" [ p. 210].
Murakami's fiction claims what the enlightened of every era and country have always claimed: existence is fleeting; certainty is illusory; thought is stranger than you can think; reality is a running compromise; the self is a house on fire, so get out while you can. Even where we have no home to go back to, we might yet inhabit a better place--somewhere improvised, provisional, tentative, forever inexplicable. One where the movement of our very muscles--not least of all our heart--where our very movements somehow in fact embody all of the fiction empathetic resonance that our cells perpetually manufacture. a place where seeing and being share the same circuitry. A place infinitely larger than the old small self. Call it the mirroring motor cortex, Call it the core of symbolic connection. Call it that chief of strangeness, the interlocking dream, the alien reality parallel to, folded through, or underneath this world: love. "Love can rebuild the world," Oshima tells Kafka [p. 209]. "So everything's possible when it comes to love." (53-55)
Here is another take: http://www.steppenwolf.org/watchlisten/program-articles/detail.aspx?id=183
"Into the Abyss"
by Joy Meads
Midway through Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore, Kafka and his friend Oshima take a moment to puzzle over the meaning of a bewildering recent meteorological phenomenon. On two occasions, Japanese suburbanites have been startled by showers of sea creatures falling from the sky. Kafka hazards an explanation: “Maybe it’s a metaphor?” Oshima is skeptical, “Maybe… But sardines and mackerel and leeches raining down from the sky? What kind of metaphor is that?”
Strange things happen in Kafka on the Shore and it’s not always immediately clear why. Like the dense, darkling imagery of Miss Saeki’s song, the novel is full of images and events that resonate viscerally but resist logical explanation. Indeed, readers looking to interpret the action through a rationalist framework will quickly find themselves overwhelmed and exhausted. Shortly after Kafka on the Shore was released, Murakami’s Japanese publishers launched a website soliciting clarifying questions about the novel from the public. They quickly garnered 8,000 submissions, of which Murakami answered 1,200. Unfortunately, the website has not been translated, so English speakers can’t read the results of what must have been an arduous effort for the author. Murakami generally shies away from offering authorial explanations of his work, preferring to let his audience discover personal meanings. He has said:
"Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren't any solutions provided. Instead, several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It's hard to explain, but that's the kind of novel I set out to write."
This is not to say Murakami’s work is esoteric or difficult. Actually, reading Kafka feels quite effortless; it’s a thoroughly engaging page-turner. Part of this surely has to do with Murakami’s gift for storytelling: he has an admitted affinity for mass-market genre fiction—particularly horror and detective stories—and he borrows narrative devices from those forms. It’s also due to his sense of humor—the books are very funny. (In Kafka, a supernatural being manifests itself as Colonel Sanders. When Hoshino grills him about why he’s assumed that form—a choice Murakami has declined to elucidate in interviews—the being offers a simple explanation: “I was toying with the idea of Mickey Mouse, but Disney’s particular about the rights to their characters.”) Mostly, however, it’s because the logic of the novels, although it’s not the not the logic of waking life, is nonetheless familiar.
Murakami explains his writing process as analogous to dreaming: “Writing a novel lets me intentionally dream while I'm still awake. I can continue yesterday's dream today, something you can't normally do in everyday life. It's also a way of descending deep into my own consciousness. So while I see it as dreamlike, it's not fantasy. For me the dreamlike is very real.” Murakami’s English language website offers a whimsical glimpse of how detritus from his subconscious inscribed itself onto the Kafka on the Shore. It features a gallery of photos from Murakami’s daily life, including a desktop paperweight that may have been the inspiration for Nakata’s entrance stone. As a natural result of Murakami’s creative process, Kafka on the Shore (and the rest of Murakami’s work, with the exception of Norwegian Wood, his one foray into realism) operates according to the logic of dreams. Events, images, and symbols in the novel cannot be understood through unitary definition but rather achieve meaning through an accretion of associative links. In this way, Murakami’s novels reflect the structure of our own minds, where ideas ripple across interconnected neurons and every remembered thought contains the essence of the moment of its creation.
In Kafka on the Shore, Murakami’s protagonist embarks the same journey the author did in creating him. Murakami describes the “shore” in Kafka on the Shore as the border between the conscious and the unconscious minds. It’s “a story of two different worlds, consciousness and unconsciousness. Most of us are living in those two worlds, one foot in one or the other, and all of us are living on the borderline. That's my definition of human life.” He elaborates, “I don't read much Jung, but what he writes has some similarity with my writing. To me the subconscious is terra incognita.” Although the journey that Kafka takes is in one sense physical—he travels to Shikoku, to the library, to the woods—it is in a deeper sense an exploration of self. Kafka’s artist father was best known for a work titled Labyrinth, a reference to mythical labyrinth of Crete: a dark, disorienting maze which Theseus was forced to navigate to slay the minotaur hidden in its depths. In the novel, Oshima explains the origin of the concept of the labyrinth to Kafka “It was the ancient Mesopotamians. They pulled out animal intestines—sometimes human intestines, I expect—and used the shape to predict the future…So the prototype for labyrinths is, in a word, guts. Which means that the principle for the labyrinth is inside you. And that correlates to the labyrinth outside.”
The exploration of the self is a dangerous business. Kafka is rife with imagery of blood, the substance that keeps us alive but also symbolizes carnage. Our most unspeakable instincts—our drives for violence and sex, the forces that coalesce in the Oedipus myth looming over the novel—are monsters hidden within the labyrinth. Joseph Campell sees myth’s origin in “the inconvenient or resisted psychological powers that we have not thought or dared to integrate into our lives.” These drives are hidden in the shadows of our unconscious, and we must weather their blinding unreason in order to confront them. When we venture from the daylight logic of consciousness to the labyrinth’s dark confusion, we would do well to remember Crow’s warning before Kafka begins his journey:
"The storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. That’s the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine."
[Consider, also, how Murakami connects intertextually with a plethora of other works: of course, we have Franz Kafka's The Castle, The Trial, "The Metamorphosis," and "In the Penal Colony," (see an online translation of "In the Penal Colony" here), The Tale of Genji, Lady Rokujo, and the Tanizaki translation of the Genji; Soseki's complete works, special mention of Sanshiro, Kokoro, and the often ignored The Miner, all about conditions in the Ashio Copper Mine, bringing to mind a major pollution incident in 1890 and a vibrant social movement in the early 1990s.
We aso have references to T.S. Eliot, Goethe's Faust, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, Schubert's Piano Sonatas, an Adolf Eichmann biography, Yeats' poetry, Ueda Akinari's Tales of Moonlight and Rain, Beethoven's The Archduke Trio, Francois Truffaut's New Wave French films The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player, Haydn's Cello concertos, John Coltrane's soprano saxophone solo in "My Favorite Things," followed by McCoy Tyner's piano solo, the pop songs Kafka listens to, and in his room at the library, Miss Saeki's boyfriend's old room, he unpacks some old, late sixties music: Bob Dylan's double LP (the first ever rock double LP), Blonde on Blonde, the Beatles White Album (also a double LP), Otis Redding's Dock of the Bay, Stan Getz' Getz/Gilberto, Brazillian-influenced jazz/bossanova album featuring the popular song,"The Girl from Ipanema,"Anton Chekov and his pistol, Henri Bergson and Hegel in philosophy, Charles Dickens...and the list just goes on!]