J314 Final Paper Topic Due on Tuesday May 10

Two Epigraphs:

No matter what, I want to continue living with the awareness that I will die. Without that, I am not alive.

That is what makes the life I have now possible.

Inching one's way along a steep cliff in the dark: on reaching the highway, one breathes a sigh of relief. Just when one can't take any more, one sees the moonlight. Beauty that seems to infuse itself into the heart: I know about that.

Yoshimoto, Kitchen, pp. 59-60

Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions....This storm is you. Something inside of you...And you will really have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it; it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. People will bleed there, and you will bleed there.   Hot, red blood. You'll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood, and the blood of others...But one thing is certain.   When you come out of the storm you won't be the same person who walked in. That's what this storm's all about.

Murakami, Kafka on the Shore, pp. 5-6

An Unusual Take on Murakami:

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....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.

From Richard Powers' essay on Murakami's fiction as a "Neurological Soul-Sharing Picture Show"



Kafka--along with Hoshino and Nakata as well--are all on journeys of a sort; they are part of a quest that is fueled by a desire to probe memory, the past, and to discover their true identities. Kafka seeks self-understanding and the knowledge of how to live in the world. In this, he may resemble many of the characters we have encountered in this class: "I" in Kokoro, "K" in both Kokoro and Sputnik Sweetheart, and Mikage in Kitchen, to name a few. To what extent do you think these characters change their lives or even change who they are? Nakata is an older person, but Kafka is young and still in the process of character-formation; he is still in the state of becoming. He must go through his metaphorical and symbolic "sandstorm" and come out a different person.   As John Updike writes of Kafka and Nakata in his review of Kafka on the Shore, "The novel’s two heroes interact only in the realm of kami. Of their entwined narratives, the story of Kafka Tamura is more problematic, more curiously overloaded, than that of the holy fool Nakata, with its familiar elements of science fiction, quest, and ebullient heroics...." Kafka has many encounters in the novel, reads voraciously, sees ghosts and experiences psychic projections, but, in the end, somehow, he will apparently learn about life by "look[ing] at the painting" of Kafka on the Shore and "listen[ing] to the wind."

Yoshimoto Banana's characters--Mikage in Kitchen and Satsuki in "Moonlight Shadow"--are also young and must confront death and loss, and find ways to come to terms with them.  Mikage, especially, needs to find a new family or something to anchor her in the world after her grandmother--and later, Eriko--dies. She also learns how to cook, to take care of herself, to heal herself and to act in the world. Most importantly, perhaps, she learns how to learn. She learns that she has to make mistakes and then pay attention to details in order to learn. She has to be focused, centered, and, finally, able to act.

Main Prompt:

For your final paper, write an essay that discusses the nature of the dilemmas confronted by one or more of the characters from Murakami's Kafka on the Shore, and Yoshimoto Banana's Kitchen and "Moonlight Shadow." You do not necessarily have to focus on all of the characters, or on all aspects of plot and narration, but develop a convincing context for your discsussion by characterizing the range of issues with which the novels are dealing, and hopefully you can use some characters from one of the novels to highlight differences or similarities with others.

Possible questions that might occur to you:

How do these characters try to resolve their issues or to reconcile themselves to their situation?   What do they learn in the process? In what was their new understanding rooted? Kafka experienced a void in himself that seems to be expanding, devouring what is left of his self while Mikage seeks comfort and solace in the warmth of food and the hope of a relationship but she also wants to learn how to be productive and happy, to be able to work and to love. She knows she must confront loneliness, know that it is all around us, and develop strategies to cope and overcome its powers.

So, how do these texts and their characters find meaning in their lives or experiences?   What lessons about life do the various characters learn in the course of these narratives? How does Mikage come to terms with her Grandmother's and later Eriko's death? In what ways does Kafka Tamura grow and change in the course of Murakami's novel?   Has he learned anything?  Or is this even the right question? Maybe we should ask what kind of reality Murakami's characters experience?

Richard Powers finds something tantalizing about the idea of a labyrinth in Murakami's work:

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)

And as the Powers quote in the box above suggests, the imaginative world we encounter in his fiction might be a way for the human mind--both ours and the author's--to "mirror something far larger than it can ever formulate." Could we think of Kafka, then, as a text that is about how our brains perceive and experience reality?

So, I wonder, does Murakami's fiction blast open any doors for you? What, if any, are the lessons that we can take from these final readings for this class?