Translated by Philip Gabriel. Knopf, 436 pp, $35.95, hardcover.
For readers just discovering Japanese alpha novelist Haruki Murakami through his bestselling Kafka on the Shore, good news: there's a lot more where that came from. For more than 20 years, Murakami has charted the same strange interworld, the same killing field where everyday angst collides with supernatural dread. Kafka on the Shore is both Murakami's career topper, synthesizing two decades' sprawling themes and obsessions, and just another riff on loneliness, eroticism, and isolation.
Kafka on the Shore retells the story of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex; that is, if "retells" can be understood to involve radical rewriting, willful misinterpretation, and some extravagant punning. A schizophrenic teen runaway called Kafka Tamura plays the cursed Oedipus, on the lam after the terrible pronouncement that one day he will sleep with both his mother and his sister and murder his father. The length of modern-day Japan, as well as various alternate times and dimensions, is not enough distance to move Kafka beyond his fate. But the dreamlike unfolding of these actions, and Murakami's refusal to distinguish between fact and fancy, lend the novel a delicious torpor. It's a story concerned with destiny, passivity, and submission, and that's exactly what it instills in readers.
Kafka, wise beyond his years, fights his battles in both the real world and his psyche (a device Murakami exploits more fully in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World). He pursues the quest for his identity through a sexual obsession. (A Wild Sheep Chase and its sequel, Dance, Dance, Dance, explore this exhaustively, along with the erotic potential of earlobes.) Ominous doings with animals, a fixation on the meaning of music, clairvoyance, a portal into parallel realities-Kafka revisits many of Murakami's touchstones, with an ever-maturing confidence weakened only by this cliché-heavy translation. (Philip Gabriel is my least favourite of Murakami's three regulars.) Like Snoopy's doghouse and Dr. Who's Tardis, Murakami's novels contain impossible multitudes; his greatest trick now is to create a story that encompasses not only the reality and fantasy of his previous novels but those very novels as well.