Raining Sardines, Talking Cats

KafkaTo call Kafka On The Shore an imaginative book would be gross understatement. It is wildly, feverishly, outrageously imaginative; a book where bizarre ideas share space with profound thoughts and sublime writing coexists with cheesy humor that this blog wouldn’t publish. (Yes, I can think of at least seven really funny things I’ve rejected – I’ll write a post about it soon. Plus I am disappointed you guys don’t know the difference between reviewer’s license and hyperbole.)

“Well, tell me then , Toro, is there some reason you’re here?”

“There is,” the black cat said. “I thought you might be having a hard time dealing with that stone all alone.”

“You got that right. Definitely. I’m in kind of a fix here.”

“I thought I’d lend you a hand.”

“That would be great,” Hoshino said. “Take a paws in your schedule, eh?”

In other words, Kafka on the Shore is just another Haruki Murakami book. Murakami is a delightfully inventive writer, and Kafka On The Shore brings together all the qualities that’ve made him so popular with audiences the world over. After his “discovery” in the mid-nineties with The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami, with his distinctive brand of writing that blurs the boundary between what is real and what is not, has acquired almost cult status in the West. On one level, his books are dense, broody musings on loneliness and love; on another they are racily narrated fantasies laced with generous (tongue-in-cheek) references to pop culture. The dichotomy intrigues, drawing readers into the books. And the books never disappoint: they are dreamy fantasies set in the present, and the author’s overactive imagination ensures that there is never a dull moment, if you’ll pardon the cliche.

Kafka on the Shore is a book about a young boy who calls himself Kakfa (Duh!) (which means crow in Czech, apparently)(Clarification: Kafka means Crow, not Duh!). Kafka, whose mom and sister had abandoned him early on, runs away from home at fifteen to get away from his dad. Kafka is also running away from a prophecy of his dad. (The parallels with Murukami’s short story in the New Yorker are obvious:

“Among the women a man meets in his life, there are only three who have real meaning for him. No more, no less,” his father said–or, rather, declared. He spoke coolly but with utter certainty, as he might have in noting that the earth takes a year to revolve around the sun.

) (etcetera: We close parantheses.())

Johnnie WalkerIn another thread in the book, Nakata, a lovable old man who lost his mind in a bizarre World War II incident leaves Tokyo for “somewhere west.” Nakata, who can talk to cats, hitchhikes his way (rather eventfully) to where Kafka is now, propelled by mysterious forces within his mind. He is running towards something, but he is also running away from a gruesome murder that he committed. Or did he?

Kafka ends up at a quaint little family library in a quaint little town. On the way though, he meets a girl who he thinks could be his sister. And at the library, he runs into the following people.

  1. Oshima, the uber-smart library assistant who says mysterious, metaphysical, profound, philosophical things with a straight face. Like so:

“Speaking of contradictions,” Oshima suddenly says, “when I first met you I felt a kind of contradiction in you. You’re seeking something, but at the same time you’re running away for all you’re worth.” [Please nod sagely. There you go, that’s it.]

Oshima is uber-smart, so quoting Yeats ( “In dreams begin responsibility”) and Aristophanes or drawing on Greek Philosophy ( “Cassandra’s curse”) to explain everyday predicaments comes easily to him. As does having a lot of fun at the expense of a couple of poor feminists:

“Yes, may I help you?” Oshima asks her amiably.

“Just to let you know, we are investigating public cultural facilities in the entire country from a woamn’s point of view, looking at ease of use, fair access and other issues,” she says. “Our group is doing a year-long investigation and plans to publish a report on our findings. A large number of women are involved in this project, and the two of us happen to be in charge of this region.”

[…]

“What we’ve concluded is that, unfortunately, this library has several issues which need to be addressed.”

“From the viewpoint of women, is what you’re saying,” Oshima commented.

“Correct, from the viewpoint of women,” the woman answers. She clears her throat.

[…]

“Well, first of all you have no toilet set aside for women. That’s correct, isn’t it?”

‘Yes, that’s right. There’s no women’s toilet in this library. We have one toilet for the use of both men and women.”

“Even if you are a private institution, since you’re open to the public don’t you think – in principle – that you should provide separate toilets for women and men?”

“In principle?” Oshima says.

“Correct. Shared facilities give rise to all sorts of harassment. According to our survey, the majority of women are reluctant to use shared toilets. This is a clear cae of neglect of your female patrons.”

“Neglect…” Oshima says, and makes a face as though he’s swallowed something bitter by mistake He doesn’t much like the sound of the word, it would seem.

“An intentional oversight.”

“Intentional oversight,” he repeats, and gives some thought to this clumsy phrase.

“So what is your reaction to all this?” the woman asks, barely containing her irritation.

“As you can see,” Oshima says, “we’re a very small library. And unfortunately we don’t have the sapce for separate toilets. Naturally it would be better to have separate toilets, but none of our patrons has ever complained. For better or for worse, our library doesn’t get very crowded. If you’d like to pursue this issue of separate toilets further, I suggest you got to the Boeing headquartes inSeattle and addreess the issue of toilets on 747s. A 747’s much bigger than our little library, and much more crowded. As far as I’m aware, all toilets on passenger aircraft are shared by men and women.”

“The tall woman frowns at him severely, her cheekbones jjutting forward and her glasses riding up her nose. “We are not investigating aeroplanes. 747s are beside the point.”

“Wouldn’t toilets in both jets and in our library – in principle – give rise to the same sorts of problems?”

“We are investigating, one by one, public facilities. We’re not here to argue over principles.

“Oshmias’s supple smile never fades during this exchange. “Is that so?” I could have sworn that principles were exactly what we were discussing.”

And so it goes. An exchange that later veers towards a discussion of red herrings, shifting analogies, Aristotle and phallocentric logicical fallacies before it ends with a revelation that would’ve been explosive in any other book. Here, coming after sardines raining and a dog interrupting Nakata’s conversation with a cat to lead him to a man dressed like Johnny Walker (whisky mogul, evil cat eater) who proceeds to eat live cat hearts, it is just another event. Murakami’s world is full of them.

Oshima is the reader’s muse in the book – erudite and unruffled, he “explains” (if you can call bits of tangential loud thinking that) what is going on to both Kafka and us.

2. (etcetera:we get our numbering right).

3. On the bus out of Tokyo, Oshima also meets Sakura, a hot young girl who he thinks could be his sister.Naturally. Kafka and Sakura form a bond on the bus, and later on, Kafka rapes her in his dream. But dreams blur into reality in this book, so one can’t really be sure. Sakura and Kafka carry on a conversation that might explain the preponderance of alarming coincidences in the book.

“Even chance meetings… Are the result of Karma.”

“Right, right,” she says. “But what does it mean?”

“That things in life are fated by our previous lives. That even the in the smallest events there’s no such thing as coincidence.”

4. And finally, Miss Saeki. She is the stately woman with a sad past she won’t discuss, who runs the library that Oshima works in. Kafka, naturally, thinks she could be his mom. There are tantalizing clues that seem to point to the theory – Miss Saeki was a lightning researcher and Kafka’s dad was once struck by lightning. But when Kafka asks her the question, all he gets is something to the effect of “You already know the answer to that.” And he accepts the answer and moves on. Occasionally, Miss Saeki becomes a fifteen year old girl and dons shiny white costumes and goes to Kafka’s room. This confuses Kafka no end, and his discussions with Oshima about Miss Saeki lead to the conclusion that this is probably a “living ghost.” The title of the book – Kafka on the Shore, is also the title of the hit single that Miss Saeki composed when she was young. The lyrics of the song are riddled with symbolism, and Kafka’s sees a lot of parallels between his life and the lyrics. And so on it goes…

Meahwhile, hitchhiking old man Nakata, after causing leeches to fall from the sky, ends up at the same town as Kafka, by sheer chance. Nakata has forgotten first person usage, so conversations with him remind you of conversations between Elaine and Jimmy.

Nakata is sleepy.

Colonel SandersA truck driver who picks him up on the way is intrigued by Nakata and decides to accompany him on his quest for something that also happens to be – by chance – mentioned in Miss Saeki’s hit single.

The truck driver, Hoshino, later encounters a spirit dressed up as Colonel Sanders. Colonel Sanders has a slightly differerent job description here: he is a supernatural pimp, who gets Hoshino a girl that is very adept at quoting Henri Bergson and Hegel. Together, Hoshino and the prostitute find the perfect use for philosopy.

“See, you’re ready to go again,” the girl remarked, slowly seguing into her next set of motions. “Any special reqeusts? Something you’d like me to do? Mr. Sanders asked me to make sure you got everything you wanted.”

“I can’t think of anything special, but could you quote some more of that philosophy stuff? I don’t know why, but it might keep me from coming so quickly. Otherwise, I’ll lose it pretty fast.”

“Let’s see . . . This is fairly old, but how about some Hegel?”

“Whatever.”

[…]

“‘At the same time that “I” am the content of a relation, “I” am also that which does the relating.'”

The hilarious encounters between Sanders and Hoshino are the funniest parts of the book, with Murakami at his biting best.

“Listen – God only exists in people’s minds. Especially in Japan God’s always been a kind of flexible concept. Look at what happened after the war. Dougnal MacArthur ordered the divine emperor to quit being God, and he did, making a speech saying he was just an ordinary person. So after 1946 he wasn’t God anymore. That’s what Japanese gods are like – they can be tweaked and adjusted. Some American chomping on a cheap pipe gives the order and presto change-o – God’s no longer God. A very postmodern kind of thing. if you think God’s there, He is. If you don’t, He isn’t. And if that’s what God’s like I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Typical of Murakami, when the denoument comes (and goes), it leaves you with more questions than answers. Some philosophical, some practical. (“Was there a message in all this?” “What is he trying to say?” “Was Miss Saeki Kafka’s mom?”). What is the point, the overarching explanation that ties it all up? How could Hoshino start talking to cats? Was the stone the entrance to heaven? What is the significance of the paradise like land suspended between two worlds? Is this a fable? Or like a reviewer claims, is the whole book about giving shape to internal thoughts of the characters?

But then, a little bit of thought provides the answer: It doesn’t matter. There is so much fun to be had when reading the book, and some more fun thinking about all the questions, and that could very well be the whole point.

New York Times Featured Author Profile.

Let’s talk about Neal

“And so,” the snotty bunch of hazers asked him, “do you read?”

“Yes sirs,” he said. Knighthood by coercion.

“What’s your favorite genre?” I asked, gazing at the immense forehead. “I was born with a large forehead, and no, that is not a receding hairline, you jerk” he would tell me later, when we had become friends.

But going back to now, his answer was “Science fiction. Asimov. Long pause. Sirs.”

We groaned.

Science fiction, in that little clique, was passe. It was boring and juvenile, a resort of failed fantasy writers (it was either that or . Worlds with scary green faced aliens and half baked scientific theories on time travel weren’t gonna cut it, not for hard nosed young men who could smoke a whole Benson & Hedges without coughing. By the way, we are a socially responsible blog and would like inform you that smoking in Bhutan can land you in jail, unless you are the king.

“Yes,” we said, “Foundation was good. Dick was good too.” Stifled laughter. “But that’s it. No new ideas anymore, and how many variations on time travel can you read ?”

“No, but …”

“Why do we get the sense you are trying to contradict us?”

“I mean yes… sirs. SF is not a happening field. I agree wholeheartedly.”


It has been a few years since the conversation happened, and I wish I could go back in time and take the side of the young man with a receding hairline and tell the others to go read Cyberpunk. That’ll only happen in bad science fiction, so I’ll have to make do with a tribute to Neal Stephenson.

The problem with sci-fi (we all thought) was that it took itself too seriously. ‘Twas a genre lost in its gadgets, a genre enamored with its clairvoyance, a genre filled with stuffy geek-writers who believed that mediocre plots could be transformed into classics when set in the future in imaginary planets. Margaret Atwood helped weaken the impression (you can’t really call her works science fiction, so scratch that) and William Gibson broke its resolve, but Neal Stephenson shattered it, burnt the remnants and shot the ashes up in the air with the weapons that he invented in Snow Crash. He did this by adding one ingredient to his books: irreverent satire. A self deprecating tone. Scathing social commentary. Intriguing new social orders, a healthy interest in the flow of money, an awareness of the impact of technology on people. Ok, I was off by a few ingredients. Big deal.

His books are elaborately plotted and incredibly detailed ( and very long), drawing on ideas from several sources: Snow Crash blends in virtual reality with notions of a libertarian future, The Diamond Age is about society’s response to nanotechnology. The complexity of the ideas is balanced by the irreverent, satirical tone of the narrative – Stephenson’s books never take themselves too seriously. And that endears them to you – a self deprecating geek discussing his ideas with passion is much more likable than someone earnestly trying to sell stories about plants that grow on Mars. This excerpt from Snow Crash is typical of how Stephenson treats conventional science fiction , turning hackneyed ideas into fun.

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He’s got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.

When they gave him the job, they gave him a gun. The Deliverator never deals in cash, but someone might come after him anyway — might want his car, or his cargo. The gun is tiny, aero-styled, lightweight, the kind of a gun a fashion designer would carry; it fires teensy darts that fly at five times the velocity of an SR-71 spy plane, and when you get done using it, you have to plug it into the cigarette lighter, because it runs on electricity.

The Deliverator never pulled that gun in anger, or in fear. He pulled it once in Gila Highlands. Some punks in Gila Highlands, a fancy Burbclave, wanted themselves a delivery, and they didn’t want to pay for it. Thought they would impress the Deliverator with a baseball bat. The Deliverator took out his gun, centered its laser doo-hickey on that poised Louisville Slugger, fired it. The recoil was immense, as though the weapon had blown up in his hand. The middle third of the baseball bat turned into a column of burning sawdust accelerating in all directions like a bursting star. Punk ended up holding this bat handle with milky smoke pouring out the end. Stupid look on his face. Didn’t get nothing but trouble from the Deliverator.

The Deliverator’s car has enough potential energy packed into its batteries to fire a pound of bacon into the Asteroid Belt. Unlike a bimbo box or a Burb beater, the Deliverator’s car unloads that power through gaping, gleaming, polished sphincters. When the Deliverator puts the hammer down, shit happens. You want to talk contact patches? Your car’s tires have tiny contact patches, talk to the asphalt in four places the size of your tongue. The Deliverator’s car has big sticky tires with contact patches the size of a fat lady’s thighs. The Deliverator is in touch with the road, starts like a bad day, stops on a peseta.

Why is the Deliverator so equipped? Because people rely on him. He is a roll model. This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them.

Just when you think “Bond wannabe”, you find out. That the Deliverator delivers pizzas in a world run by corporations. That the deliverator is a software engineer with attitude. And you grin, shake your head and move on to the next chapter about Governmentless worlds.

The Deliverator used to make software. Still does, sometimes. But if life were a mellow elementary school run by well-meaning education Ph.D.s, the Deliverator’s report card would say: “Hiro is so bright and creative but needs to work harder on his cooperation skills.”

After Snowcrash and The Diamond Age – Cyberpunk Classics – Stephenson changed tack. Cryptonomicon, his follow-up book, isn’t really Science Fiction, it is a “historical techno-thriller.” It is an outstanding book that has been has been compared in its breadth and scope to Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon’s dense World War II classic. But Stephenson won’t mind it being called Science Fiction:

“The science fiction approach doesn’t mean it’s always about the future; it’s an awareness that this is different.” [Link]

The book

follows two parallel sagas: that of cryptographers during World War II attempting to crack Axis codes and that of their descendants attempting to use modern cryptography to build a data haven in the fictitious state of Kinakuta, a small nation […]. It also details the political machinations that follow both efforts. [Link]

A much more confident Stephenson digresses heavily, including a pointless short story written by one of the characters and Perl source code for a cryptographic algorithm he describes in the book. The book is a delightful read, each digression a source of unexpected pleasure. Stephenson blends in his fictional protoganists with real life people: Dr. Waterhouse, his cryptographer hero spends time with Alan Turing, and Einstein and Churchill make cameo appearances as themselves. Cryptonomicon is smart, supremely funny and densely packed with ideas and an acute awareness of the several societies spanned by the plot.

[…]When he does get to the right floor, thought, it is a bit posher than the wrong one was. Of course, the underlying structure of everything in England is post. There is no in between with these people. You have to walk a mile to find a telephone booth, but when you find it, it is built as if the senseless dynamiting of pay phones had been a serious problem at sometime in the past. And a British mailbox can presumably stop a German tank. None of them have cars, but when they do, they are three-ton hand-built beasts. The concept of stamping out a whole lot of cars is unthinkable.

[…]Waterhouse has forgotten all of their names. He always immediately forgets the names. Even if he remembered them, he would not know their significance, as he does not actually have the organization chart of the Foreign Ministry (which runs Intelligence) and the Military laid out in front of him. They keep saying “woe to hice!” but just as he actually begins to feel sorry for this Hice fellow, whoever he is, he figures out that this is how they pronounce “Waterhouse.” Other than that, the one remark that actually penetrates his brain is when one of the Other Guys says something about the Prime Minister that implies considerable familiarity. And he’s not even the Main guy. The Main Guy is much older and more distinguished. So it seems to Waterhouse (though he has completely stopped listening to what all of these people are saying to him) that a good half of the people in the room have recently had conversations with Winston Churchill.

And perhaps in response to criticism that he couldn’t tie up his plots properly, Stephenson ends Cryptonomicon well, tying up most loose ends. An awesome, awesome read.

A review of Cryptonomicon at Slashdot.

Which brings us to the Baroque Cycle, his ambitious trilogy set in the early 18th century. Stephenson insists that the Baroque Cycle is still Science Fiction, because the book mostly focuses on science in the Baroque Era. Hmm. He continues using the technique of blending in fictitious people with real ones – the duel between Newton and Leibniz forms the backdrop for a large part of the cycle.

It is not Cryptonomicon, but it is a fine book nevertheless. Even though it feels a bit like reading a smart schoolboy’s scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings from the 17th century, the writing sparkles, and the characters intrigue. (And the second book in the trilogy is set in eighteenth century India, which is another reason to read it).

And the books are also… you know what, this post is way too long. So without much ado, I’ll conclude.

Therefore, I conclude, Neal Stephenson is a good writer who writes elaborately plotted science fiction full of irreverent humor. Hence, I infer, you will all go read his books and write your own reviews. Please wipe your glazed eyes and go back to your own blogs. If you are a came through google, sorry, no naked pictures exist on this blog, except on one post. Continue searching.

The Titular Head

Agatha ChristieWe are just a day or two into the new year. The year that just passed was a year in which Agatha Christie hogged more or less all the limelight, even though she is not that hot. In two separate studies, scientists claim to have unlocked the secret of why her books are so popular, even though they feature protagonists we’d rather not drink tea with.

Scientists at the Universities of London, Birmingham and Warwick “loaded Christie’s novels onto a computer and analyzed her words, phrases and sentences.” The results of the study show that

[S]he peppered her prose with phrases that act as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction.

[Another] finding was that she used a very limited vocabulary. “It means that readers aren’t distracted and so they concentrate more on the clues and the plots,” said Dr Pernilla Danielsson from the school of humanities at Birmingham University. [Link]

Here’s Mark Lieberman’s take at the Language Log.

Christie used a limited vocabulary, “pleasing and gentle” language even though the plots were macabre, and repeated certain “mesmerizing” phrases over and over again to stimulate serotonin and other chemicals in the body.

Favourite words or phrases, repeatedly used in a “mesmerising” way, help to stimulate the pleasure-inducing side of the brain. They include she, yes, girl, kind, smiled and suddenly. Common phrases include “can you keep an eye on this”, “more or less”, “a day or two” and “something like that”. [Link]

Let’s summarize the recipe for bestsellers: Repeating the same things over and over again, gentle presentation, familiar phrases, sixth grade vocabulary. And let’s also state our opinion of the whole stylometric study: Duh! Just read any three books by Robert Ludlum, and you’ll know. Familiarity sells. Familiarity and simplicity, we are convinced, are the key ingredients that make popular art so… popular. Actually, duh again. There is a whole industry in India, um.. I mean, South Asia that has been using the formula successfully for ages – Indian movies are all about familiar settings, dumbed down plotting and an insistence on making audiences feel good. The next time someone asks Ram Gopal Varma why he keeps remaking his own movies (and those of others), he should quote Professor Danielsson, stylometry, serotonin, Agatha Christie and Antara Mali. And Anu Malik – what can I say? I respect him a lot more now. Something like that.

The repetitive nature of Bollywood means titling movies is a hard, hard task. How many ways can you headline the same article? Guy beats up Bad Guys, falls in Love with Girl. Girl Falls in Love with Guy who beat up Bad Guys. Bad Guys beaten up by Guy that Fell in Love with Girl. Love fallen into by Girl and Guy who beat up Bad Guys. And so on. Which, by the way, is a great segue into the next Agatha Christie finding.

According to a statistical study commissioned by Lulu.com, Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder is the “perfect title” for a bestselling novel and John Le Carre is the most consistent producer of “good” titles. [Link]

Figurative or abstract titles, such as “Sleeping Murder,” or “Presumed Innocent,” produce more top-sellers than literal ones, such as “The Da Vinci Code.”

A title’s length does not affect sales — contrary to publishingindustry wisdom, which decrees that bestseller titles be short. Another increased respect moment here. Remember all those Hindi movie titles: DDLJ. HAHK. K3G. Damn. These guys knew.

Through the Language Log a link to the statistical analysis tool used for the study. The Lulu Book Title Analyzer. Please don’t forget to leave comments complimenting the intriguing figurative title I chose for this post.

[Previous Post on why Bollywood is high literary art.]

PS: Agatha Christie picture courtesy The Free Library.