New Fiction

Finds and flops

It takes time, clearly, to make sense of a novel in which a half-wit converses with cats and causes fish to rain from the sky. In which Johnnie Walker (yes, that Johnnie Walker) has a cameo as a kitty-killing fiend, and Colonel Sanders (yep, that one) appears as a cosmic flesh peddler, serving up a delightful, Hegel-quoting whore. In which a fifteen-year-old father-hating runaway named Kafka (luckily, not that Kafka) undertakes a multidimensional love affair with a woman almost certainly his mother, and gets a little on the side from a girl almost certainly his sister. Perhaps it needn't be said that this meta-fictional fun house isn't perfect, but underpinning it all is a surprisingly patient, deeply affecting meditation on perfection itself, specifically romantic perfection—the obsessive greed in pursuing it, the selfish isolation that comes from achieving it, the soul-killing (and also selfish) grief of outliving it, of being left, inevitably, with nothing but its fading memory. Recalling the "private paradise" of her own lost love, the aforementioned mother, a virtual and sometimes actual wraith, says, "I had something too complete, too perfect, once, and afterward all I could do was despise myself." Fortunately, Murakami, unlike his female lead, never surrenders to gorgeous despair, and instead celebrates life's imperfections, its partial and transient relationships, and its unintended consequences as blessings in disguise—vital to tolerance and adaptability, and therefore to imagination and even sanity.

Hence this tale of two people's struggles to escape/fulfill an unknowingly shared fate is at once absurdly fun and highly sentimental. Murakami's voice—detached but not indifferent, sympathetic but never mawkish—comes through most clearly in that of a supporting character, a young androgyne librarian, who says to Kafka, "A certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect. And personally, I find that encouraging." Perfect.

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Jon Zobenica is a staff editor at The Atlantic.

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