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Kafka on the Shore
By Haruki Murakami (Knopf, 448 pages)
The lavish praise heaped upon Haruki Murakami's books has always found me keeping his work at arm's length; it never fails that when a writer is consistently hailed as a genius that he will be the writer that just doesn't connect with me. In Murakami's case, it's been a situation where my exposure to other, better contemporary Japanese writers has sucked the novelty out of his intense and hallucinatory prose, while the deep strain of unfulfilled melancholy that he insists on returning to makes a lot of his books ... well, it makes them a bit of a drag. Kafka on the Shore doesn't do much to alter my skepticism, as much of it is as predictable as a Louis L'Amour paperback. A deceptively pedestrian plotline? Present. Flashbacks to World War II atrocities? Check. Persistent flights of whacked-out cosmology and super-bizarre imagery? Yup. An utterly gray protagonist who engages in dark ruminations on sexuality and modern life? You bet. Enough wit, wisdom and weirdness to make all these things seem a lot more interesting than they should? Oh, yes. Kafka will not do much to convert many folks into newly admiring fans of Murakami, as it's very much consistent with his previous work. Nonetheless, it does show the author to be, if not a genius, then certainly a craftsman of the highest order.

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