My friend @Sentient Garden had written a very insightful review on Kafka on the Shore by Murakami. They critique Murakami a lot and have fairly read a lot of his books thus their critiques are not unfounded nor are they lacking in reason. There are certain tropes or things Murakami followed that many modern day readers may not inherently agree with. I had started reading Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and though I was skimming, let’s just say the novel, though not inherently bad, would be heavily critiqued by some people in the era of #MeToo and at times rightfully so considering how the novel transpires with some of its core.
Some of the nuances Sen got from the novel, that they feel are a “thing” in most of Murakami’s novel is the fetishisation of the uncomfortable (Trigger warnings ahead for sexual abuse, transphobia and homophobia/queerphobia):
Sakura and Miss Saeki, our only significant adult female characters, sexually prey on Kafka Tamura. The former by an ‘innocent’ handjob, and the latter by regular intercourse in the office. I’m always down for commentary by way of Lolita, but Kafka on the Shore is decidedly not that – Sakura and Miss Saeki are treated wholly sympathetically with no indication of any lasting discomfort on Kafka’s part. It is, for the most part, intended to be a titillating fantasy, one that conveniently ignores the real harm of female sexual predation on underaged boys. I can perhaps see an attempt to make the sexy uncomfortable, but this honestly happens so obsessively in Murakami’s novels that I don’t think that’s the intention anymore.
The gay trans man Oshima is easily the most awful attempt at representation in a Murakami novel. Kafka and Oshima’s older brother misgender and undermine his identity near the end of the book, the former having a fetishistic bent to it. Oshima does a similar thing that I mentioned female characters do in which he tells complete strangers how he has sex with men’s behinds using his vagina…you know, something that would ordinarily be an awful dysphoric experience for real trans men.
Granted, Murakami is not the only author who does this, considering titillating things that are “alternate,” “othered” and so on and so forth is something that happens in fiction a lot in a particular era. I understand that era as I am a person who has somewhat come from that era. It doesn’t always make it right nor does it make it “safe” or even “risqué” anymore. Sometimes, it is just uncomfortable. It does not serve any purpose aside that discomfort. Yet, the seeming “aesthetics” of the time was that sexual “awakenings” are to be “liked.” Though the question Sen asked is obviously imperative: should not abuse be highlighted and acknowledged?
One of the things Sen had mentioned that interested me highly and was en pointe was these lines:
Unless someone has a better name for it, I’m just going to go ahead and call it the Evangelion phenomenon – when you incorporate outside cultural references purely for aesthetic reasons, without a true understanding of neither origin nor significance.
Sometimes, we unfortunately, use references because they are popular or because we want to show our understanding or knowledge or use the popularity of tropes/references as a way to pivot forward in our own careers, life or just on social media. Social media is a good place for this to happen. Sure, we all desire some clout or influence, so we reblog from prestigious people, or verified twitter accounts and/or users, However, it must align to what we really believe and how we really think some things; at least subjective and genuine. It seems that many authors, even before the advent of the net’s popularities and popularisms, used the “meme” culture’s bandwagon fashion to explore certain subjects. I cannot at all blame them for this was once what the market considered “good writing.” The ability to categorise and research a myriad of discourses and pepper it through your work. Even I am guilty of that. I am somewhat doing it now.
What matters is the efficacy. It can be a hit or a miss. A good example of this is Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, which started off on a cool note about a Pendulum and even about an engine but then focused so much on museum artifacts in its premise that I just gave up on it. The Name of the Rose used old medieval texts and detective fiction and that read through better. The thing is is how things read and how we can also see them flow and intersect. Good writing is usually about those checks and balances (as noted in the Indie-like film Paperman). So, even if you use a whole armada of references it just has to work in your novel.
I used Sen’s review initially as they really understood why certain things can and cannot work. They allowed me to explain a bit of the “mememisation” of knowledge, which can both useful but also caustic and entropic, close to a disintegration of original intents and purposes. An early 2000s anime Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex explored the way knowledge is disseminated in the internet age, without much of the authorial imprints and signatures, allowing both widespread knowledge or knowledge itself being cult or deified into something else as para-religious accessorization or losing its validity due to untraceable sources. Or, even without a source, its latter adaptations get clout and spike revolutionary, both minor and major, advocacies. Sometimes, this is useful as anything, other times, it is not at all optimistic. GITS: SAC was on the slightly optimist trail in the first series and then on its second series it showed the downfall of said knowledge dissemination. It highlights that culture is also culpable of getting onto the bandwagon of hating many disenfranchised people: classic discriminations and racisms run amok with memisations and not necessarily a form of knowledge that could be valid or “ideal” or its usefulness disintegrates almost immediately.
Knowledge, in this positionality, is not a vacuum. Its sustainability also runs on the user base and its relationships with other discourses. I have been writing on this uptil now because The Idiot by Elif Batuman seems to extrapolate these in its formal and non-formal ways of addressing language, psychology, semantics, semiotics, culture, mathematics and even “biological” attractions (it has its own queer leanings). The novel is in first person, but you can see the references, it is set in the 90s, when net was only being introduced to the public, especially academically to the student bases of Harvard and many such prestigious universities. The novel is aware of its own “privileges”, Selin, the protagonist, is Turkish-American and as grown up in America as an American. She is very introverted. She has certain aspects to her that would remind you of Anna Karenina, but she has more self-awareness than the other protagonist, but it leads to somewhat similar circumstances. Yet, the knowledge is conscious to point that neither protagonist is at fault of this.
The novel is aware of intellectualist biases, the case of the ivory towers, of young people acting silly but ONLY because older adults also act silly and provide no such respite from the situation. A classic example Selin documents, is when she is in a Literature class and she notes the professor hardly listens to the students’ questions and seem to go on about his own way. Selin is gravely disappointed at this. You realise why. Even when you are older, you expected teachers, instructors or professors, to be amicable, approachable and/or understanding. Selin is only eighteen years old. And, it shows. I could relate a lot to her because I had been like that age and I knew when I started uni I acted pretty much similarly. At times cocky, at times so sure of my knowledge, at times really unsure, pressurised, bored — wanting connection with people but not knowing “how” as in how to seemingly adult. Or, function. Many older adults do not necessarily grow out of this because we are not given the circumstances or contexts to do so as effectively as we want. and surprisingly, the novel is aware of those things. There are also many funny, introspective pages:
I found myself alone for the first time in days. Remembering that they had said I could eat whatever I wanted, I cut a big slice of apple cake and ate it while reading Dracula. It felt amazing to eat anything without having to listen, nod, smile, or do anything with my eyebrows. Dracula visited the Wolf Department at the Zoological Gardens. “These wolves seem upset at something,” he observed. The next morning the cage was all twisted out of shape and the gray wolf Berserker was missing. Dracula had temporarily inhabited its body. Dracula had a totally different experience at the zoo from that of other people.
Batuman, Elif. The Idiot (p. 329).
These are references. Yet, they are interwoven into the fabric of the novel as subtle influences or foreshadowings or stuff that people generally do that may not have some higher Modernist meanings in their lives. Reading is something Selin loves to do and thinking and analysing. It may seem common and not “extraordinary” but it doesn’t have to be at all. It is what it is. It makes the novel something you read and don’t feel intellectually biased upon. Even if some of the settings are in Harvard you feel at home with Selin because she thinks she is “boring”, “plain”, “simple”, “naive” and at times “redundant”, yet she is hardly any of those things.
Selin’s story also actively questions the gendered views on passiveness and activeness. Selin is active, she does do things yet realistically they don’t always lead to drama or to seemingly popular outcomes. Selin is also passive but you will see many female and male characters having the same outcomes and demeanours despite what they say or aspire to do. Batuman’s craft is showing how people think they are NOT something but are actually more powerful than they seemingly are even when look passive or ar acting passive. Passiveness has potential too and just going out and doing things is not necessarily strength. Selin attempts to do things. At times, she is successful and you marvel at her strength. Other times, she is not and you realise how real that is and you are grateful the novel did not censor those aspects out. That it expected them because the author was writing a thing that would be gotten by many people especially POCs because they know what it is also like to be Selin, to be from cultures that can be conservative but also quite liberal and progressive.
There are a few gems in the novel that explain this. Note the writing style and how beautifully Batuman writes certain things:
“Right,” I said. I couldn’t imagine viewing Bill’s presence on Earth as any kind of a miracle, but wasn’t that itself the miracle—that love really was an obscure and unfathomable connection between individuals, and not an economic contest where everyone was matched up according to how quantifiably lovable they were?
Batuman, Elif. The Idiot (p. 364).
Because I was in the front, I didn’t have to steer, or set the rhythm. I just had to row at the pace that he set, to keep us from going in circles. As he spoke, I felt how I liked following instructions, and it made me ashamed. Following instructions was what had led to the Holocaust. And yet it turned out that shame was a separate thing. If you enjoyed something, you enjoyed it, whether or not you were also ashamed.
Batuman, Elif. The Idiot (p. 374).
Selin is not necessarily submissive nor is she necessarily dominant. The reasons is because she is young. Following instructions is something that logic-oriented people usually like, however, the downside, as Selin is intelligent and self-aware to realise is that you “come-off” as passive if you are AFAB/NB/a young woman, which has become so inseminated into mainstream cultures that she becomes conscious of doing something that to a man doing would seem like “disciplined” or “useful/resourceful” or a good “soldier.” Yet, considering the socio-political gendered scripts don’t take that as something autonomous or having agency for AFABs/NBs/women. It is taken a perverse turn so Selin feels ashamed. These lines depict some inrospections the novel ventures into.
As, Selin is self-aware but she is also disenfranchised by cultural and gender scripts around her. At one point, Selin even asked why is a “rationale” so important or why does “reason” govern pleasure so much as in people asking why you to do things. It is not there isn’t a reason, there could be but it seems cultures love to ask AFABs/young women/women/NB people such questions more and more than they do to cis, men especially White, cis men. At another point, Selin considers how “beauty” is dependent on the male-gaze as it is aestheticized using a male-centric grandiose focal point meaning it becomes deftly linimal and Eurocentric. And, she uses this beauty-principle on another White girl that she was quite beautiful because of her simple, clear features and admonishes that why such simple aspects are considered mundane when they are beautiful. Romantics and Modernists be damned. Beautiful can be beautiful in many ways. If truth is beauty then that beauty is not liminal to one gaze.
The novel is filled with such references. There are passages of learning textbooks. One or two of them actually make Selin angry but we the readers are made to realise that her anger is justified or in time her anger would be on other things that don’t necessarily have “neat” endings. Selin questions those a lot: with everything she reads you can see she expects it to educate her about life, love and friendships. This is not gendered but very human. We may question this but seeing that Selin is a young girl we may be biased to think it is because she is a girl she wants that. Actually, everyone else is looking for similar things. Even the male characters. In fact, Orhan Pamuk’s The New Life was essentially speaking of the same things but seeing the male protagonist did not want to admit that we glean it via what he is not saying. Yet, ultimately, in small doses, he admits to it.
The seemingly main plot of the book, via its subtle and trickster blurb, is that it is meant to resonate on a “romance” happening with Selin on the net, a la epistolary style, with a student named Ivan. Ivan is a few years older and is graduating with a degree in mathematics and wants to go to Berkeley for higher math studies. Selin’s first active usage of the net happens when she wants to connect with Ivan outside of learning Russian. Ivan is from Hungary. He is tall and somewhat towers over Selin. He is a contrast in many ways to Selin as he is seemingly an “intellectual” and has very mainstream way of doing things. Selin is interested to know him.
The novel is all about Selin. I am quite happy to say it shows a rich inner and exterior life of Selin without Ivan perturbing all her thoughts or making her unable to do anything. Yes, Ivan makes her restless and additionally she does think on him. The way he absentmindedly flirts with her, the way he calls her name and the way he pays attention to her. Yes, they are sweet things. Yet there is something about them – perhaps as I am older – the reader will find margining towards a level of “obnoxiousness.” However, we would be like Selin in our younger selves. Not knowing how we can be attracted to the “wrong” people or people perhaps not best suited for us. Roxane Gay effectively put it in her goodreads review of the novel: “And Ivan is trash. Utter trash. And the way he was written, to show how terrible and irresistible he was, well, just bravo.”
She also wrote, and I agree:
This was an interesting novel, dense, unique, written from a very specific point of view. One of those books where I marvel that it was published and am grateful it was published because, I mean, who wants to read the same type of book over and over? As someone who went to college in the 90s, not far from where much of this novel takes place, I felt an unexpected amount of nostalgia for that first year of college where you know nothing but think you know everything and are surrounded by people who know nothing but also think they know everything. This novel is incredibly ambitious. There are levels to this shit. The Idiot is easy to read and really difficult to read.
Roxane Gay’s observations are true. The language may seem simple at times but it is complex. There is no “Brevity is the soul of wit” here, it can go on for paragraphs about Selin walking somewhere but it does not sound boring or over-the-top trying hard. It sounds and reads organically and actually gives a visual lexicon to how Selin feels and observes things. Such language also becomes intersected with how Ivan makes Selin feel. It is at times romantic, at times bittersweet, at times hollow and empty but not in a good way. The novel does not romanticise anything; it is aware the protagonist attempts to romanticise certain things because they are naive and because they don’t want to admit the object of their affections have been a major jerk in a way. Haven’t we all faced that? Not only with crushes or lovers but also with friends and family? In fact, there are many gendered, obnoxious things that Ivan does that make Selin realise certain nuggets to their exchanges at times, which bother her as she has not thought of it in such a barbaric or superficial or crude manner:
The breath caught in my throat. It had never occurred to me that power was something he would actually use, on me of all people.
Batuman, Elif. The Idiot (p. 384).
A disturbing part in the novel is when some female characters notice Ivan is doing something nefarious but their silences also speak that they are selfish in not stopping it or that they want to let it go because it may not concern them. Batuman is aware of unfairness and patriarchal structures but she is also aware how women can let younger girls and other women down. There were times where some girls stayed so mute even when they had the agency to topple or make statements that would work better. Yet, they seem uninterested in Selin possibly because she is Selin. It could also be a racist or cultural discrimination alongside of the disinterest of some people but you see it and the author wants you to question.
Selin is in many ways a writer and has a writer’s sensitivity to the world and also her own inner world. There are a lot of things she extrapolates with a beauty and a delicacy that mesmerises you about her. Selin is not necessarily the eponymous “Idiot” and even if she does silly things we are meant to question even the word “Idiot” and the way it is applied. It could easily be Ivan despite being a math major (that old and arcane subject revered by so many) due to how he behaves. The word “Idiot” cannot always be synomised with words like “foolish” or “ignorant.” It could be synomised with words like “selfish” and “misleading.” The novel makes you think and moves with other exchanges and relationships.
The more potent relationships that Selin have are with her best friends whom she sometimes forget about or rather undermine precisely because she undermines herself. One of them, Svetlana, who becomes her female best friend, she considers beautiful but also troubled, mirrors a lot of the issues Selin has and in that they seem powerfully connected to the point of actual romantic equanimity/compatibility yet they do waste their time on less deserving people. Even if the relationship is not romantic Svetlana cares a great deal about Selin and she her. Their friendship is also, realistically, defined by what they do and what they do not do. The ease in which they don’t have to try in front of each other in being their genuine selves is quite warm and real. Svetlana also considered Selin to be highly beautiful in a hypnotic way (you will catch it) and it actually depicts why dudes like Ivan, who are quite boring and selfish, are pitching way above their league. Society makes them think they can hook up with people like Selin. They can only wish.
Selin is unaware of her beauty and strengths thus she comes to doubt her connections with her male best friend, Ralph. Ralph may have some romantic leaning on her but she finds that impossible because of how beautiful Ralph is. She undermines that Ralph may genuinely care about her and one point opines that it could be that he is “gay” so he likes her so much in such a platonic way. It is unfair. And, we can say it is the residual homophobia and misogyny inherent in the 90s and even today that makes Selin question herself so much. Ralph is warm and welcoming and, he is quite real in that he interacts with Selin in an everyday manner and not some romantic tropist way. Ralph is someone who is not only dependable or boring but he is someone who gets Selin or rather isn’t someone that Selin has to try so hard to impress or feel that they become easily jealous or is a hypocrite. Yet, Selin doubts this because of how classic novels and other sources of phallogocentric knowledge seem to tell women/AFAB/NBs that they should not respond to their attractions and not seek beauty but reliability whereas male people are encouraged to only seek beauty. It is due to that Ivan seeks Selin even when they are implicitly, to us readers, incompatible and also we get from Ivan that he isn’t necessarily friendly or even respectful.
Ivan also exoticises Selin as some “Turk” due to Ottoman legacies in Hungary. Selin does not understand this as she is not part of that colonial empire nor has she reproduced its systematic ideals and when she meets people who are keen to know of the Ottoman from her you can see the gaps in her. She is an American. Also, race and colonial aspects are featured hand in hand, at times, more than religion. She does not find any kind of religiosity impressive nor does she seem interested in Ottoman relics but respects Hungary’s artifacts showcasing their defeats of the Ottoman. The same respect is not seemingly given to her all the time. Ivan hardly makes the exchanges easy or even bearable. What Ivan does and does not do feels in itself some PUA moves borderlining on narcissism even before the advent of those tactics online. Selin seems convenient and then she is not. Yet, Selin has not viewed him in those terms. Neither does she do with Ralph or Svetlana or anyone she encounters even VERY difficult people. Selin feels and thinks. She doesn’t seem to cleave them in some Cartesian manner and does not boast on things she does not know. Even her lack of knowledge feels real. With Ivan, we see someone who is trying very hard and failing miserably. Who uses society’s permissions and chauvinism to be vulpine and arrogant. Selin finds such emotions and ego meaningless. She is right in the human equation.
Ultimately, the novel is about youth and Selin, about questions that people have when they are younger and/or older and shows that friendships, relationships, or society are not always easy. That subjects we wanna learn from may only give us half-answers but not full ones. That our reliance on them is probably as much of a fiction on how we undermine ourselves. It is the novel’s brilliance in catching the impetuousness of being young but also the mature and kind voice of its protagonist that moves it. If it gives references you can see it work in multiple ways. Its comedies are rich, dark at times but ultimately on how life is quite unmanageable within frameworks of the grandiose. Sometimes, life is just you walking in a street. There is no reason why that is less real than something epic written elsewhere in some hallowed tome.