DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
May 22 2015

Maps to the Stars: A Classical Tragedy

by Rebekah B

Kafka on the Shore

Hello readers,

Japanese author Haruki Murakami claims in his novel Kafka on the Shore that in our dreams and our imagination lie the roots of responsibility–meaning that those who refuse to accept responsibility for their actions are also most likely to remain almost totally unaware of the dark depths of hidden meaning tugging at us from below the surface of our lives. Just as Adolf Eichmann considered his design of the final solution as a “practical problem,” his lack of imagination echoed his inability to see the moral implications of his acts. In this same novel, Murakami’s characters Kafka Tamura and Oshima also speak of “living spirits,” a common feature of Japanese tales. Unlike a ghost, a living spirit separates from the body of a person who has not yet died in order to accomplish certain acts without the consent or awareness of the person in question. The difference between living spirits and ghosts, and the notion of timelessness, are key to this novel. For example, a 15-year-old Miss Saeki visits Kafka Tamura in his room at night, while the adult Miss Saeki, in her later 40’s, is most likely asleep in her bed at home.

Kafka on the Shore deals with the myth of Oedipus, translated to contemporary Japan in the person of young Kafka Tamura who runs away from his father’s home to avoid the effects of the dire prophecy issued to him by his father, a famous sculptor. The memory of Kafka’s mother has been wiped from his memory. She and his older sister disappeared from his life when he was four years old. The depths of the soul and unconscious mind take a strange cast of characters to places within themselves and one another to carry out the injunctions of fate. Murakami’s vast intelligence is astounding and reveals the mysterious meaning of the ironies of our lives, as a variety of beings–some rational and highly intelligent, others bereft of their faculties yet connected to a deeper form of guidance–use their hearts and minds to lead them all to an interconnected destiny.

Kafka on the Shore quote 2

David Cronenberg’s film, Map to the Stars, stars Julianne Moore (aging neurotic actress Havana Segrand, haunted by the memory of her deceased and abusive mother), Evan Bird (Benjie, at 13 an appallingly overconfident child star and recovering addict), John Cusack (Stafford Weiss, somewhat creepy therapist to the stars and New Age self-help guru, also Benjie and Agatha’s father), Olivia Williams (Christina Weiss, an overwrought and sensitive woman, as Benjie and Agatha’s mother and ostensibly Stafford’s wife and sister), Mia Wasikowska (Agatha, Benjie’s schizophrenic older sister who has been banished years ago by her parents after trying to drug and immolate herself and Benjie), Sarah Gadon (Clarice Taggart, Havana Segrand’s mother and film legend who perished in her youth in a fire), and Robert Pattinson (Jerome Fontana, aspiring actor and limo driver). This link (spoiler alert) will take you to a New Yorker review of the film, although I find this review by Matt Zoller Seitz on RogerEbert.com to better capture the qualities of the film and the intentions of the director and writers.


Of Cronenberg, critic Seitz says: “Maybe because he’s less interested in gore and goo than in the beasts within: the monstrous nature of obsession and desire; the difficulty of escaping oneself, physically or emotionally; the cruelty of the societies that enfold and define his characters. Look back over Cronenberg’s filmography, and you realize that he hasn’t made an according-to-Hoyle horror picture since 1986’s ‘The Fly.’ The horrific quality seems to come more from his being appalled by what people can be, and do—and from being sympathetic to their urges anyway.”

A fairly recent addition to the DCPL collection, Map to the Stars features a fatefully interconnected group of human beings as they face the deepest of all fears, both personal and collective. Haunted with ghosts and visions, several of the characters are compelled by these shades to behave in ways which appear to be beyond their conscious control. While on the surface the story seems to involve the superficial realms and ambitions of the rich and famous in Hollywood, very quickly the viewer realizes that below the surface there is much more to the story than the apparently ridiculous struggles of an aging actress to reassert herself on screen and maintain her reputation. The taboos of incest and the Oedipal conflict as well as the conflict between reason and the irrational are the primary themes of this film. Violent without being overwhelmed by gore, the characters are torn by their fears and desires, and a dominating sense of fatalism prevails. Despite several graphically violent scenes, the characters, as in Murakami’s novel, maintain a certain level of self-awareness. Each is a seeker, and each is aware of the limits of the rational mind.  All are haunted by secrets and ghosts of lost love and opportunities and by grief caused by relationships and choices gone wrong. And yet the dramatic and tragic unfolding of these tormented souls is somehow poetic. The violence is at times pervaded by a peaceful sense of human beings finding their own dignity within tragedy, although a sense of the ridiculous is never far away.

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