Reading Haruki Murakami's latest novel, "Kafka on the Shore," is a little like listening to a kid make up a story at a campfire. It begins with a 15-year-old boy, running away from home in Tokyo. Then we meet an old man who can talk to cats but has trouble communicating with humans. Before long we run into Johnnie Walker, the gent from the Scotch ads, who's decapitating cats and stealing their souls. Leeches and fish rain from the sky. Later Colonel Sanders puts in an appearance as a pimp and a sort of spiritual middleman. None of this will faze Murakami's fans, who are used to his offbeat novels, such as "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," where a man spends a good part of the story at the bottom of a hole. Other readers may find that this novelist takes getting used to. "Kafka" is definitely worth the trouble: it may be the Japanese author's weirdest novel yet, but it's also one of his best.
Murakami borrows from everyone and everything--Sophocles, horror movies, Japanese comics and movie-of-the-week schmaltz. He doesn't fit any given genre. In "Kafka," there is a whole chapter devoted to a trucker's love affair with Beethoven's "Archduke" Trio. In conventional fiction this would be either an aside or a major part of the plot. In "Kafka," it's both somehow. You don't need it to understand the story, but the story loses resonance without it. What ties all this together is Murakami's unflappable, enchanting prose: hip but companionable, it keeps you coming back for more.
In "Kafka," Murakami takes turns telling the stories of the runaway, who calls himself Kafka, and Nakata, the old cat fancier. Both have been betrayed or let down by life. They talk of feeling hollow, and go questing, each in search of his own Oz. But like his characters' quests, Murakami's expeditions off the worn path of literature can be both rewarding and terrifying. Finishing "Kafka on the Shore" is like waking from a great dream. Nothing has changed, but everything about the world looks different.