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. The kind in which one thing leads to another with no apparent logic, where the monsters come over the side of the ship and fight the pirates but don't get to kidnap the princess because she's already escaped in the spaceship, and on and on. Murakami's novel 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 odd tales of goofy quests featuring mysterious sheep or characters who spend most of the story at the bottom of a deep hole. A Murakami novel takes some getting used to, but this time it's well worth the trouble. "Kafka" is this Japanese author's weirdest novel yet. It's also one of his best.
Murakami borrows from everyone and everything--horror movies, manga comics, Sophocles, movie-of-the-week schmaltz. This is what makes his books so hard to peg. He doesn't fit any given literary genre, and his books don't have conventional shapes. In "Kafka," there is a whole chapter devoted to a long-haul trucker's love affair with Beethoven's "Archduke" Trio. In more convention-al fiction, this would be either an aside or a major part of the book's construction. In "Kafka," it's both somehow. You don't need the chapter to understand the story, but the story loses a lot of resonance without it. What ties all this together on the page is the unflappable, enchanting voice of the author's prose. Hip but companionable, it keeps you coming back for more, even after the decapitated cats.
Murakami takes turns telling the stories of the teenage runaway, who calls himself Kafka, and Nakata, the old cat fancier. Both are on the run; both have been betrayed or let down by life. Their friends and accomplices share the same fate. They talk of feeling hollow inside. They are all, in one way or another, marking time, and so they go questing, each in search of his own Oz.
Like the quests on which his characters embark, Murakami's expeditions off the worn path of conventional literature can be both rewarding and terrifying. Kafka, for example, is running as fast as he can toward the very Oedipal horrors he fears the most. As one of his friends tells him, "There's another world that parallels our own, and to a certain degree you're able to step into that other world and come back safely. As long as you're careful. But go past a certain point and you'll lose the path out." Murakami loves to send his characters past that point of safety, but unlike them, he never loses his way. Finishing "Kafka on the Shore" is like waking from a wonderful dream. Nothing has changed, but everything about the world looks different. Who knew that great literature could be this much fun?