Donning his full wispy beard and Southern-gent regalia, Colonel Sanders appears as a pimp and seer in Haruki Murakami's beguiling new novel Kafka On The Shore, but beyond a mild curiosity, no one really bats an eye. In the Murakami universe, such abnormalities become so commonplace that they're treated matter-of-factly, as individual puzzle pieces that fit into the grand design. Somehow, Murakami makes sense of the free-floating surrealistic elements that coalesce into his dreamlike narratives, but anyone explaining his novels to the uninitiated risks looking like a babbling idiot. The tale of two vaguely connected journeys to uncertain destinations, Kafka drifts along on an atmosphere pregnant with mysteries large and small, but Murakami never feels inclined to explain them all away; he's confident that their offbeat associations can sustain interest over the long haul.
Alternating chapters for each character, Murakami follows two seekers who seem to have nothing in common until blackouts bring them together, at least metaphorically. A keenly intelligent 15-year-old, Kafka Tamura overcomes his natural timidity and runs away from home, ostensibly to look for his long-absent mother and sister, but also to escape his domineering father's Oedipal prophecy. Traveling to the farthest shores on little money, Kafka spends his days picking through the volumes at a private library, where he befriends a sexually ambiguous clerk and a mysterious proprietor named Miss Saeki, who appears to him at night as a ghostly teenage girl. The other strand of Murakami's narrative is even stranger: Elderly simpleton Satoru Nakata, who lost his memory and intelligence in a bizarre childhood incident during World War II, supplements his government subsidy by finding his neighbors' missing cats. The secret to Nakata's sleuthing is that he can talk to cats, but he loses his gift in an encounter with a frightening figure who beheads stray cats and uses their energies for a kind of flute. Following some inexplicable instincts, Nakata takes off hitchhiking on the nation's highways, not knowing what he's after, only that he'll know it when he sees it.
Kafka and Nakata's stories come together in a wrinkle in time wherein one commits murder and wakes up with no traces of his involvement, and the other blacks out and comes to with a bloody T-shirt. Yet Murakami doesn't overexert himself in finding the links between these two lonely souls; true to his passive protagonists, he allows things to happen in due course, without forcing his effects. Like the best of his work, Kafka On The Shore makes the eccentric seem transcendent, supplying his wayward narrative with one resonant image and encounter after another: A lost pop single suffused with longing, hundreds of fish and leeches raining down from the clear sky, war veterans who emerge from the forest having not aged a day. In the true Murakami spirit, it's hard to account for anything, but easy to yield to it anyway.