By Jennifer Reese
Updated January 19, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

Is there anything more boring than hearing about someone else’s dream? And is there anything more miraculous than having one of your own? The voluptuous pleasure of Haruki Murakami’s enthralling fictions — full of enigmatic imagery, random nonsense, and profundities that may or may not hold up in the light of day — reminds me of dreaming. Like no other author I can think of, Murakami captures the juxtapositions of the trivial and the momentous that characterize dream life, those crazy incidents that seem so vivid in the moment and so blurry and preposterous later on. His characters live humdrum lives, boiling pasta for lunch, riding the bus, and blasting Prince while working out at the gym. Then suddenly and matter-of-factly, they do something utterly nuts, like strike up a conversation with a coquettish Siamese cat. Or maybe mackerel and sardines begin to rain from the sky. In Murakami’s world, these things make complete, cockeyed sense.

Like many of Murakami’s heroes, Kafka Tamura in Kafka on the Shore has more rewarding relationships with literature and music than with people. (Murakami’s passion for music is infectious; nothing made me want to rush out and purchase a Brahms CD until I read his Sputnik Sweetheart.) On his 15th birthday, Kafka runs away from his Tokyo home for obscure reasons related to his famous sculptor father. His choice of a destination is arbitrary. Or is it? ”Shikoku, I decide. That’s where I’ll go….The more I look at the map — actually every time I study it — the more I feel Shikoku tugging at me.”

On the island of Shikoku, Kafka makes himself a fixture at the local library, where he settles into a comfortable sofa and starts reading The Arabian Nights: ”Like the genie in the bottle they have this sort of vital, living sense of play, of freedom that common sense can’t keep bottled up.” As in a David Lynch movie, all the library staffers are philosophical eccentrics ready to advance the surreal narrative. Oshima, the androgynous clerk, talks to Kafka about (inevitably) Kafka and the merits of driving while listening to Schubert (”a dense, artistic kind of imperfection stimulates your consciousness, keeps you alert. If I listen to some utterly perfect performance of an utterly perfect piece while I’m driving, I might want to close my eyes and die right there”). The tragically alluring head librarian, Miss Saeki, once wrote a hit song called ”Kafka on the Shore” — and may or may not be Kafka’s long-lost mother. Alarmingly, she also stars in his erotic fantasies.

In alternating chapters, Murakami records the even odder antics of Nakata, a simpleminded cat catcher who spends his days chatting with tabbies in a vacant Tokyo lot. One afternoon, a menacing dog leads him to the home of a sadistic cat killer who goes by the name Johnnie Walker. Walker ends up dead by the end of the encounter; back in Shikoku, Kafka unaccountably finds himself drenched in blood. Soon, Nakata too begins feeling an inexplicable pull toward the island.

If this plot sounds totally demented, trust me, it gets even weirder than that. Like a dream, you just have to be there. And, like a dream, what this dazzling novel means — or whether it means anything at all — we may never know.