COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI AND HIS YEARS OF PILGRIMAGE. By Haruki Murakami. Knopf. 386 pages. $25.95.

The running theme of Tsukuru Tazaki's life, as he sees it, is that he has "no place he needs to go," an irony in a title character whose journey is labeled a pilgrimage.

Haruki Murakami, the great Japanese writer, further confounds expectation by giving Tsukuru a career - train station designer - that links him to purposeful arrivals, departures and intersections.

Tsukuru, whose name means "maker," is able to construct the sites where others enact their hectic desires, but his own years are passing quietly, "like a gentle breeze."

Readers of Murakami have seen this kind of character before. At 65, the author is still in touch with the groundless sadness of the young and gives voice to their fears of insignificance and emptiness. Friends assure Tsukuru that his life has worth: He's a citizen, a voter, a taxpayer, an engineer. Still, he can't shake the idea that he's an empty container and that his real self might just vaporize.

"Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage" is not the wild ride of a book that Murakami sometimes delivers. Don't expect talking cats and skies that rain mackerels and leeches ("Kafka on the Shore") or a sleeping beauty who vanishes into a television set ("After Dark"). Do expect to find "a warp in the world," as one character in "Kafka" puts it. Murakami leans toward the weird and unsolvable. He loves a mystery, both the hard-core kind and the metaphysical variety.

The central mystery of Tsukuru Tazaki's life imposes itself when he's 20 years old and studying engineering in Tokyo. Throughout high school, Tsukuru belonged to a group of friends - two girls and three boys - who were as close as the five fingers of a hand. The names of the other four all contain the name of a color: the boys are red pine and blue sea, girls black field and white foot. Tsukuru stands out as the "colorless" member. The group's goal is to build an "orderly, harmonious community" for the collective good. When it comes time for college, Tsukuru's friends stay close to home in Nagoya, while he ventures further.

Out of the blue, and for no reason he knows, Tsukuru's friends begin refusing his calls and announce that they won't see him anymore. He spends five months wavering between life and death, but he survives in what he thinks of as a different form. In place of the vanished Tsukuru is a leaner version who recedes into a routine of duties and dreams. He is swimming in a cold, nocturnal sea, and no one even knows he's overboard. He has no friends.

Tsukuru spends the next 16 years sleepwalking and night swimming. In the novel's present time, he is encouraged to wake up by Sara, a new girlfriend, who sends him on a mission. If he wants a relationship with her, he needs to find his friends and discover the truth about his eviction from the group. As Tsukuru recognizes, "You can put a lid on memory, but you can't hide history."

Murukami's obsessions (quest narratives, fairy tales, dreams, night, music) take center stage as Tsukuru begins his journey of discovery. The soundtrack of his pilgrimage is Liszt's "Years of Pilgrimage," especially the "mal du pays" (homesickness) suite. When he returns home to Nagoya, Tsukuru visits Ao and Aka, the other boys in his high school quintet. From them, he learns the reason, unjust, why he was shunned. Everything then hinges on a visit to Kuro, the final surviving member of the group. She lives with her family in Finland.

In Murakami's world, one always senses other realms. Finland may not be extraterrestrial, but it is an otherworldly place where all Tsukuru's branching fates and alternate realities converge. Kuro and her husband, Edvard, are makers, like Murakami. Holding one of Kuro's pieces of pottery, he feels "a sense of calm, like the feel of touching natural fabric." From a distance, her patterns look like "leaves scattered on a forest floor. Leaves trampled by anonymous animals who were quietly, secretly, making their way through the woods." Everything is making its way, including Tsukuru.

The reunion with Kuro is an extraordinary scene, staged in a ramped-up version of Murakami's plain declarative style: "One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, united deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed."

During his Finnish interlude, Tsukuru comes to understand love as a transaction, something that is both gotten and given. True to his name, he will construct a life fit for love as he would construct a station, then wait for the trains to come.

Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.