Haruki Murakami’s English-language debut novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, gives an early glimpse of the mind-bending plot twists that define his two best novels, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore, along with the usual measures of food, cigarettes, nonchalant sex, and characters that alternate from three-dimensional to transparent, sometimes within single passages. While it can’t match either of the other novels I mentioned, it’s a good read on its own both for plot and for its expansive thinking, and also interested me as a look back at Murakami’s formative years as a writer, like watching video of a big leaguer from when he was a prospect in high school.
None of the characters in A Wild Sheep Chase have names; the best we get are the Boss, the Rat, and J, while the protagonist and his girlfriend don’t even get so much as a nickname or a single letter. The main character is in advertising and, as the book opens, his wife leaves him for one of his closest friends (although he’s more numb than mad or grieving, as the marriage seems to have been long dead), shortly after which he receives an urgent summons from a mysterious businessman about a PR flier his firm put out that included a photograph of a very unusual sheep. That photograph, sent by our hero’s friend the Rat, seems to show a sheep that, by all accounts, shouldn’t exist, at least not in Japan, but the businessman’s interest goes beyond mundane questions of taxonomy, as this sheep appears to have powers beyond any other ovine known to man.
That businessman represents a shadow organization that controls many aspects of Japanese industry, particularly on the advertising side. He offers the protagonist a deal, without much say in the matter: Find that sheep within a month or find your life ruined. So the hero and his girlfriend – whose ears are, as it turns out, fairly important in their subplot, if not the main plot as well – set out to figure out where the Rat is and thus, they hope, find that sheep.
The wild chase is anything but wild; it’s slow, halting, and in some ways quite realistic, even if the sheep they’re chasing and the people they encounter aren’t. And it’s not clear, even after the chase is resolved, whether the protagonist was searching on behalf of the Boss’s minion or for his own personal growth. Before the sheep tale appears, he has no real anchors left in his life – no wife, no kids, a routine job, a scarce existence in the physical or emotional planes. The chase itself provides much of what’s missing from his life, including purpose and urgency, but of course the chase will end, after which he’ll either find his life in tatters or he’ll have the riches promised him … and he’ll have to find a new purpose. Explaining my thoughts on the end and what Murakami may have been trying to express would give away too much of the resolution, but I can say that I found that payoff a little underwhelming. The physical plot was resolved, but the philosophical questions and answers remained vague. It’s a better read as a suspense novel that makes you think a little differently than as a book pushing for any specific philosophy or emotional reaction, whereas his best works provide more clarity without devolving into sermons.
Next up: Martin Amis’ Money: A Suicide Note, which seems to be just the book to buy your sister if she’s already read At Swim-Two-Birds. it’s currently on sale through that link for $6 in the Penguin Ink paperback, with cover design by tattoo artist Bert Kerk.