The sooner you put the comparisons to Raymond Chandler out of your mind, the sooner you can come to grips with the prose of Haruki Murakami, especially with regard to this novel. “Chandler-esque” has become a cliche by Western reviewers to describe Marukami’s storytelling style. It is also wrong.
Though A Wild Sheep Chase is predicated on a mystery, its concerns aren’t those associated with the mystery fiction genre: violent crime, questionable motives, shady, uncertain alliances, betrayals, or any kind of conclusion that satisfies a reader’s sense of logic. Likewise, there is nothing hardboiled to be found in the proceedings. A hardboiled story implies a great struggle on behalf of the protagonist–against his enemies, against his own limited means, against the dangerous environment in which he finds himself–but in this novel, the protagonist has it exceptionally easy. All the cards fall his way, when favors aren’t being done for him outright. This protagonist encounters few hardships. He is supplied with great sums of money to complete the quest that is bestowed upon him. In fact, there is so little conflict in this book it seems, at one point, the author felt compelled to throw some kind of strenuous task into the mix–near the climax of the novel, the main character and narrator (unnamed) feels he has gained too much weight from the food left for him at a scenic cabin in the mountains, and takes up running.
There are no stakes in A Wild Sheep Chase, whether they be lives, reputations, jobs, money-nothing that anyone really cares about enough so that losing it would affect them in any way. A MacGuffin (the death of a woman eight years previous to the beginning of the story) does appear in an early section, though whether this was consciously placed to manipulate with the perceptions of the reader is not obvious.
A Wild Sheep Chase starts with the description of a love affair between the narrator and a woman he knew in his youth. Eight years later she’s died. The same morning he returns from mourning her death via heavy drinking, the narrator’s wife leaves him. Thus unencumbered (just as Toru Okada was conveniently unencumbered by his spouse early in The Wind Up Bird Chronicle) the narrator, an advertising executive in a small company, begins to have an affair with an ear model who’s done some work for his firm, a plain woman in every sense except for her fantastic ears. Per Murakami’s penchant for the bizarre, these ears are attributed with vague, superhuman powers, though the ears have nothing to do with the rest of the story. There are some long, momentum-eroding discussions between the narrator and his ear model girlfriend, and this sort of thing carries on until the narrator is tasked with finding a supposedly magical sheep that has appeared in one of the ad company’s photos. The representative of shadowy, powerful figures in Japan has determined the sheep must be found.
The photo, which was given to the narrator by a recently disappeared friend, is the point at which A Wild Sheep Chase really begins: the narrator will search for the sheep with the implication that in finding this beast, he will also find his friend. The representative of those shadowy figures provides the narrator with a large stack of money to fund his search. If he doesn’t find the sheep, there will be consequences–but consequences are of little consequence to the narrator, who happily quits his job, is already separated from his wife, and is pretty bored with life in general.
The narrator and his girlfriend leave the city to find the sheep, come to a strange hotel where they meet a man who has had a psychically disruptive mind meld with the magical sheep, which has left him a distraught shut-in. Based on that this man tells them, they then locate a shepherd who can transport them to the area depicted in the photo from the advertising agency.
The shepherd drives the couple to a mountain estate that matches the scene in the narrator’s picture. The house is empty but has been recently inhabited, stocked with out-of-date books, a freezer full of food, cases, of beer, and a formidable record collection. The narrator’s girlfriend leaves him unannounced–he remains in the house eating the food, drinking, listening to records, and waiting for something to happen.
Soon he is visited by the Sheep Man, who tells him that he (the Sheep Man) has been in contact with the narrator’s long lost friend. One midnight a few nights later, his now deceased friend appears, and reveals to him the insidious power of the sheep. According to his friend, humans are a host to its corrupting influence–to escape the poisonous consciousness of the sheep taking over his will, his friend has killed himself.
At the conclusion of the novel, the narrator receives a check from the representative searching for the sheep (though the assumption is that the being known as the sheep is dead, having been trapped in the friend who’s killed himself). The narrator learns that his girlfriend is alive but that her ears no longer have any special power to attract him. Ultimately, he uses the money he’s paid to become partners with an old friend in owning a bar.
I’m not saying there aren’t any intriguing ideas brought forth in A Wild Sheep Chase. That the spirit of a sheep could be capable of bending humans to its will has implications on a metaphysical level. But the context in which this concept is presented is so preposterous (not absurd, preposterous) that I hardly felt motivated to explore what the author was trying to suggest thematically.
A scene where the narrator confronts his dead friend in the dark, back to back, while drinking beers with him, is affecting–he can’t see his friend, but the ghost’s lone voice in the darkness communicates a great deal about missing someone, about how grief is addressed and processed. However, the gravity of the scene is deflated somewhat when we learn this dead friend had already been present some chapters before as the Sheep Man, a short humanoid figure who smokes and speaks so quickly his words are jammed up together on the page. Had the author allowed the conversation between the two characters progress organically, the novel and this scene in particular might have had a greater emotional resonance.
The primary problem with the story, which far supersedes the irrelevant conversations and set pieces, is that the main character, the narrator, desires nothing, not even some kind of deeper understanding of his friend’s struggle. When a character wants nothing–no crime to solve, no love to avenge, no lost friend to see again–the credulousness of the reader to buy into any of the protagonist’s actions is compromised. In this case, we hope the narrator is actually looking for the sheep for a reason that goes beyond filthy lucre (which means little to him anyway), that he actually wants to find his friend, there’s little in the story that suggests this friend had any real bearing on his life, except a few correspondences. There’s nothing to prove he loves the girl with the ears (and when she goes away he doesn’t care), just as when he leaves his partner at the advertising agency, it turns out he’s had nothing invested in this livelihood for years. He even has no reservations in giving his cat to strangers to care for–but then again, he doesn’t have any friends.
I don’t have to have fictional characters exude verisimilitude, with exaggerated quirks and complexities that let the reader know they’re “realistic.” But in order for a novel to function we have to hang our expectations on somebody. A blank slate, a guileless character who chalks everything up to a preordained destiny and keeps plugging along makes for a story that, in the end, has little resonance.
Review by Jeffery Ryan Long
Jeffery Ryan Long is the Chief Editor of Hawaiʻi Review.