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Friday, September 18, 2009

A Wild Sheep Chase


I knew nothing about this book when I checked it out of the library, and almost instantly I was hooked. A Wild Sheep Chase, by Haruki Murakami, is I think the first book I've ever read by a Japanese author, but it is universal in its style and theme, and reminded me of Western authors, most notably Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut, and Raymond Chandler. It is a difficult book to summarize--let's just say it's a cosmic mystery.

Murakami's narrator is nameless. In fact, none of the characters in the book are named. Some are known by nickname, or a first initial, but most are referred to by some sort of title. This gives the book an existential flair, and also makes the book less Japanese, even though the settings in the book are specifically of Japan. The narrator is something of a pathetic shell of a man. He is getting over a divorce, and works as an advertising copywriter, with little enthusiasm. One day he receives a letter from an old friend (known to us only as "The Rat"), which includes a picture of a flock of sheep in a meadow. The narrator puts that picture in an advertisement, which sets off a series of events that finds him hunting for an unusual sheep with a star on its back.

Like much of Vonnegut's work, A Wild Sheep Chase has a realistic setting, but very unusual things happen. For instance, there is his somewhat psychic girlfriend (when the phone rings one day, she tells him quite correctly that it will be about sheep) that he has chosen because of her beautiful ears, which she only shows occasionally. There is also a ghost, and a man who dresses as a sheep (he is, quite naturally, known as "The Sheep Man"). Also, as in much of Vonnegut, there is a sense that mankind is not in charge of his own destiny. I think of the Tralfamidorans, who told Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, that of all the worlds in the universe, it was only Earthlings who spoke of such a thing as free will.

What made me think of Tom Robbins was the exquisite similes Murakami spins. A couple of my favorites: "He spoke as if running a white-gloved hand over a tabletop," or "Before I knew it, the limo was in motion, like a washtub gliding over a sea of mercury." Murakami constantly displays a dry wit, and his hero is buffeted about by unseen forces, similar to Chandler's sleuths in his detective stories (the only thing missing is the hero is never beaten up). The dialogue isn't as snappy as Chandler, but it's got a brooding sense of world-weariness. Consider this passage, in which the narrator resists going on this absurd quest: "What have I got to feel threatened about? Next to nothing. I broke up with my wife, I plan to quit my job today, my apartment is rented, and I have no furnishings worth worrying about. By way of holdings, I've got maybe two million yen in savings, a used car, and a cat who's getting on in years. My clothes are all out of fashion, and my records are ancient. I've made no name for myself, have no social credibility, no sex appeal, no talent. I'm not so young anymore, and I'm always saying dumb things that I later regret. In a word, to borrow your turn of phrase, I am an utterly mediocre person. What have I got to lose?"

When he mentions that he has no name for himself, it references the fact that none of the characters have names, which one almost forgets from time to time throughout the book, but is brought into sharp focus at other times. At one point he confesses that he has never named his cat, figuring it's useless as it wouldn't come when called anyway. A helpful limo driver gives it a name, and thus the feline becomes the only being in the novel that is bestowed a given name. At another point, the narrator is paged in a hotel bar: "A built-in ceiling speaker called my name. At first it didn’t sound like my name. Only a few seconds after the announcement was over did it sink in that I’d heard the special characteristics of my name, and only gradually then did it come to me that my name was my name."

There are even more layers to the novel when one considers the time and place of the book. Written in 1989, the book takes place in 1978, when the narrator is on the verge of his thirtieth birthday. A flashback occurs eight years earlier, at the end of the sixties, and specifically on the day that Yukio Mishima , an esteemed Japanese writer, committed ritual suicide out of protest for Japan's cultural takeover by the West. This aspect will be far better appreciated by a Japanese reader, but this book, with its fatalistic humor and gentle spirit, can be appreciated by anyone of any nation.

A couple of weird things: my library copy had, inserted inside, a card advertising a pyschic that a previous reader used as a bookmark. Given the nature of the book, I almost called the psychic, but have somehow resisted. I'll leave it in the book when I return it and let the next reader be tempted. On another day, I was playing computer solitaire and managed to win on my first try. I wondered what the odds were on winning. A few minutes later I picked up the book to read and in the first few pages of that particular chapter Murakami's narrator is also playing solitaire, and reveals that the odds of of winning are 25-to-1. It may be that this book contains many answers to life's mysteries.

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