Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase

Back before I realized that I really, really dislike reading books “on assignment” or to “meet goals,” I signed up for the Haruki Murakami Reading Challenge with the aim of knocking off a couple of the Murakamis I’d picked up from the Peace Corps library. Now I finally have – and if you want to read some reviews of Murakami’s work that display a little more reverence for the man than I do, you can probably find some through the aforementioned reading challenge.

Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase is a detective novel in spare prose, albeit one that often (too often, near end) leaps over the details of the narrator’s world in favor of laying that world flat before the reader. One of the joys of Murakami isn’t so much his prose style as the manner in which he writes the extraordinary as though it is merely average. In this novel’s world, the narrator hardly blinks when he is called up regarding a photograph of some sheep he has used in an advertisement for an insurance company, under threat of the destruction of his small company. Murakami’s mystery, of where one of the sheep (with a star on its back) came from and where it is, and where the narrator’s old friend the Rat is and why he sent the photograph of the sheep to the narrator, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you try to map it out (there’s one sheep in Japan of a breed that isn’t documented anywhere in the world? this sheep makes itself a part of, then takes over, people’s consciousness to achieve its [mostly unstated] goals? a powerful figure wants this sheep found?) but works in the scheme of the novel because Murakami presents it with such confidence.

Murakami has always struck me as an author who promotes unnecessary fear among his potential readers – this idea that he is writing stories beyond the scope of the average reader. A Wild Sheep Chase, a stand-alone novel that is also the final book of a trilogy about the narrator’s friend the Rat, though, makes me wonder (more than usual) why he’s an author so often approached hesitantly. This novel encourages reading as a straight detective novel, and until Murakami lets us down at end by revealing how many of the narrator’s discoveries were already known – how much of his work could have been circumvented if his “employers” hadn’t been toying with him – the novel doesn’t suggest itself as anything more. There are the typical Murakami touches, like an unnamed girlfriend who appears perfectly average until she reveals her ears which she is capable of “blocking” or “unblocking” to reduce or increase their effect on others; a “sheep professor” who locks himself away for years, obsessed by the sheep that briefly used him as its carrier; a “sheep man” who dresses as a sheep and occasionally visits the narrator and is himself not who he first appears to be; but none of these characters make the novel read like more than an off-kilter detective story with occasional dashes of John Irving.

Much of this novel is devoted to the early stages of the narrator’s literal wild sheep chase: to his meeting his girlfriend, being called in about the sheep photo he’s used in an advertisement, planning the search and then the early, unsuccessful stages of that search. It’s not until about a hundred pages from the end that the narrator makes any real progress with the search, and Murakami rushes things once he nears actually finding the star-marked sheep. Even then, the narrator doesn’t so much “find” the sheep as stumble upon it, finding himself a part of some other plan that he himself seems to only halfway understand. It’s as if, having used the trope of the detective story to shape A Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami is unable to bring it to closure in fitting fashion; he’s reduced to vagueness, to tossing in the off-center elements that he’s known for but that here don’t contribute anything beyond removing the need for explanation.

A Wild Sheep Chase works on its own, but I wonder if reading the previous two novels in the Rat trilogy would have benefited my reading – at least in illuminating elements of the Rat’s life (what is that manuscript he sends to the narrator, that is never opened or described?) that aren’t explained here. Although the structure falls apart at end, that Murakami bases most of the plot around a recognizable frame makes this a fast read, a surprise given my memories of spending weeks on some of his other books. It’s not, though, the best of his that I’ve read, and had this been my first Murakami I’m not sure I would have bothered seeking out more of his work.

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I haven’t read this, but I have read some of Marukami’s stories and want to read more. I agree with you about how the details can seem off, but that didn’t really bother me. If I do read this one, I would probably start at the beginning of the trilogy because I like structure. :]

And I completely agree with you about reading challenges. I’m constantly going back and forth between “but I need to finish my challenges!” and “but I want to read THIS!” Signing up for 3 challenges was a great way to take some of the fun and spontaneity out of reading.

Comment by Jennifer Marcketta

Right, one thing I learned this year is that I HATE reading challenges and reading lists. They seemed like a great way to get around to some works I’d been intending to read for years, but I don’t like feeling that my reading is nothing more than an exercise or a chore to get through. I want to read what I want to read, when I want to read it, whether it’s a Sue Grafton mystery or a Nabokov or by a writer from Japan or by a female from the 1890’s.

I can’t do this now because I don’t have the books, but I’d like to read the first two books in the trilogy, too, see if that does make a difference in how I read the book. I generally enjoy Murakami’s work but he also seems a little overrated to me. I’ll have to reread “Wind-up Bird” and see what I think of that now – if it is as “ehh” to me as this one was.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I have not read this Murakami, only Wind-Up Bird & Sputnik Sweetheart, both of which I enjoyed for their eeriness and wtf-ness, but the endings of both seemed… not enough? I dismissed that as something of the point, leaving many of the mysteries he introduces open-ended & “unsolved,” but always wondered if I was missing something. I still really enjoyed both novels despite that quality, & it’s been several years since I’ve read either of them. It’s honestly surprising that he’s both as popular as he is, and as intimidating (is he intimidating?). From your review, this might not be the next Murakami I pick up.

Comment by zeteticat

I’ve always felt the same way about Murakami, that he doesn’t close things out in a satisfying way. With this one I almost felt that he got tired of the story and decided to put an end to it…he can get away with it because so many elements of his stories can’t be explained or summed up neatly, but I still don’t like it. And yeah, not sure that I’d label him “intimidating,” but I remember finding him, well…kind of intimidating, before I picked up any of his books. Now that I’ve read a fair number of his novels and stories I am just frustrated by him, sometimes, but I think his work is pretty accessible despite the “wtf” air running through much of it.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

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