I finished A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami (b. 1949) this week. This is the second Murakami I have read. The first was Kafka on the Shore (2002), which I very much disliked. I enjoyed reading this book, but I do not think much of it in terms of it being a novel. I, of course, briefly looked at reviews by other readers in a bunch of places online and I see very disparate reader responses. I got the feeling that most of what was said about the novel had to do with what readers themselves brought to their reading of it. The sentiment that I came across most often, and quite agree with, is that this book is “accessible.” I take this to mean that one does not need any specialized knowledge or have to have a very advanced reading skill. Accessible meaning – an easy reader, so to speak. The opposite of an easy reader would probably be something by William Gibson (e.g. Count Zero) or perhaps a China Miéville (e.g. Embassytown).
Perhaps this is the shining accomplishment of this work: Murakami manages to write a ersatz novel; in fact in places I wondered if he was writing a novel-parody. Not, really, for political or ideological reasons, but just because of an uncommon want to go against novel standards. What are novel standards? Oh, any English literature class could delineate them. The usual structure and elements that the average reader might expect to find in the construction of a novel. I would say most of those items are an illusion here. The characters in this novel are all unnamed. Well, there are, I think, two or three names, but they are nicknames. The main character, who narrates the story, is unnamed. I think this is significant because it keeps a rather strong human impulse to categorize, name, organize, just outside of the grasp of the reader. There are plenty of other books that do not use names, though.
There is no plot in this novel. I think there are efforts online wherein readers have sort of cobbled together what they think the plot could be. However, as a reader who has read a couple of books, if I think on the matter and am really honest, there is no plot. Things happen, the main character does things and things happen to and around him. However, this is probably the neatest thing about the book: its the illusion that there is a plot. In reality, the events of the novel are not really related, purposeful, or relevant. However, the reader gets the very strong impression that there is a plotline and there is a story and things are happening for a reason. That there is no such thing is very curious and indeed Murakami should be praised for such a slick, sleight-of-hand writing.
It is quite a remarkable novel because it seems to have all of those elements that make the best novels. Readers are entertained and convinced there is a storyline – we meet creepy strangers, interesting props that might have relevance to a story, there are possibilities for all sorts of symbolism – but similar to a true dream-state, none of the scenes have any meaning. Perhaps it is better to say, they do not have immediate, obvious meaning as installed by the author. Like a dream, items surface, with vague-connections to each other, and then fall under the waves again. Events occur that feel, at the time, meaningful and significant, but in reality are just ersatz scenes that are built from the most generic of pieces.
For example, readers are very “trained” to have certain expectations with novels. Authors create scenarios and characters for a reason – typically in service to an overall plot. So, readers of this novel are turning the pages expecting all of the threads to come together for, maybe, an “ah-hah!” moment or a resolution or a big reveal. This really does not occur. The fact that none of that happens is, I think, where most of the readers who disliked the book developed their discomfort and dislike for the novel. A frustration or a confusion as to how all of these seemingly significant pieces remain meaningless.
As in a dream, all of the pieces seem so very familiar – the girlfriend, the business partner, the mysterious rich guy, the chauffeur, the hotel, the train, the cat. However, just like in a dream the pieces do not have the detailed depth that, let us say, exists in waking reality. So, the characters open beer cans, read letters from friends that use real language – but have no purpose, smoke endless cigarettes in a nearly hypnotic automated manner, and seem to ruminate on mediocrity. There are a whole lot of readers out there who, after having read this book, are asking themselves (and others) about the representations. Many readers are trying to “make sense of” the book – just like persons who have dreams, they are isolating elements and trying to “figure them out.” I read in many places readers asking: “Well, what did this mean? What did this represent? What did that symbolize?” ….because there is a deep, underlying belief that there is a purpose/meaning to each element in this story. So, similar to those who engage in dream-interpretation, there is an effort to ferret out what things mean. I am convinced this is not a good reading of the novel.
Anyway, the novel has been called magical realism. I really do not like that terminology. I do not think it makes sense, nor do I think that people who use it could define it and ground it if they were really put to the test to do so. Not to sound Leibnizian, but my world is quite magical and wondrous and surprising – what sort of awful worlds must people exist in wherein they think a little magic and wonder is outside of the norm? Murakami, in a number of interviews or writings or wherever, mentioned some of his influences in writing. Many critics/readers have compared his writing to other literary roadmarks, yet I did not see a comparison to the one author that I think this book most feels like: Philip K. Dick. And I have to take a minute to snort and giggle as I imagine a literary critic referring to PKD as “magical realism.” I really cannot think of another author who so successfully – and consistently – uses reader’s realities, dreams, and perspectives as a playground.
Overall, I have to say that I enjoyed this experience. I had no idea whatsoever what to expect from this book. I was entertained and engaged – the pages flipped rapidly and I had whatever amount of interest in the characters/scenes/plot that I could develop. There are occasional lines of wit that helped keep my interest. For example:
I lit up a cigarette and ordered another whiskey. The second whiskey is always my favorite. From the third on, it no longer has any taste. It’s just something to pour into your stomach. – pg. 118, chapter 16.
Well, after reading two thirds of the book, the story starts to get very strange and surreal. I think the fact that it has been such an easy-reader and has had so many familiar, but indistinct elements lulls the reader into that same dream-state so that when the magically bizarre is introduced, it hardly seems strange at all. This is very much what I experience in dreams. Everything seems normal and then even the really strange seems, somehow, normal too. I think that most readers should be sure to read this book because it is an interesting experience and I would not want readers to avoid it because they fear some “magical realism” or some “Japanese zeitgeist” in writing. Now, I can imagine most readers not being as accepting as I was of this dream-like novel, some might be angry at the lack of rigid novel features. Still, the experience is probably worth the fast-turning pages.
P.S. Shortly after I finished this novel, someone (who has not read this book, nor was aware of anything about this book) sent me a news link to this article: https://nypost.com/2022/11/17/sheep-filmed-walking-in-circle-for-12-days-straight-in-china/ I admit, I was a bit unnerved for a moment – but like I said, magic is all part of my reality. I do not live in a dull world.