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A Wild Sheep Chase
Author 'Schuyler'  
Date December 2001  
Media Literary Society of San Diego  

In the waning days of 2001, a robust contingent of 14 LSSD'ers gathered in friendship once again in the historic neighborhood of Rolando, San Diego. The evening's festivities included the welcomed return of Hope, a newly shaped Wendy and two LSSD guests to boot. Meeting hosts Cecilia and Schuyler got things rolling with delectable Japanese cuisine, stoked Eucalyptus timbers, and well-timed shouts from assistants Natalia and Santiago.
At the conclusion of the Sector Reports, beloved despot El Presidente Solamente officially placed this month's tome, A Wild Sheep Chase by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, into consideration. Selected by the LSSD current Bill Hendry Laureate, group expectations were for an "eclectic and unusual" read. We were not disappointed.

Dubbed by its critics as one of the most important novels of post-modern Japan, A Wild Sheep Chase generated a hearty group discussion around the central themes of symbolism, relevance, and sheer banality. The novel's youthful protagonist "I" drifts through his wholly soulless and unremarkable existence of Tokyo bars, print shops and casual sexual encounters until his forced insertion into a farcical crusade in search of a starred-ovine with megalomaniac intentions.

Into this Raymond Chandler world of intrigue and allegorical fantasy, Murakami unleashes his cast of Monty Python misfits. LSSD character favorites included the well-lobed girlfriend of the narrator, and of course the ghost of dear-old, Sheep-possessed Rat. In spite of several well-timed interpretative assists from Bill, the group remained hopelessly baffled and at-odds over the socio-politico-historical symbolism of the malevolent Sheep and the rest of the book for that matter.

Once these "bigger picture" efforts were (wisely) abandoned, the group sought and found solace in such entertaining absurdities as the Grail-like ears.

[She'd show me her ears on occasion; mostly on sexual occasions. Sex with her with her ears exposed was an experience I'd never known. When it was raining, the smell of the rain came through crystal clear. When birds were singing, their song was a thing of sheer clarity.]
I'm, at a loss for words, but that's what it was like.

Overall, with the exception of Bill ("I loved it"), the novel received at best a lukewarm "thumbs-up" from LSSD reviewers:

Therefore let the LSSD record of consensus show...

"entertaining" - fairly;
"bizarre" - certainly;
"childish" - probably;
"significant" - no.

Just the facts.

Author David Mazzotta  
Date July 9, 2002  
  The real and surreal clash in post-modern Japan

In A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) the main character and narrator lives a mediocre existence. He is passionless; seemingly unaffected by his wife's betrayal and subsequent divorce, and only attracted to his current girlfriend because he finds her ears to be "marvels of creation" that can incite irresistible desire in any man who sees them. This shallow view of life is further emphasized by the fact that, throughout the book, no characters are referred to by proper names.

When the "Rat," a nomadic friend of the narrator, sends him a photograph of some sheep from Hokkaido, a chain of events is set in motion. The sheep picture comes to the attention of a shadowy figure simply known as the "Boss" -- a mythically powerful underworld kingpin -- who has a dire need to get a hold of one of the sheep in the photo. The Boss sends a messenger to the narrator making it clear that unless he finds that sheep, he will face financial ruin, if not worse.


What follows is a surreal journey from Tokyo to Sapporo and points north, including a hotel that could be right out of a Kubrick film and creature known as the Sheep-Man, who is worthy of David Lynch. In the course of this journey, and in the face of extraordinary events, our narrator confronts his superficial world view and the affect it has had on his life.

Set six years later, Dance, Dance, Dance (1994) is murder mystery, but one in which the clues are revealed by chance rather than dogged investigation - often by a seemingly random psychic encounter. Our narrator has resumed a normal life as a freelance copywriter. He refers to this as "shoveling cultural snow" -- doing the thoughtless and thankless work that needs to be done to clear the path. He is fairly well disengaged from humanity, spending a lot of time alone doing absolutely nothing. Yet, in the midst of this anti-social life, he finds that his long missing girlfriend, the one with the amazing ears -- is calling to him as if in a dream, and she is weeping.

Once again, a chain of events is set in motion. He travels back to the strange hotel to find it modernized and corporate. He has another encounter with the Sheep-Man who tells him to "keep dancing." In the course of story he encounters, and finds sympathy for, a disaffected adolescent girl from a dysfunctional family, and an old high-school acquaintance who has become a famous movie star. Through his relationship with these characters he solves the mystery of his missing girlfriend, not through directed investigation but just by staying engaged with life and society -- by keeping up the "dance."

As a Westerner reading these novels, I was struck by how different the Japan portrayed here is from the hyper-efficient, sanitized, sexless and safe Japan of common impression. This is late twentieth-century post-modern Japan. References to Western pop culture are incessant. Call girls abound. Characters find themselves entangled in confusing, neurotic relationships worthy of HBO original programming. And nobody is practicing Kendo.


These books are hard-boiled -- that is to say, they are written in the hard-boiled style defined in the mid-twentieth century by U.S. mystery writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet. There is a stark contrast between the blunt, gritty realism of hard-boiled style and the surreal, supernatural events that occur. This causes the stories to seem solidly planted in the real world, despite the occasional bizarre episodes.

There are certain shortcomings; the camera's eye perspective of the hard-boiled school lends itself to a bit too much dwelling on the details of setting. This is primarily in evidence at the beginning of A Wild Sheep Chase. And one suspects something is lost in the translation from the original Japanese. For example, this passage from Dance, Dance, Dance:

"... and if you consider the telephone as an object, it has this truly weird form. Ordinarily, you never notice it, but if you stare at it long enough, the sheer oddity of its form hits home. The phone either looks like it's dying to say something, or else it's resenting that it's trapped inside its form. Pure idea vested with a clunky body. That's the telephone."
There is a certain vagueness that may not be intentional. One is left with the feeling that "form" doesn’t quite convey the same meaning it did in the original language.

Reading Murakami has been described feeling like you've just awakened from a deep sleep and you aren’t sure if you're still dreaming. These are fascinating, engrossing books that will leave you full of ideas and impressions to dwell on for a long time to come

Author Herbert Mitgang  
Date October 21, 1989  
Media The New York Times  
  Young and Slangy Mix of the U.S. and Japan

''A Wild Sheep Chase'' by Haruki Murakami is a bold new advance in a category of international fiction that could be called the trans-Pacific novel. Youthful, slangy, political and allegorical, Mr. Murakami is a writer who seems to be aware of every current American novel and popular song. Yet with its urban setting, yuppie characters and subtle feeling of mystery, even menace, his novel is clearly rooted in modern Japan.

This isn't the traditional fiction of Kobo Abe (''The Woman in the Dunes''), Yukio Mishima (''The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea'') or Japan's only Nobel laureate in literature, Yasunari Kawabata (''Snow Country''). Mr. Murakami's style and imagination are closer to that of Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver and John Irving. In fact, the 40-year-old author, one of the most popular novelists in Japan, has translated the works of several American writers, including Irving and Carver. His outlook is international; he now lives in Rome.


There isn't a kimono to be found in ''A Wild Sheep Chase.'' Its main characters, men and women, wear Levis. They are the children of prosperity, less interested in what Toyota or Sony have wrought than in having a good time while searching in jazz bars for self-identity.

They take comfort in drinking, chain-smoking and casual sex. Listening to their conversation, they could be right at home on the Berkeley campus in the 1960's. It may help that the novel is racily translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum, an American who grew up in Tokyo and who studied at the University of California.

The unnamed, newly divorced 30-year-old protagonist of ''A Wild Sheep Chase'' has moved on, somewhat haphazardly, from college life into advertising and public relations. He and a partner turn out corporate newsletters and display the proper degree of contempt for their clients - and themselves.

In describing a right-wing magnate simply named the Boss, who has cornered the advertising business in Tokyo and extended his power into national politics, the protagonist's partner could pass for an ad man sounding off at the end of the day on Madison Avenue or Fleet Street:

''To hold down advertising is to have nearly the entire publishing and broadcasting industries under your thumb. There's not a branch of publishing or broadcasting that doesn't depend in some way on advertising. It'd be like an aquarium without water. Why, 95 percent of the information that reaches you has already been preselected and paid for.''


Their own cynical newsletters, he continues, contribute to corporate concealment: ''Every company's got a secret it doesn't want exploded right in the middle of the annual shareholders' meeting. In most cases, they'll listen to the word handed down. In sum, the Boss sits squarely on top of a trilateral power base of politicians, information services and the stock market.''

But Mr. Murakami isn't simply taking a swipe at big business here. As part of his developing plot, he is setting up the characters of his young people and distancing them from the godfatherly Boss and his sleazy lieutenant, who has a degree from Stanford University. As a former war criminal who has escaped trial, possibly with the collusion of the American occupation leadership, the Boss seeks something more than to sit on top of a domineering communications empire. Dying, he wants to gain the spiritual power of a legendary foreign sheep with a star on its back - the only one of its kind in all of Japan -that dwells somewhere in the lonely mountainous snow country.

On the surface, ''A Wild Sheep Chase'' is just that: a mystery story with a long chase. A photograph of the wild sheep has appeared accidentally in a newsletter; like Dashiell Hammett's Maltese falcon, the singular sheep is pursued by clashing interests. Is the sheep a symbol of something beyond the reach of an ordinary man, a devilish temptation? Does this wild sheep represent heroic morality or a Nietzschean superpower? Nietzsche is mentioned in the novel; so is the obsessive quest for Moby-Dick. The answer, if any, is left to the reader's perception.

Along the chase route, we meet interesting characters. One is called the Sheep Professor, another the Rat, a rather nice fellow despite his name. The most appealing is the protagonist's girlfriend, who is plain-looking except for one feature that arouses him - and reveals the author's offbeat sense of humor and style. Here is how she is described, with echoes of the hard-boiled California school of detection:

''She was 21, with an attractive slender body and a pair of the most bewitching, perfectly formed ears. She was a part-time proofreader for a small publishing house, a commercial model specializing in ear shots and a call girl in a discreet intimate-friends-only club. Which of the three she considered her main occupation, I had no idea. Neither did she.''

What makes ''A Wild Sheep Chase'' so appealing is the author's ability to strike common chords between the modern Japanese and American middle classes, especially the younger generation, and to do so in stylish, swinging language. Mr. Murakami's novel is a welcome debut by a talented writer who should be discovered by readers on this end of the Pacific.

Author Paul Lappen  
Date March 13, 1998  
Media Dead Trees Review  

Set in present day Japan, this is the story of an average man, part of a small publishing/translating firm, who meets and falls for a woman with absolutely perfect ears, the sort of ears that make people stop and stare. One day, he is visited by a shadowy aide/secretary, a man with beautiful hands, who works for an even more shadowy right-wing politician dying from a golf-ball sized cyst in his brain. With only the help of a 50-year-old photo, the narrator's assignment is to find one particular sheep, a sheep with the shape of a star on its back and very clear eyes. The narrator, who is never identified by name, doesn't have a choice; find the sheep or be blacklisted for the rest of his life. The narrator and his girlfriend set off from Tokyo and end up in the mountains of Hokkaido, with winter coming. This is a really interesting, and very easy to read, novel that gets increasingly strange as it progresses. For those who like their fiction with a touch of weird, Haruki Murakami is highly recommended, and this book is no exception.