Friday, September 30, 2011
Journey To the Center Of the Self: Murkami's "A Wild Sheep Chase"
I will admit to being my own worst critic at times, especially when it comes to self-critiquing my own writing and reviewing. My friends tell me that I'm too self-deprecating, which is not untrue. Therefore, perhaps as a personal defense mechanism, I'll occasionally administer an open confession in regard to literature. For example, if I'm reading a well-known writer for the first time, I might introduce an essay with a bewildered wonderment of how I've gone as long as I have without having read him or her. However, I feel this is warranted when it comes to the writings of Haruki Murakami. My readings of his works have been scattered at best, limited to a lot of his short stories and not his regarded novels. Like many in the literary community, I'm getting more and more excited about the upcoming publication of 1Q84, which is shaping up to be his most acclaimed novel. Since October is coming up very soon, I simply had to read one of his novels lest I come across like a poser when I get caught up in his newest work. Picking a Murakami novel to read is daunting, especially given that there are so many to choose from, and each one of his works has its own dedicated fan base. My best friend recently finished A Wild Sheep Chase and gave me his copy when he was finished. The timing worked out quite well. Unlike my foray into the works of John Cheever, I'm starting at Murakami's general beginning, rather than at the end. For such a briskly paced work, it's a strong mix of themes and styles, and an early indicator of what was to come.
A Wild Sheep Chase tells the story of a nameless advertising executive, a plain, logical, chain-smoking divorcee who uses a photo of a mountain-dwelling sheep herd in a small pamphlet. In addition to dealing the effects of his divorce, his interactions are limited to his new girlfriend (a woman with ears so perfectly formed as to overshadow the rest of her body), and his alcoholic advertising partner. The sheep photo catches the attention of a mysterious, potentially criminal organization. Unbeknownst to the narrator, one of the sheep has a black star image on its back, and the organization demands that he find the sheep immediately, or face the elimination of his company. He's given an envelope of money and vague instructions, and along with his girlfriend, he embarks on the journey to locate the mysterious sheep. Along the way, the reader is introduced to an estranged man known only as the Rat; the proprietor of a run-down hotel and his father, a man known as the Sheep Professor; and at a remote mountain home, the stakes get weirder with the appearance of the fast-talking Sheep Man. Like many mystery stories, implications and personal detours abound. The search for the marked sheep is part of many journeys that are part of a larger destination. While some of the above summaries might seem like they're taken from an average mass market mystery, Murakami's early prose manages to make the novel enjoyable.
My previous look at Murakami's writing led me to make favorable comparisons between his own style and the story elements of Raymond Carver. With the exception of Jonathan Lethem's occasional homage to the old school mystery genre, I'm not familiar with the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. While A Wild Sheep Chase isn't a detective story, Murakami sets the story up with a heavy dose of confusion, ominous characters, and rapid dialogue and development that would undoubtedly be at home in a noir-like atmosphere. However, it's also mixed with psychological undertones just begging to be dissected.
"The room was utterly silent. Now there is the silence you encounter on entering a grand manor. And there is the silence that comes of too few people in a big space. But this was a different quality of silence altogether. A ponderous, oppressive silence. A silence reminiscent, though it took me a while to put my finger on it, of the silence that hangs around a terminal patient. A silence pregnant with the presentiment of death. The air faintly musty and ominous.
'Everyone dies,' said the man softly with downcast eyes. He seemed to have an uncanny purchase on the drift of my thoughts. 'All of us, whosoever, must die sometime (Murakami 124).'"
These passages are also balanced nicely with excellent metaphors and phrases that seemingly come in passing, yet stick out in their meticulous details:
"It took ten minutes for the beer to come. Meanwhile, I planted an elbow on the armrest of my chair, rested my head on my hand, and shut my eyes. Nothing came to mind. With my eyes closed, I could hear hundreds of elves sweeping out my head with their tiny brooms. They kept sweeping and sweeping. It never occurred to any of them to use a dustpan (Murakami 151)."
"The conductor was so totally without expression he could have pulled off a bank robbery without covering his face (Murakami 249)."
Murakami has been criticized by Japanese literary critics for his Western influences, but for all of Americanized touches, there's a definite atmosphere of Japanese solitude and hints of the dire consequences of nonconformity. For example, the aforementioned Sheep Professor's early life is presented in detail. He works in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, yet his mental and spiritual harmony results in being ostracized. In any culture, claiming to be in a "spiritual communion" with a sheep would be cause for being outcast, yet a knowledge of Japanese societal unity makes his tale that much more saddening, even if it's just a mysterious element in a fictional setting.
"February 1936. The Sheep Professor is ordered home to Japan. After undergoing numerous similar interrogations, he is transferred in the spring to the Ministry Reference Collection. There he catalogues reference materials and organizes bookshelves. In other words, he has been purged from the core elite of the East Asian agricultural administration (Murakami 215)."
I haven't gotten into the core of the novel's climax, partly because full explanations would be grave spoilers, but also because the last half of the novel takes on fantastically different themes. Plus, a complete summary, when done as a recap of the plot points, would render A Wild Sheep Chase as unintelligible. The star-marked sheep takes on quite a few potential meanings: in another review I skimmed, the case is made for it being a symbol of postwar Japan. However, there's also a case for the journey leading to a change in the narrator's life: in the mountain house, he's left alone and makes necessary life changes. He becomes accustomed to solitude, takes up running, and is forced to quit smoking. He doesn't present these changes as life-altering, but merely as an adaptation to his surroundings. At times, the sought-after sheep becomes an afterthought. The foray into realism then gets completely flipped as he communicates with potentially paranormal forces, taking them in stride as he does with every other detour in his life. This buildup of the other-worldly then descends into a seemingly casual ending, as the narrator tries to make peace with his associates and his journey in general.
A Wild Sheep Chase is the conclusion of "The Trilogy of the Rat," a series of Murakami's first forays into novel writing. While there is the possibility that the first two works could shed light on the open-ended meanings of the final work, it does manage to stand on its own. Murakami does manage to make the different elements connect, despite the consistent twists into different themes and settings. I can't immediately say that this will end up being one of my favorite novels, but it is genuinely surprising and gives the reader no choice but to ponder the underlying metaphors, and given that this is one of Murakami's earliest works, it's truly admirable in its scope, especially since it's such a fast, dialogue-heavy novel. It's not for everyone, especially if a reader is not accustomed to having to balance the mythological, the realistic, and the supernatural. Placing this into a single genre is impossible, but all of the elements tie together into one destination. It's easy to imagine this written by someone else and having it be a mess, but Murakami doesn't resort to any real trickery. It's ultimately up to the reader to decide what's real and what's not, and that in itself sums up the work as a whole.
Murakami, Haruki. A Wild Sheep Chase. Copyright 1989 by Haruki Murakami.