Book Review: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

Best described as ‘indescribable’.

My first experience with Murakami began with hearing of Kafka on the Shore many years ago. I’d always been meaning to read his works – many friends spoke favorably of him – but never got around to it. Finally, one of them lent me A Wild Sheep Chase, and here I am attempting to make enough sense of the story to coherently write a short piece on the meaning behind it.

A 30-year-old man fresh out of a divorce meets a girl with extraordinary ears, and an unsuspecting photo of sheep sent by a faraway friend sets our narrator on a book-long quest for a species of supernatural sheep which supposedly does not exist in Japan. The photo, used unsuspectingly by the narrator for an ad, catches the eye of a mysterious Man In Black who offers him a choice (or really, none at all) – find the sheep, or this will be the end of you.

Thus, the unnamed narrator is led on a long, winding journey to search for the sheep. Plot elements and characters are densely interconnected, introduced rapidly, and written off just as rapidly.

Take for example the narrator’s girlfriend. She’s fresh, something new, and appears to be the only thing breathing some semblance of activity into the narrator’s life. He’s let himself vegetate as a simple human being preoccupied with mundane day to day tasks. She’s got a pair of supernatural ears that makes her look larger than life when she wants to reveal them. And what was her role in the story? Certainly not to urge the narrator to personal development. She felt more like a plot device than a character at points, being written into the story when her ears were needed to guide the narrator, and then being written out entirely when her job was done.

The characters like the ‘girlfriend’, ‘business partner’, ‘the Rat’, ‘J’, etc. all seem to serve their separate purposes – whether as elements of the plot or as a means of fleshing out the narrator as a character. Our narrator is so dull, his dullness is precisely what makes him interesting, and what makes the book so easy to read through. His lack of color is exactly what colors the relationships between him and the other characters, allowing their interactions to speak a lot more about him as a person. The whole point of his character is that he seemingly has no character.

And just like the narrator, the book’s train of thought is as lost and as aimless despite being sent off on a search with a clear goal. There’s something terribly ironic about this. After I was done, I asked myself: So what was that all about? Was there a deeper meaning to it? Is there even a point in trying to decipher the aimlessness of the book?

…Which brings me to my point that maybe there is no point.

The novel’s title seems to take from the idiom ‘a wild goose chase’:

A situation where you waste time looking for something that you are not going to find, either because that thing does not exist or because you have been given wrong information about it.

The book does exactly that – waste time.

Through the idlings of the narrator, who seems to have wasted nearly the entirety of his life up to this point away, and seems to continue doing so even while chasing the sheep, we experience the loss of time. It feels cold, as cold as the frosty Hokkaido valleys where the sheep is hiding in.

The plot is the embodiment of a wild goose chase, a search for nothing in particular. Does the mystery sheep even exist? Apparently so, but not in any visible form besides in the photograph of it. The narrative is simple and winding, connecting so many bizarre dots only to reach an inconclusive conclusion.

Due to the nature of the book (the paradoxes in the lack of something being something) and how it appears to be a representation of the narrator’s aimless search for the sheep (a wild goose chase, wasting time), maybe the reader was never meant to have gained something concrete out of the book in the first place. That there is no point to the story – and that’s the beauty of it.

By having no point to it, A Wild Sheep Chase has successfully become the physical representation of both the narrator’s pointless journey (plot elements never revisited, too many questions unanswered, and an open ending on top of that) as well as the embodiment of the concept of the original idiom. By reading the novel, the reader has spent time on a wild goose chase of their own, chasing down a plot with little explanation given as to why all this is happening, led to the end seeking an answer to their questions that they will likely never find.

The reader is not merely reading about the idiom, they actually experience it.

Perhaps seeking a meaning to the novel in this sea of pointlessness is another wild goose chase in itself, something we may be led to do even after experiencing the story. We continue in the search for answers, analyzing the narrative and hoping to find them – when in fact, there are likely none.

In all seriousness, talking about the meaning (or lack thereof) of the novel is far more interesting than reading it. I found it an easy read, and enjoyed Murakami’s way of using the atmosphere to convey emotion. However, the lack of explanation in what was supposed to be a relatively linear storyline frustrated me, along with the inconclusiveness in the way the narrator’s journey was handled. As someone who prefers my questions actually answered – the book was not quite my taste after all.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

  1. Barry says:

    Murikami is never without meaning. The point of his stories are found in the recesses of intellect and require thought to determine meaning. That determination will lead the reader to an independent meaning hence the brilliance of the author is displayed once again. The main character is certainly a common person without any special quality. Boring as he may be he is like most people who go to work each day and toil without meaning. In pursuing the sheep he is locating his own mediocrity and slaying it. The sheep represents the possibilities offered by the various “isms” that can be adopted in our journey in this life. In this case far right extremist found in the history of Japan are located in the sheep. At least this is what I think. If you thought this was a meaningless book then don’t read Kafka on the Shore as the meaning in that is buried deep in the mind of the author.

    • Nerrin says:

      Hi Barry,

      First, let me thank you for your comment. Next, let me comment that yes, indeed I found A Wild Sheep Chase meaningless – and that, in itself, gives the book meaning. This is my interpretation of it. Is a state of ambiguous meaninglessness completely devoid of message or thought? No, it is not. Thought and insight can be gleamed even from the simplest day-to-day activity if one is to scrutinize; even more so when posited in the realm of fiction. A Wild Sheep Chase to me is not so much a piece of FICTION per se, but a work of art.

      A common man seeks something without end, with no definite conclusion. Something as vague as this posits itself as ready and open to the mind of readers, as you have mentioned. One is free to glean whatever meaning they wish from this text, be it your interpretation of the slaying of the mundane, the seeking of the possible Ways of life. Mine simply is that in handling a story that may at first appear meaningless to the layperson, Murakami has successfully created a book that interacts with the reader as a wild chase in itself, as the reader searches for meaning amongst its layers. A meaning which may exist, which may not – who knows. That in itself is the value of this book to me, a meaning found in meaninglessness.

      Kafka on the Shore has been lent to me by a friend. I do not know what I will think of it after I have finished, but I do look forward to it.

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