I’ve seen Haruki Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase casually described as postmodern, as surreal, and as magic realism. Though it was published in 1982 (and translated into English in 1989), and though the main character is not a private investigator, I nevertheless think of it as a weird private investigator novel. Private investigators are often associated with thrillers, their novels can play with the expectation that the detective will solve the case, and/ or they can create a noir atmosphere that the hero inhabits on the reader’s behalf. A Wild Sheep Chase works mostly like these last two types of private investigator stories.
A wild goose chase is an exercise in futility, but perhaps a wild sheep case is about escaping futility. This is a novel about a relatively dull man who is coerced into searching for a supernatural sheep. Most of the things that happen to the narrator happen because things-happen-that’s-life. Like many other people, Murakami’s hero lights cigarettes, he drinks in dive bars, and he has sort-of-hip exchanges with others. He is left by his wife; he puts food in a bowl for his cat; sometimes he works at an advertising firm. I realized at one point that I’d read half of the novel and the hero had not yet begun his quest. When he does eventually fly to Hokkaido to search for the sheep, he and his girlfriend, upon landing, go to a movie. The novel should be as dull as the narrator, but the hero and his circumstances are just weird enough and just cool enough to be diverting.
I was tempted to read A Wild Sheep Chase as existential or postmodern or both, but I most often found myself thinking that Murakami created this novel, his third, just to have space to flex. It’s not that the novel’s indulgent, but it does feel like he’s stretching to see what he can do as a young author. Upon finishing the book, I remembered that he discusses this work in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, writing “when I finished the novel I had a good feeling that I’d created my own writing style.” He’s not wrong. Not only is this novel better and more interesting than his earlier works, but his later, better works seem to branch out from this one. It particularly seems to lead to Kafka on the Shore, After Dark, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and it is this last work that especially seems like a fuller version of A Wild Sheep Chase. Both feature unusual conversations by telephone, cats, and letters from distant and difficult to understand figures. Both texts start when the hero’s wife leaves. Both texts feature a powerful but mysterious antagonist who is confronted mostly indirectly. Both resolve their conflict with a somewhat more focused hero. There is even a bird’s call in this one.
A Wild Sheep Chase is Murakami’s earliest novel that is interesting in the way his best novels are interesting. It can be read on its own merits or by completists who are keen to read a work that hints at what he would later produce. Looking back at this review, I worry that it might be taken as a dismissive critique of the novel, but A Wild Sheep Chase is a pretty cool book — in fact, I read it in just a couple evenings.