A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami: Book Review

A Wild Sheep Chase was my first venture into the work of Haruki Murakami and it was something of an adventure. Lots of unexpected turns to the plot in a novel that takes on the structure and devices of a mystery novel. Despite adopting this (usually) plot-oriented novel structure, A Wild Sheep Chase isn’t a typical “plot driven” novel.

If you shop in a book store that separates books into genre, you’ll find Murakami in the literature section, not the “popular fiction” section, though judging solely by this novel it seems Murakami blends the elements of literary fiction with popular fiction freely, which makes for some light-hearted material with a good dose of the depth of character and IDEA characteristic of serious literature.

When looking at hybrid works of fiction, one question that always has to be answered is “how well did the author blend the palettes of the genre sources used in the text?” This question, ultimately, will determine the answer to the larger question that we ask of every book: “Was it successful? Did the book do what it set out to do? And, in getting there, was it good?”

Murakami does a very good job of moving the plot along by presenting mystery/plot questions and creating suspense within this context of mystery. Along with the strength of voice (irreverent, morally fatigued, seemingly open to suggestion), the construction of mystery is the most successful element of the book.

The hybridization is a success…but…the satisfying pay-off that ends every mystery novel is not here in A Wild Sheep Chase. There’s no need to spoil the ending here, but readers should enjoy the ride before reaching the dénouement in this novel because that is where the fun is, where the meat is, and where the writing really shines – in the journey.

The novel’s comment is lost on me, perhaps. Left with the idea that a meaningless victory has been won, resolution offered, I struggled (and I’m still struggling) to parse out the message of the book. What had seemed to be a novel about learning to accept others as they are, to accept change when it comes, and to find the strength to break free from a hang-nail personal history, the novel takes a turn in the end, suggesting finally that the lessons implied along the way were just passing ideas.

Just play.

Yet this is a likeable novel. The reader remains oriented despite a plot-line that sounds crazy when summed up on the book jacket. Themes of separation, broken relationships, and coping are developed to a satisfying degree, with enough repetition to be substantial, but not so much that the book becomes depressive or obsessive.

Though the narrative flow is broken at times by sub-stories that read a bit like short-stories inserted into an otherwise logically sound linear narrative, these sub-stories are related to the central plot and move the story along. The only problem is that they present some artificial elements into an atmosphere that had otherwise been consistent.

One character is given a title instead of a name and the reference is awkward and strange when this character’s son is made to refer to him by the title (instead of calling him father). Maybe this is just nitpicking and harping unnecessarily on details.

Forgive me. I had high hopes for Haruki Murakami. As a reader on the lookout for contemporary writers of literary fiction, I feel that there is more than a little to gain in finding some great work coming from a writer who is still working.

There is value here, in A Wild Sheep Chase, so I will read more Murakami, but not with the high hopes that I brought to this first adventure.

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