David Mazzotta writes: "The jacket copy of these novels declares the writer, Haruki Murakami, to be 'a Japanese Philip K. Dick with a sense of humor.' That's pretty accurate. But while Murakami shares Dick's inventive imagination and plots that containing fantastic, near-mystical overtones, these novels are populated with deeper, more identifiable characters." If that's an intriguing idea for you, read on for the rest of David's review.
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.
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