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Next on my reading list were a pair of Murakami novels I first read a few years ago: Wild Sheep Chase and its sequel, Dance, Dance, Dance.  There are actually another two books in this series that take place before Wild Sheep Chase, but I have yet to come across English language translations of these.  Fortunately, they are not required to enjoy the books I do have access to.

Wild Sheep Chase takes place in 1978 and introduces us to the unnamed protagonist of both novels.  Living in an apartment in Tokyo, he is at a crossroads in life and seems doomed to live out his days in a rut with his sickly cat until two incredible events happen.  The first is beginning to date a girl with magical ears.  The second involves a picture of sheep in the Hokkaido countryside, provided to him some years ago by a recluse friend nicknamed “the Rat.”  When he uses this picture in a brochure for work, the protagonist catches the attention of powerful right-wing business leader, whose agent tasks him with finding one particular sheep from the photo, an animal suspected of carrying within it a means to access extraordinary powers of personal influence and intellect.  With only his girlfriend’s intuition and a set of cryptic letters from his friend to go by, he must find the sheep or face the consequences.

In Dance, Dance, Dance we are reunited with the unnamed protagonist roughly four and a half years after the conclusion of Wild Sheep Chase.  Shaken by the events of the previous novel, he finds himself inexplicably drawn back to Hokkaido and a certain hotel that changed the course of his previous adventure.  He is once again on a quest, this time for something that was lost during the first book.  As part of his search, he must navigate a world of eccentric artists, deceased call-girls, and random drives with a moody teenager to piece together the clues of this mystery.  Aiding him along are the only two friends he has left, a troubled 13 year-old clairvoyant and a rather famous former classmate with whom he has recently reconnected.

I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting these books, especially since enough time had passed since my first reading for them to feel fresh in my mind.  They had a sense of mystery and intrigue about them that really drew me into the world right away.  The way Murakami incorporated the supernatural elements of the story into normal everyday life and, inversely, made aspects of the magical world more mundane is something I found quite engrossing.  His combination of eerie gloominess, resigned acceptance, and a pragmatic hope really drew me to the story, presenting a gripping and an intense mix of surreal and grimly all-too-real elements.

Enhancing this mood were a wealth of sensory descriptions and references that brought greater intimacy to the story.  Murakami did a great job getting the reader into the setting of wherever the action was taking place; forests, beaches, bars, cars, hotel rooms, etc. were all brought to life in ways that almost took the reader there themselves.  Food and drink are also brought up frequently, giving the story a taste and smell as well; mainly noodle dishes and whisky, with some international cuisine and the occasional case of beer thrown in for good measure.  Most striking of all though was the music, as both novels referenced a rich catalogue of tapes and records that provided an excellent soundtrack to the reading experience.  Running the range from 1960s jazz (Arthur Prysock and Count Basie) and rock (Rolling Stones) to contemporaries like Michael Jackson, Talking Heads, and Styx, the diversity presented was almost as much fun to keep track of as the story itself.

The thing that united all this into an amazing story though was the protagonist.  It is from his perspective alone that we experience the action, gain insight to the world, and meet the precious few other characters.  He was no doubt stubborn, aimless, and more than once referred to as “abnormal,” but at the same time he was also sympathetic, engaging, and, perhaps most importantly of all, interesting as he confronted his own existential issues about work and modern society in the course of his bizarre quests.  Through his introspection we get such memorable lines as the following:

And the same can be said for collecting garbage and shoveling snow.  It doesn’t matter whether you like it or not – a job’s a job.  For three and a half years, I’d been making this kind of contribution to society.  Shoveling snow.  You know, cultural snow.  (Dance, Dance, Dance; Page 7)

While not verbalized in the first book, this concept of metaphorically shoveling snow was central to the character’s view of his job throughout both novels.  Work-wise, he’s just doing time to earn money while he focuses on and figures the important stuff.  He is perhaps equally cynical about society as a whole, as evidenced by his thoughts that:

Although I didn’t think so at the time, things were a lot simpler in 1969.  All you had to do to express yourself was throw rocks at riot police.  But with today’s sophistication, who’s in a position to throw rocks?….Everything is rigged, tied into that massive capital web, and beyond this web there’s another web.  Nobody’s going anywhere.  You throw a rock and it’ll come right back at you.  (Dance, Dance, Dance; Page 55)

We live in an advanced capitalist society, after all.  Waste is the name of the game, its greatest virtue.  (Dance, Dance, Dance; Page 12)

Like if you listen to the radio for a whole hour, there’s maybe one decent song.  The rest is mass-produced garbage. (Dance, Dance, Dance; Page 112)

Through these insights, along with his tendency to offer absurdist non-sequiturs, the protagonist became a character that I was able to get invested in as a reader and, as a result, he really pushed these books over the top for me.  After factoring in all the other things I liked about these novels, I can easily say that they are among my favorites from Murakami.  Together or separately they make for excellent reads that showcase the author’s literary skills and storytelling abilities.  Consider them highly recommended.

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