The Rat Series Reflection #3: A Wild Sheep Chase
Updated: Sep 30, 2020
In 2013, during my first stay in Japan, I read two Murakami Haruki books; "After Dark" and "Norwegian Wood". I was impressed by how Murakami's detailed description of Tokyo could instill a sense of nostalgia, even while I was living in the city. That September, I moved back to Boston to complete university, but I yearned to go back. One day, I found myself at a Barnes & Noble walking through the deserted store and browsing the shelves. At the time, I did not understand the extent of Murakami's fame, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a collection of his books. Without any prior research, I flipped through the covers and decided to buy "A Wild Sheep Chase". This was the first book of the so called "The Rat Series" I read. In retrospect, the plot, as well as some of the characters (especially Jay and the Rat) were quite confusing. Of course, the story was wonderful, but, against the suggestion of many who recommend reading this book first, I wish I had read the series in order from "Hear the Wind Sing". As this is what I have done this year, I noticed that through the development of these characters and their stories, we can see just how much Murakami improved his writing over time.
Examining this book has turned out to be much more difficult than the others in the series, so I will start off with a summary and some of my interpretations.
The narrator "I" and the Rat have a special connection, but they go down very separate life paths. "I" lives in Tokyo and has relationships with all kinds of people and absorbs their stories, but he has remained a shadow most of his life. This doesn't bother him too much, though, as he would rather not stand out. The Rat on the other hand, actually has ambition (he wants to be a writer), but he can never make things work out. He escapes their hometown in Kobe and finds himself on the edge of the world, in northern Hokkaido, having left everything and everyone behind. Ironically for someone who wants to escape the identity of coming from a rich family, the place he ends up at is his family's vacation home in Junitakicho.
The Rat can never fully grow up. His time together with the narrator meant a great deal, perhaps some of the best times of his life. During his twenties, he desperately needed help, but the narrator has never been able to properly provide it. The Rat triggers the narrator's Wild Sheep Chase, which sends him on a journey up to Hokkaido and ends with a chilly conversation between the two friends.
The Rat has already been taken over by the Sheep at this point, but the Rat is still in control. The Sheep is attracted to weakness and promises power to those who want it, but the Rat enjoys his own weakness. He finds a way to stop the process by killing himself. What about the narrator "I"? The Rat couldn't find his footing, but the narrator still has time to change his life around. This Wild Sheep Chase finally opens his eyes.
"Hear the Wind Sing" and "Pinball, 1973" introduce the narrator's odd relationships with people, his Alice in Wonderland like experiences, and his good friend, the Rat. In addition, especially in Pinball, we learn about how he can somehow get every thing he wants, but in the process, "tramples on everything else". In the days of the first two novels, beer, cigarettes, casual sex, and pinball were almost enough. He was still young and naive, but a sense of adventure was beginning to take shape somewhere inside.
From now on, I vowed, when my horse was exhausted, my sword broken, and my armor rusty, I would lay myself down in a meadow of green foxtail and listen to the wind. I would follow the path I should follow wherever it took me, whether that be the bottom of a reservoir or a chicken plant’s refrigerated warehouse. -Pinball, 1973
This quote stood out to me this second time through the series. The narrators says this, but in "A Wild Sheep Chase", several years later, he has developed a rather unadventurous life. Perhaps it was his doomed marriage or monotonous work life, but at 29 years old we know that nothing has changed since his farewell to his beloved pinball machine. That is until the Rat forces him to get to his feet.
The Sheep Chase
In connection with the Sheep, we have several interesting characters. The man in the black suit, the driver, the Boss, and the Sheep Professor. For them, everything revolves around this Sheep.
Right wing organizations, loyal servants, overly zealous followers of a faith, and obsessions are the perfect fuel for the Sheep's plans. It feeds on the human condition to find strength and power. There is something special in the Rat though. He is able to outright reject the Sheep, but while it is in him, he kills himself, trapping it inside. Unlike the others, the Rat never wanted power.
I guess I felt attached to my weakness. My pain and suffering too. Summer light, the breeze the sound of cicadasーif I like these things, why should I apologize. The same with having a beer with you...
For him, nothing would ever change, nothing would ever improve. By sacrificing himself, he has served a purpose. He embraced his weakness to topple something oppressive. The Sheep Man is a character that is hard to pin down. Of course he could very much just be a psychological illusion of the narrator "I", but Murakami has used this character several times and I would like to think that he actually does exist to some extent. While he certainly does serve the Rat / is controlled by the Rat in part because of the Sheep, I think he tries to live his life independently in protest. Perhaps he truly is from Junitakicho and is just trying to live peacefully to avoid war, whether it be between humans or with the Sheep.
The Return to Normal Life and Ears
The narrator examines himself in the mirror of the Rat's family's home and remarks that the reflection could be the real him. He has entered into a so called "mirror world", an alternate reality where he can meet the Rat. After their encounter, he recovers his true self, but leaves part of himself behind. This, along with the house, are destroyed. After the whole business with the Sheep, the narrator says that he is happy to return to normal human life, but he has certainly been affected by this journey. The Sheep Man points out the narrator's selfishness and that he sent his girlfriend away. Throughout the whole story, "I" is mainly attracted to her magical ears and does not fully appreciate her for her. She is extraordinarily helpful to him regardless.
That is certainly a trait the narrator has had since the start of the series. He has casual encounters with all sorts of people, but they never seem to amount to anything. Jay and the Rat exist in a special place, but he rarely revisits that part of himself. He mentions several times that his main purpose is to absorb people's stories, but I think it is more likely that he is missing what it takes to build true relationships with others. There is also a terrible tendency for unfortunate fates to befall anyone he sleeps with. By the end of this experience, the narrator might be starting to realize what he has been missing in regards to people skills.
Murakami has a thing for ears. They actually come up quite a few times in this novel. His girlfriend, who he is immediately attracted to when he sees a photo of her ears, is the main ear subject in this book. The narrator also has a discussion about trained ears with the Sheep Man right before he breaks an acoustic guitar in anger.
But if you get good, you have to train your ears. And when you've trained your ears, you get depressed at your own playing.
Free Will and Manipulation
In much of Murakami's works, there is a sense that no one truly has complete control of their lives and a general lack of "free will". The narrator here certainly feels this and becomes very frustrated. The organization used him to push the Rat out of hiding, and the Rat used the narrator to help him kill the Sheep. (The clock in the house was connected to a bomb, which destroyed the Rat's body, the man in the black suit, and the Sheep.)
On the other hand, the narrator is finally forced to make the realization that he also uses people. In addition, after this adventure, he has become free. He will finally be forced to use his own free will to decide his own path without guidance.
Children and Family
Creating a family is one of the minor themes of the book, associated with growing up. Almost all the characters are single and without much of a family, with the exception of the narrator's partner, who's home life couldn't be that great with all the drinking, and the Sheep Professor, who has never had a great relationship with his son. It is assumed that these characters can solve their problems, but are struggling to do so. We are still left with a majority of "lonely" characters.
"Don't want kids." "Oh?" "I mean I would be at a loss if I had a kid like me." J chuckled and poured more beer into my glass. You're always thinking too far ahead." "No, that's not it. What I mean is, I don't really know if it's the right thing to do, making new life. Kids grow up, generations take their place. What does it all come to? More hills bulldozed and more oceanfront filled in? Faster cars and more cats to run over? Who needs it?"
This dialogue really struck a cord with me. More humans means more destruction, and dealing with that responsibility is too much to handle. I wonder what Murakami, who also doesn't have kids, was getting at here. Maybe it's the idea that we can have complete adult lives without going through the tribulations of parenthood? Or that kids won't fix relationships. Marriage and connections with others are based on something more than procreating. I like that kind of message.
In the whole series, the narrator, his several girlfriends, and multiple other characters remain unnamed or have peculiar ones.
"I think I just don't like names. Basically, I can't see what's wrong with calling me 'me' or you 'you' or us 'us' or the 'them'"
This quote is in regards to not naming the cat, Kipper, but could this be Murakami's justification for this habit of painting nameless characters? I like to think that this is him breaking the fourth wall, in his own kind of way.
I have finished examining "The Rat Trilogy" for now. I might come back again later, but for the time being, I will continue on to "Dance, Dance, Dance". It has been fun rereading these novels. Every time I come back, I learn something new, about the world and about myself. As I approach 30, I hope I can experience something as significant as a Wild Sheep Chase.