I had a shot at rereading this circa 2005, with the aim of trying to understand the powerful effect it had on me when I first read it circa 1990. In 2005, I came away with a frustrating and paradoxical feeling that analyzing this novel's structure is actually somewhat futile as a means to understanding how it works...
The first nine pages encapsulate Tokyo in 1970, and are mostly about a woman who has no obvious relevance to the rest of the novel. The rest of the story happens in 1978. The narrator's getting divorced, and his ex-wife tells him, “Say there's an hourglass: the sand's about to run out. Someone like you can always be counted on to turn the thing over.” As a piece of characterization, what does this even mean? Yet it characterizes the hero perfectly. The novel is filled with such analysis-defying brilliances. “In the aquarium of my memory, it is always late autumn.” What's not to like?
Now that I reread the book in 2010, it's twenty years old, and I like how smoothly it slides from the utterest realism into the craziest fantasy. First the author establishes a mood -- poetic immediacy plus nonchalant delivery; of all Surrealists, Murakami is the most matter-of-fact. Then, having won you over, he slips you the ludicrous plot. The setting helps: if you told me about a hotel whose second floor is a “sheep reference room,” I might be skeptical, until you told me it was in Hokkaido... which is to say that the unfamiliarity of the territory may have been a factor in the initial vogue for this book.
Key to the atmosphere is that none of the characters have names, not even the narrator's cat. When a character is referred to by a name, it's a sobriquet like the Rat or the Boss or the Sheep Professor.
“I mean towns and parks and streets and stations and ball fields and movie theaters all have names, right? They are all given names in compensation for their fixity on the earth.”
So... as long as you're still moving, who needs a name? I guess that makes some kind of sense. The book's rich in the sort of conversational remarks that would sound profound in a coffee-shop late at night -- Murakami makes these sound good on the page too -- detailed itemizations of food eaten, and dubious sheep facts, e.g. “In Spain in the fifteen hundreds, they had roads all over the country no one but shepherds could use, not even the King.”
Frederick Barthelme wrote, “Reading A Wild Sheep Chase is like spending a splendidly foul weekend with the four Raymonds – Chandler, Carver, Massey, and Queneau.” Which is excellent except why “foul?” Plus Barthelme might also have worked in Raymond Lully a.k.a. Ramon Llull. Let me note in passing that Murakami actually translated works by both Chandler and Carver into Japanese.
Only while researching this blog post did I learn that A Wild Sheep Chase was originally the third in a trilogy, the first two novels of which Murakami has not allowed to be translated into English. Maybe this sheds some light on its structural strangeness, while also disproving all my prejudices against trilogies. Although then again, there is a sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase published in English that I could only get a few pages into – Dance Dance Dance, in which Murakami makes the cardinal mistake of assigning the main characters from A Wild Sheep Chase proper names. In A Wild Sheep Chase itself, however, I still think he merges the formulaic and the inscrutable with the perfect touch of a jazz master.