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'SHEEP CHASE' IS MORE MARKETING THAN MEAT

A WILD SHEEP CHASE
By Haruki Murakami
Kodansha International
299 pages, $18.95

IF YOU TRY to define this book in conventional terms, as a novel or a slice of life or -- God preserve us -- art, you'll have a devil of a time figuring out what is going on. But if you look at it as a new Japanese product being test-marketed in America, then you are not only in the spirit of the book, but you are prepared to read it as it deserves: swiftly and mindlessly.

Think of "A Wild Sheep Chase" as a brand of beer, Novel Light -- for that is more or less what it is, light fiction from Japan. Maybe not everything you've always wanted in fiction, but certainly less.

Of course, we have no dearth of light fiction in America, nor are we short on minimalism. We have Ann Beattie and the late Raymond Carver, who taught an entire generation of short story writers in the '80s how to cultivate their cool and strike poses of grace under leisure, and it is no accident that Murakami, currently Japan's most "western" writer, is the translator of Carver, as well as of John Irving, Truman Capote and Paul Theroux. If in reading Murakami, then, we miss the exoticism and strangeness of another culture, it's because he is exporting back to us a voice and manner that he learned from us: a certain brisk nonchalance wedded to a flatness of affect that he could have learned from a dozen American imitators of Hemingway.

In fact, if anyone, he bears a resemblance to Jay McInerney, because both write for and about the same audience: the postwar, post-affluence baby boomers. In Japan they sometimes refer to themselves as shinjinri, "new people."

Rebels and consumers, they can be seen in the bars and nightclubs of Shinjuku and Roppongi (entertainment districts of Tokyo), the young men in their pressed designer jeans and leather jackets looking as stylish as models, the young women in tight skirts and real pearls, looking sleek as panthers and smoking furiously. Bred for pleasure and display, they catch their culture on the fly, by reading about themselves in the manga -- comic-book literature -- that has virtual cult status in Japan, or in the novels of Haruki Murakami -- six so far -- which sell in the millions in Japan.

The hero of this novel, who has no name, is a shinjinri hero, an indolent young man who, though he owns an advertising firm, works only out of necessity and seems to take life more casually than a proper Japanese should.

His youth, in the late '60s, had been given over to casual drinking and casual coupling, to cheap whiskey, endless talk and endless rock. His first girlfriend had been a kind of Japanese Ruby Tuesday, who would sleep with anyone. Years later, at her funeral -- she is a suicide at 25 -- he chances to see her father on the way out. "I lowered my head in silence, and he lowered his head in return, without a word." It is all so precious and all so cool.

About all that seems to matter are his girlfriend's ears, which are erotogenic beyond anything he has known, and his cigarettes, which he smokes non-stop as though they were the stuff of life itself. Indeed, there is something obsessive about smoking in this novel, and had the character been deprived of his cigarettes, the book could have been cut by 30 pages.

"A Wild Sheep Chase" might have had something to offer had there been more of the precise social portraiture of modern Japanese life that Murakami can depict with such ease, when he gets his shoulder into it. But after 30 pages of atmospherics -- smoky atmospherics -- it veers off sharply into a detective-cum-science fiction mode, as our hero is approached by a yakuza (gangster) type and is ordered into the mountains in search of a magical sheep that has the power to enter men's minds and work its will through them.

They're like pod people. Every generation of Japanese has its sheep man, who might be a professor or a right-wing gangster or a wild mountain man who roams Hokkaido dressed in lambskin. And that, folks, is all the plot you need to know.

That is what I mean by calling this a market research novel. Its basic principle seems to be that if you don't like the social signals you might go for the detective story, or if not that then the sci-fi mysticism of star-crossed sheep entering men and commanding their destinies. Or if not that, then the erotic frolicking with the girl with the shapely ears.

The Japanese word for a variety is moriawase, and a sashimi or sushi moriawase is a variety plate with an assortment of raw items, among which you are sure to like some. "A Wild Sheep Chase" is designed along the same principle: It is fiction moriawase, an elegant little dish with a little of everything and not too much of anything. Americans, I've noticed, tend to go for a lot of one thing at dinner or in books. The marketing department at Kodansha International might want to rethink its export strategy before shipping out another book like this one.

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