By Abel Fellow
Not unlike an army of protagonists before him, the nameless main character and narrator in Harukami’s A Wild Sheep Chase struggles to discover the purpose of his life in spite of a universe increasingly unfathomable, with fewer and fewer clues about what is right and wrong. Existentialism. A fancy word for the malaise engulfing me too often, especially for a high school senior. Therefore, while reading this novel, I kept my own thoughts in front of me. Encountering recognizable ideas in my reading helped me to clarify some of my own ideas about who I am and where I’m going. Reading A Wild Sheep Chase honestly made a difference to me.
In chapter 32, the sheep caretaker converses with the narrator and his girlfriend about the sheep. When his girlfriend asks the caretaker what the sheep do over the winter, the caretaker tells her they stay indoors all winter long. She then asks, "Don't they get bored?" The caretaker responds, "They don't think about stuff like that, and it wouldn't do 'em any good if they did. They just pass the winter eating hay, pissing, getting into spats, thinking about the babies in their bellies" (269). It's refreshing to hear these words come out of the caretaker's mouth. I frequently question my existence, but it typically ends up being a waste of time and gets me nowhere. Instead of mindlessly wondering why, I could spend my time more productively. Furthermore, I never reach a definite and satisfying purpose for my life, so I emerge from these episodes of thought empty-handed. A sheep doesn't possess the intellect to ponder the meaning of its life, so it simply lives. In that sense, the sheep serves as an idol to me. If a sheep can live its life and not worry about the point of it all, why can't I? This reassured me—not by telling me how to find the inner truth and divine purpose of my life on earth, but by suggesting that I abandon questioning my life in favor of living it.
Our main character discovers in his desk drawer at work a picture of sheep grazing in a vast meadow serenely and dumbly, a discovery that eventually leads to his "wild sheep chase.” Wondering about the significance of that particular picture getting into his drawer, he decides it is either a mere coincidence, or no coincidence at all. He never concludes whether it is a coincidence or not; what he concludes is, it is unnecessary to determine whether that picture finding its way into his drawer is a coincidence, thinking, "In actual practice, however, distinctions between the two interpretations amount to precious little" (71). Such a liberating revelation was certainly an eye-opening moment for me. Last year I was in an airport and suddenly had to use the bathroom. There were roughly twenty stalls, so I randomly chose one. Upon entering the stall, I encountered a twenty dollar bill waiting for me. After the initial excitement, I couldn't stop asking myself why I had found the twenty dollars. What did it mean? I bought a lottery ticket with the money, thinking if Mother Fate was at work, she would no doubt bring me the lottery jackpot. She didn’t. I threw away twenty bucks. Twenty bucks that didn’t belong to me anyway. I was greedy. I was tempting Mother Fate. In hindsight, however, it was all senseless. I found twenty dollars, plain and simple. Regardless of it being a coincidence or being a sign, what actually happened didn't change. Debating on the significance of finding twenty dollars or discovering a picture of docile sheep chewing their cud is "not unlike calling the same food by two different names" (71).
Why must my life be so full of such meaningless debates? Is it necessary to choose my college major now, to work at a boring summer job in order to help pay for Sewanee instead of just going to UTK, where I can languish in the back row of the big classes rather than being pushed to speak up in smaller ones, where I will undoubtedly learn more about the math and biology I...