Book Reviews

After the Quake
Sputnik Sweetheart
Wind-up Bird Chronicle

Norwegian Wood
Hear the Wind Sing
Pinball 1973

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Sputnik Sweetheart
Author Laura Miller  
Date April 19, 2001  

A cult-favorite novelist's seductive, eerie tale of a vanished lover.
Trying to nail down the seductive, surreal melancholy of Haruki Murakami's novels is like trying to bottle fog. His characters can be found drifting around Tokyo, checking out French new wave movies, drinking glasses of red wine, listening to Brahms on their hi-fis, reading Raymond Chandler -- almost always alone. A Murakami hero is the well-groomed guy sitting by himself at the end of the counter in an all-night coffee shop, smoking perhaps and staring off into space. Chances are he's puzzled over a recent encounter with an enigmatic woman. Chances are she's disappeared. And chances are he won't ever quite figure out what's happened to her.

"Sputnik Sweetheart" is a slim novel in comparison with Murakami's most recent opus, "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle." ("Norwegian Wood" is a very early book published in the U.S. for the first time last year.) Its unnamed narrator remains true to Murakami form, a teacher by "a process of elimination" -- he simply isn't engaged enough to try for a more demanding career. The one thing he does care about is an old college friend, Sumire, a misfit girl with literary ambitions who, much to his pain, has no feelings for him "as a man." They're close enough, though, that when Sumire finally does fall in love with her wine-importer employer -- a beautiful married woman 17 years her senior -- he's the one to hear all about it.
The first 70 pages or so of "Sputnik Sweetheart" construct this romantic triangle: He loves Sumire, Sumire loves Miu and whatever goes on in Miu's head is anyone's guess. Then Miu takes Sumire with her on a trip to Europe, and while the two women vacation on a Greek island, Sumire vanishes without a trace. Miu asks the narrator to fly out to the island and help with the search. Once there, he finds a handful of tantalizing clues: an odd conversation Miu and Sumire had about a spooked cat, a diary that Sumire kept on a floppy disk in which she writes of "entering the world of dreams and never coming out. Living in dreams for the rest of time," and, strangest of all, Sumire's transcript of a secret Miu told her, the story of how Miu's black hair turned entirely white during a single night in a little Swiss town.

Murakami knows that the most haunting tales never have all their loose ends tied up by the last page, but unlike "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," "Sputnik Sweetheart" doesn't leave too many of them unspooled and dangling. It's a tighter book, if less grand and captivating, and the point of this exercise in the uncanny feels more focused. "Why do people have to be this lonely?" the narrator asks:
I closed my eyes and listened carefully for the descendants of Sputnik, even now circling the earth, gravity their only tie to the planet. Lonely metal souls in the unimpeded darkness of space, they meet, pass each other, and part, never to meet again. No words passing between them. No promises to keep.
Back in Japan, there will be a significant moment with a kleptomaniac child and a few more surprising encounters, but the lovely, sad, eerie Murakami spell remains firmly in place, the sense of its perfectly still center inviolate. It's still impossible to nail down, but its ingredients include loneliness, longing and an undeniable and sometimes frightening thread of the miraculous woven into the very fabric of life.
Author ?  
Date 2001  
Media Publisher's Weekly  
Link none
  Sputnik Sweetheart

Murakami's seventh novel to be translated into English is a short, enigmatic chronicle of unrequited desire involving three acquaintances the narrator, a 24-year-old Tokyo schoolteacher; his friend Sumire, an erratic, dreamy writer who idolizes Jack Kerouac; and Miu, a beautiful married businesswoman with a secret in her past so harrowing it has turned her hair snowy white. When Sumire abandons her writing for life as an assistant to Miu and later disappears while the two are vacationing on a Greek island, the narrator/teacher travels across the world to help find her.
Once on the island, he discovers Sumire has written two stories: one explaining the extent of her longing for Miu; the second revealing the secret from Miu's past that bleached her hair and prevents her from getting close to anyone. All of the characters suffer from bouts of existential despair, and in the end, back in Tokyo, having lost both of his potential saviors and deciding to end a loveless affair with a student's mother, the narrator laments his loneliness. Though the story is almost stark in its simplicity more like Murakami's romantic Norwegian Wood than his surreal Wind-Up Bird Chronicles the careful intimacy of the protagonists' conversation and their tightly controlled passion for each other make this slim book worthwhile. Like a Zen koan, Murakami's tale of the search for human connection asks only questions, offers no answers and must be meditated upon to provide meaning.
Author Tom LeClair  
Date May 2001  
Media Book Magazine  
  Colliding Worlds

Sputnik Sweetheart seems the obverse of Underground, a close-focused, personal work about how easily worlds can separate. And yet this novel has at its center three extravagantly alienated characters who might have joined Aum had they not been devoted to each other. Sumire is a twenty-two-year-old college dropout working on a "Total Novel" when she surprises herself by falling in love with Miu, a thirty-nine-year-old married businesswoman. A narrator identified only as "K," a twenty-five-year-old elementary school teacher, is in love with Sumire, but Sumire wants him only as a friend. As children, both Sumire and K were estranged from their families and lost themselves in books and music. Miu is also an outsider, a Korean in Japan who suffers from alienation in her twenties.
Miu employs Sumire and takes her on a European business trip, which ends with a vacation on a Greek island. When Miu rebuffs Sumire's sexual advances, she disappears. K travels to Greece to look for Sumire, who leaves behind two computer files that recount dreams and stories of "the other side." Has Sumire dreamed her way to some kind of Aum spirit world? Has K briefly crossed over? Not surprisingly, Murakami leaves these questions unanswered, for his book is more about mind-altering longing than literally breaking through the mirror that his characters believe keep worlds separate.

Sputnik Sweetheart is a sometimes tender, too often banal story of young love that lavishes attention on its characters' feelings and leaves fuzzy the literal worlds they occupy. The disappearance plot seems laid on to ratchet up "other side" speculation and to use the author's travel information, some of which is simply wrong about Greece.

Even if Sputnik Sweetheart were better, more obviously the work of its experienced author than its mooning narrator, releasing the book with Underground might still have been a mistake. Miu says she has no interest in fiction because "it's all made up." The sweethearts Murakami has made up seem like figments—authorial displacements—next to the people he interviewed. Only in the last thirty pages, when K returns to Japan, does the novel begin to have the workaday texture and emotional purchase of the interviews.

Sputnik Sweetheart presents its characters as orbiting earth and each other, in communication but not in contact. After spending years composing Underground, perhaps Murakami needed to let his imagination rise. I wish it had found a more substantial vehicle, say a space-station novel, one peopled with adults, even if crazed adults like those in Aum.
Author Michael Anft  
Date 2001  
Media Baltimore City Paper  

Perhaps the most typically "Western" of a modern, fecund batch of Japanese writers, Haruki Murakami has jury-rigged a style from the subterranean preoccupations of Don DeLillo, the geography of catastrophic relationships laid bare by Raymond Carver, and the hellish, quasi-sci-fi specters of Stephen King. And yet, despite all his influences (which includes a pop-culture fetish;
one of his novels is titled Norwegian Wood), Murakami is never static or prone to empty flattery. The ambitious author loaded up his 1997 shotgun marriage of a masterpiece, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, with Eastern-tinged metaphysics, pop-cult references, fresh and unlikely characters, and briskly paced storytelling. At its heart--as in almost all Murakami fiction--was a pervasive disconnectedness. His characters don't so much "relate" as circle each other, dreams unfulfilled, love unreturned, unblissfully unaware of what others are feeling.
Thus, the title image of Murakami's new novel, Sputnik Sweetheart, is fitting. Like the Soviet satellite, the inhabitants of Murakami's not-quite-bizarre love triangle are stuck in their own orbits. The story's heroine, Sumire, wonders why the Soviets named their space device Sputnik, which in Russian means "traveling companion": "It's just a poor little lump of metal, spinning around the earth." The edgy and wanting Sumire, her lonely friend K, and Sumire's love interest, Miu, have their metallic exteriors, while the soul of an engine churns inside them.

For the bookish, sensitive K, a schoolteacher who has loved Sumire secretly since their days together at college, she represents a freedom of expression he can never attain. K loves Sumire for her beauty, her ambition to write novels, and her otherness--a fresher, more vibrant version of the aloneness and alienation he feels. Yet he never tells her. Instead, he ends up as her adviser for the relationship she is trying to build with her first and only love interest, Miu, an older professional woman.
Sumire, new to the ways of love, allows time to take its course, hoping that she and Miu will deepen their relationship on a trip to Greece. But Miu has a past that includes a harrowing night spent in an amusement park during which she lost her libido, among other things. Like the unloved Sumire and emotionally stunted K, she is incomplete.

As usual, Murakami's almost-breezy narrative carries us along through pages of otherwise unremarkable plot with incredible, entertaining ease. Such interior portraits could become banal in the hands of a writer less assured or less trusting of his audience.

Ultimately, though, Murakami throws us into a metaphysical black hole with an ending that seems forced and tacked-on. One of the few missteps in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was its scattered, loose-ended closing. In Sputnik Sweetheart, Murakami tries the tied-up-in-a-bundle (but just a little loopy) ending--and it falls flat.

Date May 17, 2001  
Media The Economist  
  Tokyo Blues

GIRLS who think they are lesbians. Boys who think they are in love with them. Random, anonymous couplings in pay-by-the-hour hotels. Mysterious disappearances and equally unexplained sadness, even madness—such is the gloomy psychological landscape in which Haruki Murakami sets his novels. Geographically, it is Tokyo, but it might be any of the world’s vast, unforgiving cities, where people get lost like tears in the rain and finding love is sometimes as hard as solving Rubik’s cube in the dark.
European and American fiction moved on from this kind of relentless nihilism, this fascination with “feelings of immeasurable emptiness”—not to mention a fixation with the Beatles—quite some time ago. But in Japan it is still popular, especially among a burgeoning new generation of so-called “freeters”: young people who cannot be bothered to get a full-time job because, like Mr Murakami’s latest heroine, Sumire, they can live off their parents. Translated into English and shipped back to Europe and America, this dark, if not particularly original, brew is rapidly attaining cult status in the West too.

This is not to say that the books are no good. Reading Murakami is an unsettling, disorienting experience that can leave you feeling, well, immeasurably empty. “Sputnik Sweetheart”, his latest offering to appear in English, though slighter than some of its predecessors, quickly draws you in and holds you there. It delicately sketches the misery of its (bookish but drifting) narrator, K, in love unrequitedly with a (brilliant but confused) drop-out student, Sumire, who in turn unrequitedly loves the older, enigmatic Miu. It comes as no surprise that Miu is a woman.
K, whom Sumire loves but does not desire, makes do with occasional nights with the mother of one of his pupils, who doesn’t even merit an initial. When the action abruptly switches to an unnamed island in the Dodecanese, we discover that disaffected Japanese urbanites are not really any happier there.

As for the title, what better metaphor for modern life, at least in Murakami-land, than solitary satellites drifting through space? Sometimes, if the author is to be believed, the orbit of one satellite will briefly intersect with another’s, but then off they go, alone again. Actually, that is not the way satellite orbits work—but why should a dreary matter of fact stand in the way of a good miserabilist image? Even bleaker is the narrator’s identification with Laika, the Russian dog sent into space on a Sputnik for research purposes. Is the lot of Tokyoites quite as bad as all that?