The Sputnik Sweetheart (1999)

This novel grew out of the 1991 short story “Man-Eating Cats.”  The whole middle section is an expansion of that story.  But it’s complicated.

It’s narrated by an I, a male known to us only as K.  But, arguably, he’s not the main character.  He’s a guy in his mid-twenties teaching elementary school.  He’s in love with a girl he met in college, Sumire, who dropped out to become a writer.  She’s a total bohemian, and his best friend, and not interested in him romantically in the slightest.  But K keeps hoping.  It’s this Sumire who’s closest to a main character in this book;  K tells us her story, and often from her point of view, as a kind of third-person omniscient narrator (he’s relating things she’s told him).

Sumire falls in love, as the book starts, with a woman seventeen years older than her:  Miu, a Korean-Japanese woman who’s married to a man.  Miu runs a wine importing business and is impossibly classy, impossibly polished;  she hires Sumire as a secretary slash personal assistant, and Sumire jumps at the chance so she can be near Miu.

So what we have here is a classic love triangle.  K loves Sumire, but Sumire loves Miu, and Miu doesn’t love anybody.  Then Sumire goes to Europe on a business trip with Miu, and while they’re staying on a small Greek island, she just disappears.  K flies out at Miu’s request to help investigate.

Here’s where we get most of “Man-Eating Cats.”  We get an account (from Sumire’s earlier phone calls and then from Miu) of their days on the island.  One day, for example, at a café Sumire reads to Miu from an English language newspaper the story of an old woman who died in her house alone and was eaten by her starving cats.  Then Sumire tells of how when she was a child a cat of hers disappeared up a tree – went up and was never seen again.  Intro the theme of disappearance.

Then one night Sumire is so desperate for Miu (who has never hinted at more than friendship) that she collapses in a ball in Miu’s room, trembling and sweating.  Miu helps her into bed, Sumire makes a move, and Miu says sorry, she just doesn’t feel it.  In the morning, Miu finds that Sumire has disappeared without a trace.  Investigating, K becomes more and more convinced that Sumire has gone to The Other Side (led, as he is for a while, by mysterious music coming from the hilltop).

Part of what convinces him is a couple of files he finds on a floppy disc in Sumire’s bedroom.  Her last writings.  One recounts a dream she’s had of finding her long-dead mother but then losing her again as her mother is sucked into a hole.  The other file records Miu’s story, as Miu told it to Sumire:  why she can’t feel anything for Sumire.

It’s not out of any aversion to lesbian relations (the question of sexual identity in this book is a little fluid – Miu isn’t turned off, or on, for reasons carefully explained;  Sumire is shocked to find herself feeling lesbian attraction, and surrenders to it but doesn’t accept it as normal).  Rather, it’s because of an experience fourteen years ago.  In her early twenties, while studying to be a concert pianist (she had the potential to be world class), she lived for a summer in a small Swiss town.  One night she got trapped on a Ferris wheel overnight, and from the top she could see into her apartment off in the distance – and inside, she saw herself making love with a man who she’d already rejected.  The Miu in the apartment is enjoying it, but the Miu on the Ferris wheel feels defiled – and in fact, from that point forward she feels no sexual desire or response at all.  Nor can she play piano.  And her hair has turned snow white.  She feels that half of her – perhaps the livelier half – split off that night and went to another, parallel world – The Other Side.  And that’s it for Miu.

Sumire, in her account, notes that she’s in love with both halves of Miu, and K theorizes that when she had the chance to cross over to The Other Side, she took it.

He heads back to Japan to his job.  He’s still broken up over Sumire.  Breaks up with the girlfriend he’d been killing time with – the mother of one of his students.  The breakup signals his renewed dedication to his responsibilities as a teacher:  the kid is caught shoplifting, and K suspects it was at least in part an expression of confusion over his mother’s affair.  K realizes he can’t be both teacher and boyfriend to the mother, and he chooses teacher.  Responsibility.  He settles in for a lifetime of loneliness and thinking about Sumire.

At the very end of the book, though, Sumire calls and says she’s back.  So at least he’ll have a friend.  Nothing is said about what Sumire has been through.

It’s a light book.  I mean that in a number of ways.  It’s short, and with its exotic Greek setting and attractive young sexy main characters it’s a buoyant book.  Great beach reading.  It’s also light in tone, despite the potential heaviness of certain plot motifs and themes.  There’s a brio to the book that largely comes from Sumire:  K’s kind of depressive, but Sumire is irrepressible.  A great, and new, character for Murakami.

I don’t mean that the book is shallow.  It’s possible to give the book a shallow reading.  The Other Side business is pretty standard Murakami by now, and it’s easy to be distracted by this and think it’s just Murakami treading water in a particularly pleasant, mass-appealing way.  And I won’t say there may not be something to that.

But I’d maintain that he’s using his familiar tools in new ways, to say new things, here.  The most obvious of these is with the narrator.  Deeply into jazz, with few friends and a decidedly cool way of looking at things, without much use for arbitrary authority, he’s a typical Murakami I at first glance, but then he refuses to put himself front and center in the story.  Begs to be excused from telling us much about himself.  And indeed for much of the book he steps back and lets us be absorbed into Sumire’s tale, and through hers into Miu’s.  At the end, we do come back to K, and when we do we see the Murakami I being taken in a new direction.  He’s committing to his job.  He’s already said he never wanted to be a salaryman, and in his interaction with the supermarket security guard we can see he’s still not ready to accept Japanese society’s more authoritarian ways, but he’s dedicated to being a good teacher.  He chooses to do that with his life.  A definite post-Underground development for Murakami.

And about this Other Side business.  What makes it new here is the fact that, everywhere you turn, you have suggestions that we’re not supposed to buy the oppositeness of any two sides to anything.  We have K and Sumire joking about the distinctions between signs and symbols (signs being two-way streets, symbols not), we have Sumire insisting on the inseparability of understanding and misunderstanding, we have the idea of dreams as a realm in which distinctions are not made, are obscured and elided.  On the surface Murakami (who had seen himself called a postmodernist in print for over a decade now) is playing with the rhetoric of deconstruction (nothing knew for him, of course) – but under the surface I suspect he’s actually trying to get us to think about it.  He’s always been interested in the idea of opposing worlds influencing each other – the subconscious and the conscious of Hard-Boiled Wonderland being the most obvious example.  Here he’s positing that but removing the subconscious, as it were.  Forcing us to think about actual alternate planes of existence, or alternate timelines, and what metaphorical possibilities they might hold.  If Sumire hadn’t come back in the end, then we’d have been left with the same vision as in old Murakami:  two worlds of endless Otherness, where crossing from one to the other inevitably means loss.  But she does come back to tell the tale (even if we don’t get to hear it), suggesting that Miu’s not irrevocably split, that Sumire and she might have a happy ending.  And speaking of happy endings, note how carefully the end of this echoes the end of Norwegian Wood – a nighttime phone call out of the blue – but how much more hope there is in this ending, at least for one character.

And what about the distinction between K and Sumire?  In some ways they represent a bifurcation of the various roles of the Murakami I:  supercool narrator and gonzo adventurer.  Which in turn suggests some deep identity between them.  As do other details, such as their overly-enthusiastic way with metaphor.  In Sumire this is the ambitious young writer at work – a loving parody, and perhaps self-parody, by Murakami.  But then why does K talk the same exact way?  Certainly it explains why he’s attracted to her so much – they communicate the same way – but doesn’t it also, if you’re in a deconstructive mood, suggest that maybe there’s some blurring between them as characters?

And what about Miu and Sumire’s mother?  Sumire has never gotten over the loss of her mother, and keeps having dreams about chasing her to whatever Other Side death is.  Meanwhile, not too many years after Sumire’s mother dies, Miu loses half of herself.  Are Miu and Sumire both half people?  Is Miu a substitute for Sumire’s mother?  Is Miu’s lost half self Sumire’s lost mother?

And think about Miu’s husband:  he never appears in the story, but is explained as someone who accepted a totally Platonic relationship with Miu just so he could be near her.  Sounds like K:  so at the end do we imagine K playing a similar role for Sumire?  Are we then dealing with a kind of male anxiety about female homosociality?  Rather than homosexuality, is what’s at stake the idea that men may love and even be loved by women but can never totally enter their world?

By this point in his career it had become clear that Murakami had settled into a pattern of alternating big epic novels with small tender romances.  The Hard-Boiled Wonderland / Norwegian Wood pattern.  But if there were any doubt after West of the Sun, now it’s equally clear that he’s not necessarily interested in alternating realism with surrealism.  This is as surreal, in its own sweet way, as Wind-Up Bird.

Of course, Murakami’s trying to tell us from the start how to read this one, with that sign-vs.-symbol business.  He’s hinting at a more expansive view of literary symbolism, one in which the significance of, say, Miu’s experience on the Ferris wheel, can’t be exhausted by merely expounding on what it might mean in intellectual terms.  It has a felt power, and an aesthetic role, beyond its function as an argument in a debate.

That’s certainly how I think Murakami’s fiction has always worked.  I can spin off a few pages about what I think Wind-Up Bird means in terms of Murakami’s message to the world.  But in the end it’s not that meaning that I most remember about the book.  Rather, it’s the primal power of being down in the well with Okada.  It’s the weirdly out-of-time allure of Kano Creta.

Does this book succeed in that way?  The closest moments are perhaps when K is wandering around on the hill following that mysterious music, imagining that Sumire had also followed it – a moment that connects to the later one when he lies on his back on a stone at the Acropolis and gazes up at the stars – both moments suggesting a mystic power in connecting with the ancient sources of civilization, a power that must somehow be transformative or transportative, but not in any way that can be explained.  And somehow those moments connect – because of the solitude of the ones experiencing them, perhaps? – with the haunting vision of Miu being stranded at the top of the Ferris wheel overnight, watching herself through the window.  The passivity of all of these moments, the idea of helplessly beholding something that cannot be understood, but that has, potentially, the power to sweep one away.

But can they be separated from meaning?  Put like this, we can see how Miu is beholding, literally, her Road Not Taken.  Meanwhile, on the hilltop, K has to actively resist being swept away like Sumire – presumably she didn’t resist – meaning that he and she – and again, are they two halves of the same being? – represent alternate paths.  And if Sumire comes back, does that mean they lead to the same place eventually anyway?