Sputnik Sweetheart Michael Burgin Book Lovers

book Sputnik Sweetheart

reviewed by Michael Burgin

Published in Issue No. 52 ~ September, 2001

Reviewing a single novel by Murakami without discussing his other
works is like trying to walk up a steep embankment of newly cut grass
after a summer rain in bowling shoes. It’s difficult to keep from
slipping. Plot details and character delineation from one tale seep
into the next. You’ve encountered an inscrutable/mysterious/doomed
woman? Hm, could be A Wild Sheep Chase; Dance, Dance, Dance;
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World; Norwegian Wood; South
of the Border, West of the Sun; Sputnik Sweetheart; or The Wind-Up
Bird Chronicle.
The (always) male first-person narrator is
hopelessly/tragically/strangely in love with her? Oh, in that case, we
can rule out … um … well, none. She mysteriously disappears?
Whew. We can rule out Hard-Boiled Wonderland. A reader might
finally distinguish Murakami’s latest novel, Sputnik
, by the telling detail of “inscrutable woman whom the
narrator hopelessly loves is in love with another woman.”

I’m never quite sure how to interpret such repetition (so dependable
it’s practically a template of the author’s works). Should I view
Murakami as a modern-day Monet, painting the Rouen Cathedral over and
over in different light in an attempt to better understand his
subject? Or maybe he’s more akin to a priest chanting obscure Latin
verses over and over in an effort to rid his world of a particularly
stubborn demon. Then again, he could just be in a sustained rut.

Regardless the answer, one shouldn’t read Sputnik Sweetheart
with the aim of finding something that Murakami hasn’t done before.
Quite the opposite, the novel is most noteworthy for those further
examples it supplies of those things that he has done so well before:
there is the signature conflation of genre – here mystery,
epistolary and romance; the discomforting transformation of the
mundane into the strange; and the embedding of suggestive vignettes
that grow in significance as the novel unfolds.

This is not to say there is nothing new. Granted, the narrator, K, is
virtually indistinguishable from other Murakami narrators. Granted,
despite a few distinct incidentals of her depiction, Sumire, the
college dropout for whom K hopelessly longs, leaves less of an
impression on the reader than the objects of unrequited love in the
author’s past works. But in Miu, the mysterious, sophisticated
businesswoman for whom Sumire falls, Murakami creates a unique and
compelling character. As her past is gradually revealed, Miu threatens
to wrest reader interest and sympathy from the K and Sumire. For an
avid fan, Miu’s character alone justifies the book’s purchase.

That may take care of the avid fans, but what about the first time
readers? While it’s true that Sputnik Sweetheart will give a
reader unfamiliar with Murakami’s work a taste of the core elements of
his style, one would be better off making it the 4th,
5th or even 6th Murakami book one reads. Sputnik
lacks the vigorous narrative structure and enthralling plot
developments of A Wild Sheep Chase and Sheep Chase’s
sequel, Dance, Dance, Dance. And though, in its postulation of
other realities, Sputnik briefly passes close by Hard-Boiled
in its orbit, the proximity is not sustained
critically, as the latter presents a world much more ambitious in
concept and complete in development. Norwegian Wood is a better
love story, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle may prove his
masterpiece. In comparison, Sputnik Sweetheart strikes one more
as a short story that grew beyond its bounds or, conversely, as a
novel that lost 100 pages of development somewhere along the way.

At his best, Haruki Murakami continually confounds his reader’s
expectations. At any moment, one feels that he could go full-blown
Ionesco, abandoning surrealist tints for buckets of absurdist blues
and reds and INKlings. Yet he always pulls back just before the
breach, exercising just enough control to maintain the
integrity of the world he has created. At his worst, he’s prone to
fits of overwriting. Much is said (usually by the narrator to
himself), signifying nothing. Fortunately, Murakami’s best tends to
last for chapters and even whole works; his worst rarely lasts longer
than a page or two. This more or less holds true for Sputnik
. Granted, “less good than his best” might seem
ambiguous praise, but it’s a testament to Murakami’s craft that “less”
of Murakami is still more than what most of his contemporaries are

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Living in Nashville, TN, Michael Burgin edits for a monthly business magazine and annotates television scripts for syndication abroad. He likes writing bios in which he talks about himself in the third person.