by Haruki Murakami (Knopf, $23.00)
JAPANESE NOVELIST Haruki Murakami has made a name for himself writing hodgepodge novels that defy classification, freely incorporating elements of hardboiled mystery, sci-fi, Kafka's nightmare territory, and pop-culture riffing.
But over the course of his seven novels that have been translated and released stateside, it's become apparent that he borrows from himself more than from any previous literary figure. The world-weary narrator, a self-conscious and creative adolescent girl, doppelgangers, alternate realities, and more mysterious loose ends than the final season of Twin Peaks all turn up again in his latest novel, Sputnik Sweetheart, this time serving to tell a simple story of unrequited love: Our narrator, who goes to pains to portray himself as an average guy, is head over heels for an aspiring novelist. She claims to know nothing of desire—until she meets and falls in love with a middle-aged woman, and tells our frustrated narrator all about it. Many mysterious occurrences and revelations ensue. These head-spinning, trippy happenings will seem familiar to Murakami fans, as if the author pulled them from his archive of the bizarre.
A great book can certainly be assembled from Murakami's wealth of material—but, unfortunately, he doesn't choose the aces from his trick deck. The voice of earlier work like Dance, Dance, Dance was masterful—possibly the narrator you'd most want to meet for drinks since Raymond Chandler was spinning his tales of Marlowe. The narrator's keen eye, non-bitter detachment and irony, and sense of humor were reason enough to read the book. Some qualities of the prototypical Murakami narrator surface here, but K (whose single letter name only appears once, near the end of the book) is altogether more serious and earnest—and quite a bit less funny—than earlier narrators.
Another card it would be exciting to see Murakami play again is the use of the past. One of the best surprises of his epic The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was his actual engagement of history. The stunning, gritty flashbacks to World War II effectively balanced out the author's usual apolitical, dreamy realm. But, disappointingly, he has not ventured back to that solid ground since—and Sputnik Sweetheart may be his most ethereal work yet.
While he's fully capable of evoking physical places—the Greek island where the book ends up is skillfully portrayed—he seems far more interested in dreamscapes, and, as the book continues, he places more importance on them. He indirectly mentions the difficulty in writing about dreams in a journal entry from the aspiring novelist: "They say it's a dangerous experiment to include dreams (actual or otherwise) in the fiction you write. Only a handful of writers—and I'm talking the most talented—are able to pull off the irrational synthesis you find in dreams." Murakami's own irrational synthesis is convincing, but it fails to connect back to the real world.
The self-reflexive quality of the book—including a character with literary aspirations—is actually something new for Murakami, and the advice on writing provides an interesting insight into his view of the craft. As with the dream comment, however, one wishes he followed a little more closely the tricks of the trade. The narrator's meditations on loneliness would have more power if they were based on reality, rather than ethereal, supernatural experiences.
In another part of her journal, the young writer character states, "Of course I'm not writing a novel here. I don't know what to call it. Just writing. I'm thinking aloud, so there's no need to wrap things up neatly." Similarly, Sputnik Sweetheart has the feel of a wistful contemplation, floating in space like the satellite to which the title refers. But if Murakami wants to keep his books from becoming a New Age mess, he needs to bring the orbit in a bit closer.