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.
Recently released in a beefed-up paperwork version, Underground, Murakami's treatise/oral history on the deadly 1995 sarin gas release in the Tokyo subway by a group of doomsday die-hards, added another writer to his pantheon of influences: Studs Terkel. Dealing with a theme familiar to readers of his fiction--the lives of the alienated and unconnected Murakami tackled one of the most horrifying events in post-Nagasaki Japan in 1997 when he started writing up interviews with survivors of the Tokyo gas attack. Those oral histories led to the first version of Underground, a harrowing if hardly surprising account of the pseudo-Buddhist cult Aum Shinrikyo's murder of 11 riders and attendants and the injuring of as many as 5,000.
Aum members, who believed not only in the apocalypse but in their power to help bring it about, were not represented in Murakami's original book on the subject. In the paperback release, subsequent interviews with cultists are included, much to the book's credit. While the dozens of talks with victims show a range of responses from anger at their attackers to a surprising amount of forgiveness they become redundant, no matter how we might feel for their debilitating symptoms and ongoing nightmares.
But the author's Q&As with Aum "renunciates" reek of a misguided intelligence and imagination given life by a homicidal charlatan, the group's leader, Shoko Asahara. Murakami asks many of the hard questions of his culture Did its utter conformity lead to an annihilative backlash in the form of Aum? Are the Japanese capable of truly seeing Aum for what it is, a reaction to a consumerist country that has buried the issues of individuality and spirituality? and answers a few of them. After researching how a massacre of Japanese troops led to slaughter by their superiors during an invasion of Mongolia in 1939, Murakami writes: "I was struck by the fact that the closed, responsibility-evading ways of Japanese society were really not any different from how the Imperial Japanese Army operated at that time."
The central, underlying (and unspoken) metaphor of Underground, however, is the herd instinct. While Aum perpetrators have either been sentenced to capital punishment or sent to jail for life, millions of people daily crowd into sardine-can-jammed subway cars just as their counterparts to the West do without asking, "Why?"