LOST IN ORBIT: COMPARING SPUTNIK SWEETHEART AND UNDERGROUND
by Daniel Zalewski, The New York Times
Women disappear more frequently in Haruki Murakami novels than they do on stage with David Copperfield. When the Japanese writer performs the trick, however, the vanished stay vanished -- whether they are the girlfriend with the ravishing ears in ''A Wild Sheep Chase'' or the tormented wife of ''The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.'' As predictable as this trope has become in Murakami's fiction, it never fails to unnerve. That's because the women that his protagonists search for so fruitlessly aren't mere missing persons. They have been lifted off the boards of reality and carried into the fly space of dreams.
Murakami's new novel, ''Sputnik Sweetheart,'' his seventh to be translated into English, offers an eerie variation on his favorite theme. The narrator, a schoolteacher identified only as ''K,'' pines for a beguiling young woman named Sumire -- a bohemian writer who calls him from phone booths at 4 a.m. to share her latest deep thoughts. Sumire herself, however, secretly lusts after another woman, Miu, a beautiful wine importer who seems impermeable to her friend's desire. Murakami's fiction is full of characters whose mismatched erotic valences prevent them from coming together. But in Sumire he has created someone fatally determined to rip through the ''translucent veil'' separating her from the person she loves.
Characters in novels tend to change incrementally; Murakami's shed personalities more easily than tears. That's what happens with Sumire, whose ardor propels her to remake herself in Miu's image. She replaces her thrift-shop suits with chic dresses. Her messy hair turns sleek. She abandons writing to become Miu's personal assistant. Soon after, she confides to K that she has ''this strange feeling I'm not myself anymore.'' But Murakami, a master of understatement, describes Sumire's extreme act of self-obliteration as if it were ordinary. The ''old, outrageous Sumire,'' he writes, simply melts away ''like a chunk of ice left out in the sun.''
Having virtually merged into one, the two women travel together to a remote Greek island. One night, Sumire at last approaches Miu sexually. It's a disaster; Miu fails to become aroused. Sumire is devastated. Is she doomed to remain Miu's sputnik, circling around her in an orbit of isolation? Or can she somehow crash into Miu, even if it means burning up in the process?
The next morning, Sumire is nowhere to be found -- and the novel suddenly becomes a weird homage to Michelangelo Antonioni's ''L'Avventura.'' Like that of Anna, who in the film vanishes one night while visiting a tiny Mediterranean island, Sumire's disappearance defies rational explanation. But unlike ''L'Avventura,'' which never unravels its central mystery, Murakami does hint at a solution. And that solution is breathtakingly freaky.
The key clues are amassed by K, who arrives from Japan to search the island while Miu seeks help in Athens. Inside Sumire's suitcase he finds a computer disk containing a chilling account of a summer Miu once spent in a Swiss village. One day, Sumire's story goes, young Miu meets a handsome Spaniard whose sexual intimations leave her flustered. Sometime later, she takes a nighttime ride on the town's Ferris wheel. Peering out of her gondola into her nearby apartment window, she is shocked to see the Spaniard lying naked on her bed -- violently making love with a beautiful Asian woman. That woman is herself.
She passes out, and awakes the next morning, never to see this ''other'' Miu again. As she says in Sumire's account, ''I was split in two forever.'' It may sound absurd, but in Murakami's fiction, mental fissures crack as loudly as broken bones. In Miu's case, Sumire's story concludes, her sexual self was so incompatible with her composed persona that it bolted. ''I was still on this side, here,'' Miu says. ''But another me, maybe half of me, had gone over to the other side.'' Wandering the island alone, K puzzles over the enigma. Having learned her friend's secret, has Sumire gone over to ''the other side'' to find ''the lost part of Miu''? Somewhere behind the scrim of reality, has she at last captured the woman she adores?
In Murakami's increasingly astral scenarios, the human self has become a disturbingly malleable thing. As with Sumire, it can change beyond recognition. As with Miu, it can snap in two. It can jump, ''Being John Malkovich''-style, from one body to another. Through force of will, it can enter other dimensions. In the wondrous ''Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,'' a lonely man named Toru crawls down to the bottom of an empty well, hoping the concentration brought on by sensory deprivation will help him ''to leap from one reality to another.'' It works; like Sumire, who succeeds in ''entering the world of dreams,'' Toru is able to escape ''the container that held me'' and ''break through the barrier'' of everyday perception.
To some readers, such talk of ''the other side'' will sound like the musings of a fortuneteller, not a novelist. But Murakami has an unmatched gift for turning psychological metaphors into uncanny narratives. Haven't we all felt, at moments of emotional upheaval, that we were not the same person we were yesterday? And found refuge from daily life in our dreams? In Murakami's books, the quiet rumblings in the back of our minds are allowed to erupt; his stories delicately track the lava flow.
''Sputnik Sweetheart,'' though less ambitious than ''The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle'' (which folds a devastating account of Japan's occupation of Manchuria into its paranormal plot), offers an elegant distillation of Murakami's cool surrealism. Like a de Chirico painting, the book captures a reality ''one step out of line, a cardigan with the buttons done up wrong.'' It is less raucous than his early novels, with their incessant pop culture references. At this more mature stage in his career, Murakami speaks in a subtler language, one that blankets the internal and external world with melancholy. As he writes: ''Who can really distinguish between the sea and what's reflected in it? Or tell the difference between the falling rain and loneliness?''
If Sumire flees the real world at the end of ''Sputnik Sweetheart,'' Murakami himself returns to it with a vengeance in ''Underground,'' his first nonfiction book. Just as his fiction owes debts to Kafka and Chandler, ''Underground'' borrows its method from a Westerner: Studs Terkel. It is a collection of edited interviews by Murakami with people connected to the deadly 1995 gas attack on Tokyo's subway system by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. The first half focuses on survivors, who detail the effects of sarin -- one commuter remembers seeing people ''panting, gasping, bloodstained pink foam coming out of their mouths'' -- and describe the often dramatic impact the trauma had on their lives. (One survivor asked his wife for a divorce the very next day.) But as with the parade of interviews conducted with Oklahoma City survivors, such stories begin to blur when amassed together.
One surprise, however, is how many survivors express puzzlement instead of fury at the cult. Although most agree that the Aum members should be punished, a fair number find it hard to think of them as criminals. ''They don't live in this world,'' one woman says, ''they're from another dimension.''
The second, more memorable half of ''Underground,'' which consists of conversations with Aum members, fleshes out this theme. Like ''Sputnik Sweetheart,'' which begins with a straightforward love-triangle plot before developing an odder geometry, the cult members describe humdrum personal histories that suddenly lurch into the bizarre. A good student with a healthy interest in Swedenborg becomes consumed with devising ''a method to prove Buddhism mathematically.'' A pensive schoolteacher intrigued by Zen Buddhism abruptly abandons his students to help build giant air filters for the Aum compound. In what sounds like a dark parody of Sumire's story, a former member explains that ''Aum created people who had discarded their Selves.''
Such echoes suggest one reason that Murakami became fascinated by Aum. In many ways, the cult members are sinister doppelgängers to his own characters. Like Sumire, they've decided to ''live in a fiction.'' And while these mental expeditions are to be relished in a novel, Murakami realizes that, when taken off the page, such dreams become nightmares. One can imagine the shudder that went through Japan's best novelist when an Aum member made this sad confession to him: ''My consciousness had gone over to the other side and I couldn't get back.''
Daniel Zalewski is an editor at The New York Times Magazine.