Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cover story

I finished Sputnik Sweetheart, and I greatly enjoyed it.

But at about the halfway mark, I started periodically checking the back cover, thinking: this is not the story I thought I'd bought into. Not quite.

The back cover reads like this:

Haruki Murakami, the internationally bestselling author of Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, plunges us into an urbane Japan of jazz bars, coffee shops, Jack Kerouac, and the Beatles to tell this story of a tangled triangle of uniquely unrequited loves.

A college student, identified only as "K," falls in love with his classmate, Sumire. But devotion to an untidy writerly life precludes her from any personal commitments–until she meets Miu, an older and much more sophisticated businesswoman. When Sumire disappears from an island off the coast of Greece, "K" is solicited to join the search party and finds himself drawn back into her world and beset by ominous, haunting visions. A love story combined with a detective story, Sputnik Sweetheart ultimately lingers in the mind as a profound meditation on human longing.


Firstly, "urbane" — not so much. Perhaps what we see of Miu's Japan may be called urbane, but she would be the only character with any measure of polish. (However, her style is strong enough that I find myself suddenly wanting to buy fashion magazines; I want to be urbane.)

Jazz bars? None in this book. No jazz either, except for the Dizzy Gillespie glasses and a reference to Bobby Darin. I don't think that counts.

Coffee shops? I counted 3. None serve to provide atmosphere. Twice they are invisible backgrounds for a conversation — characters go in, they talk. I couldn't tell you the first thing about them — size, clientele, are they upscale? are there cigarette butts on the floor? brightly lit? quiet? I have no idea. (Oh, right. In one of these coffee shops, an Astrud Gilberto song is playing. A bossa nova. I guess that counts as a bit of jazz. But still, this is a coffee shop, not a jazz bar.)

The other instance, K tells us he stopped off at a coffee shop for around an hour and read a bit to kill some time before going off and doing whatever. A café in Rome and a couple in Greece also come into the story but only as incidentally as the coffee shops.

Jack Kerouac. OK. There's Jack.

The Beatles — none. There's one mention of Huey Lewis & the News, but definitely no Beatles. A fair bit of classical music though.

"A college student." This is a bit tricky. He was a college student back when he met Sumire, but that was 3 years ago. When exactly he realized he was in love with her I do not know. He covers the "college" part in, like, half a page. I'm not convinced this is an accurate representation of the story. Definitely merits rewriting.

"Classmate"? No. Fellow student. They met at a bus stop.

"[F]inds himself [...] beset by ominous, haunting visions." Count the continuing, pervasive sense that something bad has happened (with one scenario in particular returning to his mind). Count one haunting "experience" — "vision" is too sensorially narrow, and denies the plausibility of its actually having happened, which I believe it did. So I'd have to say "beset" is the wrong word here, and also "visions," and I'm not too happy with "ominous" either.

All of which has made me little bit angry. The whole description on the back cover is a shoddy piece of work.

It was a thoroughly entertaining novel regardless, but I'm a bit disappointed about the jazz bars. The promise of jazz bars was one of the selling points. I'd love to read about jazz bars, I thought, maybe while listening to some jazz.

(Haruki Murakami's website has a neat section that covers the music in his books.)

The book was lovely, though. Not nearly so rich as the The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. While Sputnik Sweetheart still messes with your sense of what's really happening, versus is this a dream or some alterreality, it's a pretty light read.

"You know, I've never thought I wanted to be somebody else," Sumire blurted out once, perhaps urged on by the more-than-usual amount of wine she'd imbibed. "But sometimes I think how nice it would be to be like you."

Miu held her breath for a moment. Then she picked up her wineglass and took a sip. For a second, the light dyed her eyes the crimson of the wine. Her face was drained of its usual subtle expression.

"I'm sure you don't know this," she said calmly, returning her glass to the table. "The person here now isn't the real me. Fourteen years ago I became half the person I used to be. I wish I could have met you when I was whole — that would have been wonderful. But it's pointless to think about that now."

Sumire was so taken aback she was speechless. And missed the chance to ask the obvious questions. What had happened to Miu fourteen years ago? Why had she become half her real self? And what did she mean by half, anyway? In the end, this enigmatic announcement only made Sumire more and more smitten with Miu. What an awesome person, Sumire thought.


The thing about Murakami books, you never do find out what happened to the cats.
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