Trying to nail down the seductive, surreal melancholy of Haruki Murakami's novels is like trying to bottle fog. His characters can be found drifting around Tokyo, checking out French new wave movies, drinking glasses of red wine, listening to Brahms on their hi-fis, reading Raymond Chandler -- almost always alone. A Murakami hero is the well-groomed guy sitting by himself at the end of the counter in an all-night coffee shop, smoking perhaps and staring off into space. Chances are he's puzzled over a recent encounter with an enigmatic woman. Chances are she's disappeared. And chances are he won't ever quite figure out what's happened to her.
"Sputnik Sweetheart" is a slim novel in comparison with Murakami's most recent opus, "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle." ("Norwegian Wood" is a very early book published in the U.S. for the first time last year.) Its unnamed narrator remains true to Murakami form, a teacher by "a process of elimination" -- he simply isn't engaged enough to try for a more demanding career. The one thing he does care about is an old college friend, Sumire, a misfit girl with literary ambitions who, much to his pain, has no feelings for him "as a man." They're close enough, though, that when Sumire finally does fall in love with her wine-importer employer -- a beautiful married woman 17 years her senior -- he's the one to hear all about it.
The first 70 pages or so of "Sputnik Sweetheart" construct this romantic triangle: He loves Sumire, Sumire loves Miu and whatever goes on in Miu's head is anyone's guess. Then Miu takes Sumire with her on a trip to Europe, and while the two women vacation on a Greek island, Sumire vanishes without a trace. Miu asks the narrator to fly out to the island and help with the search. Once there, he finds a handful of tantalizing clues: an odd conversation Miu and Sumire had about a spooked cat, a diary that Sumire kept on a floppy disk in which she writes of "entering the world of dreams and never coming out. Living in dreams for the rest of time," and, strangest of all, Sumire's transcript of a secret Miu told her, the story of how Miu's black hair turned entirely white during a single night in a little Swiss town.
Murakami knows that the most haunting tales never have all their loose ends tied up by the last page, but unlike "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," "Sputnik Sweetheart" doesn't leave too many of them unspooled and dangling. It's a tighter book, if less grand and captivating, and the point of this exercise in the uncanny feels more focused. "Why do people have to be this lonely?" the narrator asks:
I closed my eyes and listened carefully for the descendants of Sputnik, even now circling the earth, gravity their only tie to the planet. Lonely metal souls in the unimpeded darkness of space, they meet, pass each other, and part, never to meet again. No words passing between them. No promises to keep.
Back in Japan, there will be a significant moment with a kleptomaniac child and a few more surprising encounters, but the lovely, sad, eerie Murakami spell remains firmly in place, the sense of its perfectly still center inviolate. It's still impossible to nail down, but its ingredients include loneliness, longing and an undeniable and sometimes frightening thread of the miraculous woven into the very fabric of life.
Next: Another cheeky, strangely moving tour de force from a master of "experimental" fiction