Sputnik Sweetheart

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A Year in Reading: Bryan Washington

1.
This year, I read a lot on my phone. That’s a habit I’ve picked up from working gigs where you stand a bunch (watching kids on a swingset, watching adult children park their cars). Some folks don’t vibe with that, but those folks don’t pay my bills, and it meant I could read in doctor’s offices and train stations and airports and noodle bars and passenger seats. I read Alexia Arthurs’s How to Love a Jamaican, Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart, Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s Heads of the Colored People, Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, Nik Sharma’s Season, Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water, R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here, Fatimah Asghar’s If They Come For Us, Katie Williams’s Tell the Machine Goodnight, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Okura’s That Blue Sky Feeling, Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read, Allegra Hyde’s Of This New World, Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop,  Anita Lo’s Solo, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, and the re-issue of Naoki Urasawa’s 21st Century Boys.

At a few points this year, I got inexplicably sick. I had strange professional developments. I traveled and I mostly stopped smoking but I drank an aggressive amount of milk tea. I gained weight. I cried, for the first time in years, after hearing Frank Ocean’s “Moon River” cover, and then again, a few months later, over something else. I also succumbed to joy. And there was, I think, this year, a pervading numbness, which isn’t even a little bit unique, so I won’t riff too much on it, and reading definitely didn’t eliminate or even diminish that ennui, but still, books provided their own heft of equal or greater emotion, and that more or less countered the void.

So I read at crosswalks. I read at the auto shop.  I read in front of the cashier, waiting (praying) for my card to clear. I read Yemisi Aribisala’s Longthroat Memoirs and Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words and all of the lyrics for Mitski’s “Be The Cowboy.” I mourned The Awl, for months, and read all of the remembrances. I read Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man, Luís Urrea’s The House of Broken Angels, Ling Ma’s Severance, and Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman. I reread Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, because I do that every year, and Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, because I think I’ll start doing that every year. I reread Diego Zuñiga’s Camanchaca, Eugene Lim’s Dear Cyborgs, and all of Paul Asta’s poems. I read everything Jia Tolentino wrote, and I reread this essay by Anshuman Iddamsetty, and this one by Vinson Cunningham, and this story by Chris Gonzales, and this story by Sheung-King. I read Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress, Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, Kate Gavino’s Sanpaku, Toshiki Okada’s The End of the Moment We Had, Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, Gengoroh Tagame’s My Brother’s Husband, Chris Ying’s You and I Eat the Same, Yukiko Motoya’s The Lonesome Bodybuilder, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, Sohui Kim’s Korean Home Cooking, Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary, and Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain.

Every last one of those got to me. I’m surely forgetting others, but I loved them all the same. And their authors will never, ever, know how much it meant.

2.
But, honestly, the main thing that stuck with me in 2018 is having read prayers. Or hopes. Whatever. I spent a good while this year in Tokyo, sort of visiting friends and sort of researching a long thing and sort of fucking around and sort of clearing my head, and a thing I did often was ride the JR line to the Meiji Shrine. It’s in Shibuya, a short walk from Harajuku Station, by this big-ass Gap and an Adidas. In the afternoons, a guy played the Hang in front of the shrine’s arches. When you walked through the gravel, past the barrels of sake, after you’d stepped under the shrine’s pillars, you could sort of amble your way to the arches, and that’s where plenty of people, from all over, left notes on votive tablets beneath an overflowing tree:

I pray my boyfriend’s parents accept me

Hopefully she comes home this year

I pray that the new job brings in enough money for the operation

This year I hope that she finds peace

I pray that his death brings us together

Stuff like that. Deeply personal things, like you’d find in a diary or a post-it stack. Some had smiley faces and cartoons. Others were written in cursive. I spotted French and English and Hiragana and Hangul and Spanish and Chinese and Arabic, and they all hung together, tied to their altar with string, sort of shaking in the wind, and if you sneezed they’d shift a bit before settling back into place.

Most afternoons, I rode the train from my place to see them. It took about 20 minutes. This year began with the absence of hope, and every week that’s passed seems to have added to that refrain, but folks had still taken—had actually bought, with currency earned by their labor—these little hunks of wood, and then they’d written down their hopes and dreams and wants, despite everything. Despite the world. That’s a little radical, when you think about it. That’s a lot of beautiful, when you think about it.

And, in a lot of ways, I think the books I read in 2018 elicited a similar emotion. No one asks us to write. There’s no assurance that anyone will see what we put down. If your advance is big enough, or the publication is halfway decent at social media, or your publicity team is swift enough, or if you’re young and white and you catch a wave then maybe they will. But they probably won’t. And we hang these words up anyway, because we have to, and we hope that someone will see them, although most of us will never know if they do, so they’ll just carry them around in their heads, the same way we will, and that’s how we’ll build a life together, just tacking up prayers.

But anyway. I’ve thought of those notes often. I hope some of them came true.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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A Rare Treat for Murakami Fans: Pinball, 1973

If you need to get your Murakami fix, but can’t stomach the idea of picking up After Dark, here’s your solution.Written in 1980, Pinball, 1973 was Murakmai’s second novel. It was published by Kodansha and has been out of print for several years, although it’s available at Amazon for a whopping $225.The book is part of the “Trilogy of the Rat” (actually four books), which begins with Murakami’s first book, Hear the Wind Sing and includes A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance (probably my favorite of his books). Apparently, Murakami refuses to allow either Hear the Wind Sing or Pinball, 1973 to be published outside of Japan, which is ironic, considering both of them are, in my opinion, far superior to either Sputnik Sweetheart or After Dark. This translation, linked below, along with Hear the Wind Sing, was done by Alfred Birnbaum for Japanese readers trying to learn English.The story is classic Murakami, before that became a bad thing. A rootless man who loves Dostoevsky spends his days looking for a hard to find part for a classic pinball machine. Mysterious twins move into his apartment. There’s a well and a cat. While it’s no masterpiece, it’s a good read for Murakami fans and those looking for a place to get started with his oeuvre.Here’s a link to a PDF of Birnbaum’s translation of Murakami’s Pinball, 1973.Bonus link: Some fan-translated short stories I stumbled on while researching this.Update 9/17: The link to the PDF has been fixed.Update 3/8/09: The link to the PDF has been fixed again!

Rootless Detachment: A Review of After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Whether or not you like Haruki Murakami’s newest novel, After Dark, will probably depend on how many of his previous books you have read. If you’ve read two or less, you may enjoy it. If you’ve read three or four, you will almost certainly find it tedious. If you’ve read five or more you’re incorrigible and nothing I say here will deter you.For my part, I’ve read so much Murakami, it has ceased to be fun. I’ve read all of his books in translation, less Kafka on the Shore and South of the Border, West of the Sun, and several of his yet to be translated books in the original Japanese. My first journey into the curious land of his prose was Norwegian Wood, and liking it, I found myself drawn to his other novels, the best of which, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Windup Bird Chronicle, and Dance Dance Dance, more than made up for the tepid performances of books like Sputnik Sweetheart.As in all Murakami novels, After Dark’s plot is irrelevant. Nothing happens for a long time, then something creepy and inexplicable happens, then the book ends for no apparent reason, leaving any semblance of story unresolved. In the past, the pleasure in the majority of these books (with the notable exception of Dance Dance Dance, which adopted the form of a supernatural thriller) came from Murakami’s almost uncanny ability to create atmosphere and capture physical longing – whether for a piece of cucumber wrapped in seaweed or for a lover’s touch – with palpable virtuosity.The problem confronting Murakami’s readers has always been that, despite his otherworldly talents, he has nothing to say. Nothing of any real interest or significance, at least. Although his stories often hint at a metaphysics of unreality, the books are mostly surface and, unlike one of his professed influences, Raymond Carver, seem to lack any insight into the human condition (or any other condition, really). Instead, they content themselves with cataloging the discontents of the modern age, particularly the alarmingly numerous forms of ennui, all of which, after three or four volumes, begin to bear a striking resemblance to one another.While this was all well and good when Murakami started his career, with After Dark it seems he has become so enamored of his own abilities that he has ceased to care whether what he has chosen to show us actually matters. Or is even interesting. The more I read Murakami, the less his work resembles genius, and the more it comes to resemble a symptom of autism or obsessive compulsion. As Murakami translator Jay Rubin notes in his biography Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, around the time Murakami finished A Wild Sheep Chase, he began to obsess over his writing, fearing that he might die before finishing the book, a thought he apparently found untenable. His anxiety led to a major overhaul of his life. He quit smoking, began to exercise regularly, changed his diet. Over time, his books have come to reflect this obsession with writing and not necessarily in a positive way. As Rubin explains it, Murakami works not because he has an idea for a book, but because he feels compelled to write. It’s suggested that he often sits at his desk, writing whatever comes to mind, until the glimmerings of a story appear. Those who are familiar with Murakami’s novels can see this process at work. Often, the first fifty to one hundred pages of his books feature characters loafing around, looking for something to do, a reflection, perhaps, of Murakami’s own mental state. The result is a presumably faithful depiction of his inner life with an ironic lack of self-awareness.After Dark is no exception: characters loaf, they engage in small talk, and something weird happens on TV (but not nearly as weird as “Flavor of Love.”) The one major departure from previous novels is the style, which is somewhat reminiscent of a screenplay. The story is told in first person plural, complete with metafictional references to points of view and what seem to be camera directions. The end result could be pitched as Eraserhead (IMDb) meets Before Sunrise (IMDb), minus the good parts. If it weren’t for Murakami’s oath to never allow his works to be filmed (which I see has been broken, with the release of Tony Takatani (IMDb)), I would wonder if the book wasn’t an attempt to salvage a failed screenplay.Until recently, a few short stories and Kafka on the Shore represented the totality of Murakami’s efforts to separate himself from the first person novel, the protagonists of which were all thinly veiled versions of Murakami himself, a cosmopolitan pasta aficionado with a love of jazz, Stendhal, and Dostoyevsky, and a cool, rootless detachment from all things Japanese. While Murakami should be applauded for his attempts to expand his range, they have, so far, only brought attention to the areas in which his work is most deficient: dialogue and his brittle attempts at symbolism, a personal mythology consisting of, among other things, cats and mirrors that does not fare well when set loose from the idiosyncratic workings of his first person narrators’ minds. The dialogue in After Dark is particularly bad, with one character addressing a girl with the line “What’s a girl like you doing hanging out all night in a place like this?” (The line is delivered in a bar and with a complete lack of irony.) Granted, the translation might be at fault, but Jay Rubin has done an admirable job with Murakami in the past, leaving us to assume the source material didn’t leave much to work with. The story’s alternations between the dully inscrutable and the ploddingly mundane seem to confirm this.All of which begs the question, where does Murakami go from here? With the combination of his enormous popularity in Japan and critical acclaim in the United States and abroad, he could never write another word and still be guaranteed a roof over his head and a place in the literary pantheon of the 20th-ish century (at least for the foreseeable future). And writing one, or even a handful, of good books puts a novelist under no obligation to produce another. Yet, if the Murakami Rubin has shown us is the real one, we can expect he will continue to release novels until the day he dies (and if one takes into account his considerable back catalog of yet to be translated works, much longer). Will he insist on sticking with what he knows or will he find some way to transfer his preoccupations and considerable skills into a broader fictional universe? When you find out, let me know.

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