It’s Japan, right around 1990. Three college guys go to meet three college girls at a small diner. One, named Ryusei, becomes smitten with a girl named Miwako. The two begin spending lots of time together, mostly reading. No matter how close they get, she refuses to go on an official date with him, saying it would never work out. In letters, she mentions having withheld the truth from Ryusei, which in Miwako’s eyes, prevented them from being together. Before Ryusei knows it, Miwako disappears, and the call comes later she’s been found dead, via suicide. Ryusei decides to set out to find out exactly what truth Miwako spoke of. You could be forgiven for thinking this was the setup to the latest story from perennial literary darling, Haruki Murakami. Instead, it’s the sophomore novel from Singapore’s Clarissa Goenawan, The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida. But while Murakami’s recurring elements are easily identified, they’re not as easily employed by a writer. The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida struggles with awkward writing, unflattering structure, and strange tonal decisions, that even the more interesting characters from the cast can’t bring to a more coherent whole.
Murakami’s tropes are no secret—he wears them proudly on his sleeve. They’ve become somewhat of a joke in the literary world. Jazz, rainy night, lost cat, interpersonal drama: Bingo! They’re so easily identifiable and time-tested, I’m surprised we haven’t seen more novels try to borrow the aesthetic. Certainly, Goenawan’s premise is Murakamian, and it’s through the setup of this establishing section that’s the most compelling of the novel. In the first section, we’re introduced to Ryusei, his older sister Fumi, and his two friends Jin and Toshi, as well as Miwako, and her two friends Chie and Sachinko. Goenawan moves fast, building suspense and laying the foundation for intrigue while adeptly intermixing different voices. So it’s a shame to see that dropped as the novel moves into the different sections.
Like Murakami’s influence, the structure is laid bare on the page. The first section is told from Ryusei’s perspective, followed by a section from the perspective of Miwako’s friend, Chie, and closes with a section following Ryusei’s sister, Fumi. While each section intermixed the character’s memories and current thoughts, I longed for the skill shown weaving Ryusei and Miwako’s voices in the opening. Instead, the novel’s construction feels like an inflated form of the outline, rather than the most elegant communication of the story.
Goenawan is not shy about dropping what doesn’t contribute, but the result feels less like cutting the fat so much as letting the plot drive. Aside from the early scene in the diner, Jin is only seen once more; Toshi doesn’t even get that courtesy. Chie ends up being one of the more nuanced and interesting characters of the novel, but her secret that Goenawan works to build is discarded once it’s shown how it relates to a secret of Miwako’s.
Chie and Ryusei become unlikely traveling companions, trekking to the remote village where Miwako spends her final days: Ryusei, searching for the secret Miwako never managed to tell him, and Chie trying to ensure that doesn’t happen.
The writing is awkward across the board. I kept re-reading descriptions, trying to understand the blocking. Even the dialogue between characters is tense, often trading subtext for text. At its best, it slips beneath the surface, nuanced enough to go unnoticed. At worst, it’s jarring enough to pull me away from the page. Beyond the writing, I found myself thinking the characters were acting, well, out of character, especially in regards to Fumi, in her perspective section which concludes the novel. Fumi is portrayed as a tough, capable woman, having become Ryusei’s legal guardian after their parents passed unexpectedly. And yet, in Fumi’s section, she finds herself taking in a strange man, who claims a tenuous connection to her landlord. It’s hard to square this version of Fumi with the strong independent woman we’ve come to know.
Beyond the awkwardness, some of the writing just didn’t sit right with me. There’s a few strange ideas about serious topics like suicide, rape, which could be cultural differences, but felt a little antiquated in 2020 (though the novel is set thirty years prior). Additionally, Ryusei’s sister, Fumi, is a trans woman. Goenawan continues to use flashbacks in her section, but in her case, chose to go so far as to change the pronouns used, and even refer to Fumi by her previous name. I can’t speak to the accuracy of the trans experience, but it left a bad taste in my mouth.
It’s in this final section where things really come off the rails. It feels as if Goenawan is racing to the finish line, unable to allow her characters or the narrative room to breathe. In a somber, brooding novel examining mourning, you’d think there’d be more of that. Instead, Goenawan feels compelled to wrap up all loose threads, providing many answers. We hear of the trauma inflicted upon the characters of the novel, though rather than conveying the peak emotional tenor, these moments most often feel contrived and unearned, more akin to a student film than art house. Not only that, but Goenawan throws in a twist so far out of left field, it’s near deus ex machina.
Let’s call it a sophomore slump. With her first novel, Rainbirds, Goenawan proved she was an adept and capable writer, but The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida doesn’t follow the same upward trajectory. Goenawan is keen to play with Murakami’s style, but she hasn’t heeded his choicest advice: not all questions need answers.
The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida
By Clarissa Goenawan
Published March 10, 2020
Ian is a writer based out of Chicago, and one of the Daily Editors at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.