A Perfect Quest, Derailed
By Samantha Toh
The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida
As most things do, this review comes with a caveat: it is written by a person who is a sucker. I blame it on Shunji Iwai. Since his 1995 film Love Letter, the Japanese student experience is a trope that has trussed my heart up by its ventricles. To any media that deals with this subject, I am immediately generous with my time, and overly forgiving of mistakes. I have never been able to put down that cross. So Clarissa Goenawan's The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida provoked ample curiosity. University students? Angst? Repression? A whodunit to boot? Chuck it over already, I screamed across the universe.
The book checks all four boxes within the first 300 words. Ryusei Yanagi, a sophomore at Waseda, must find out why his schoolmate—and crush—Miwako Sumida killed herself. It is a simple premise, with sufficiently high stakes, to drive a reader to open the cover. But to understand the worth of The Perfect World, it must also be read within the context of Goenawan's first book, Rainbirds (2018), and not just because the synopsis tells us that they belong to the same "beautifully crafted world". The former is not a sequel to the latter. But they are, on the surface, very similar.
Both novels have the same narrative hook: a woman dies brutally, and a young man she knows must embark on a journey to solve the mystery behind this passing. Both novels are set in Japan. Both novels have a brother-sister bond as one of the story arc's primary relationships. Parental supervision is conveniently removed (we have distant parents in Rainbirds, dead parents in The Perfect World), so that the novels' young characters can act autonomously. Neither novel aspires to the pretentious peaks of literary fiction, but are written in an uncomplicated, unadorned, and deeply refreshing style. They reference the same places (Kobayashi Clinic), the same characters emerge from one book as in the other (Jin, Miwako herself). And so, their premises, their textures, behave as though they come from similar worlds.
When two novels of such closeness are released in rapid sequence by the same author, I believe that the sophomore attempt must reinvent urgently to be worth a reader's time. Nobody wants a washed-out twin; the firstborn, cruelly, should suffice. More urgently, The Perfect World was also Goenawan's chance to develop her own voice. I loved Rainbirds with my unwavering devotion to the Japanese student angst genre, but also because it was well-crafted. Goenawan embedded the appropriate cliffhangers, red herrings, and flashbacks that made you want to know more, and then some. But amNewYork's comparison to "the simple joys of early Haruki Murakami", I thought, was far too generous. In general, I feel sorry for all authors who feel passionate about any of the following: jazz, women with fetishised body parts, Japanese cigarette brands, mysteriously appearing women (or young girls), mysteriously disappearing women (or young girls), oblique references to the moon, haunted hotels, and inexplicable dream sequences… Any story with more than a few of these icons is going to feel like a Murakami wannabe.
Rainbirds, for the record, had all of the above. In The Perfect World, I wanted, more than anything, for Goenawan to cast off these tropes, and grow into her own style. After all, her debut had an effortless quality to it. It was as though each chapter laid down a few loose threads that, at the end, with a single pull, came together in a satisfying knot. The Perfect World, likewise, does a fairly good job at laying out the initial questions, building up to the central mystery of why Miwako killed herself. The novel, divided into three parts, has Ryusei narrating the first section in first person, and this is where Goenawan seeds most of the initial riddles. Some narrative meandering aside, she manages to create sufficient tension, mostly from Miwako's own odd responses to her interactions with Ryusei. Miwako, for instance, is convinced that a relationship with Ryusei "wouldn't work out", without being willing to explain why; she clearly has issues with her mother's second marriage; she lies that there is no photograph of a cat even though there is one; she disappears ahead of her suicide, then writes Ryusei letters when she is away, and in one declares that there is something she has been hiding from him, and that she will soon tell him the truth. All very odd. All marvellously curious.
It is the second section, narrated in third-person omniscient by Miwako's best friend Chie Ohno, that the process of answering these questions really takes off. The line preceding the Chie chapters sparks this narrative tension: Ryusei foreshadows, "Perhaps [Chie] knew something." It becomes rapidly evident that Chie does, and, caught between wanting to tell Ryusei and wanting to stop him from finding out "anything damaging" about Miwako, she accompanies Ryusei on a journey to the village where Miwako ended her life: Kitsuyama.
The journey is a natural extension of the novel's objective: to find out why Miwako has killed herself. This is part of the chapters' appeal. Beyond that, Goenawan's creativity shines: she invents a weekly indie zine, The Secret Diaries, which collates diary entries that, when upvoted, push their authors' next entries to the front of the following week's magazine. The Secret Diaries serves as a proxy for Chie's and Miwako's initial friendship; Chie finds out that Miwako is the top-voted diarist, MK, whose haunting entries about a "little man" that climbs between her legs and "[dances] inside her every night" give us a sense of Miwako's untold traumas. When Chie does end up connecting with Miwako in real life, their interactions are easy, endearing; it is clear that Chie's loneliness is soothed; in a few short pages, Goenawan builds a picture of friendship across high school and college that makes the Chie-Miwako dyad command a presence on the page. Chie, with her years of intimate knowledge about Miwako, seems to have paved the way to the secret that our protagonist, Ryusei, will discover.
But it is not to be. While Rainbirds uses "the quest"—one of the seven, more cleanly-defined seven basic plots—to propel itself to a disciplined conclusion, The Perfect World complicates the narrative in its third and final section, narrated in third-person omniscient by Ryusei's sister Fumi Yanagi. Bafflingly, Goenawan introduces ream upon ream about Fumi's backstory, involving childhood bullying and a family curse that allows her to see ghosts. Sure, there was already a hint of the supernatural in the Chie chapters. But I could stomach, even embrace, that; Goenawan had worked hard to create an otherworldly atmosphere in Kitsuyama, and so the magical realism she introduces into those pages becomes believable. But Fumi's ghost-sighting superpower is developed suddenly, and seems unrelated to the first three-quarters of the novel. So it felt like I had begun, in the third section, a completely different novel altogether, one that was really about Fumi's tragic past, not Miwako's.
This detour is what disappoints. Goenawan loses track of the novel's point, and the story stops moving forward. It wallows instead in scenes about the first ghost Fumi sights, Fumi's childhood tormentors, Fumi going to a school reunion with said tormentors, and her work pouring drinks for men who refuse to acknowledge her gender identity. Goenawan introduces new characters—Ruri, and sudden showtime for Fumi's parents—before wrapping up Miwako's story (which should have been the novel's entire purpose) in seven pages. Seven pages, narrated at us, and without Ryusei even in the scene! It does not matter whether Fumi's story is or is not well told. That it appeared, clunky, in the last pages of the book, mostly tangential to everything the novel had been building up to, is what sounded the death knell: the solemn sound marking the end of my patience. That I was appalled by the sudden turn of plot needs no further elaboration; it was a waste of Goenawan's inventiveness, and all her painstaking plotting, that came before it.
You might also ask, what of my wish for Goenawan to depart from all things Murakami? Did she, at least, break through? In that respect, The Perfect World fared better than Rainbirds. There were only echoes. The "transparent life" of Chie Ohno and the repeated use of the word "colourless" to describe the unnoticed and alienated reminded me of Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. The story arc around Miwako's lost cat, Tama, echoed Kumiko Okada's lost cat in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. The "little man" that creeps into the body of diarist MK feels like 1Q84's little people (although I actually think Goenawan did it better). Certainly, to nod to the great writers of our time is something that writers do. This time, it did not seem excessive.
But just as the minor flaw of imitating Murakami did not discolour my enjoyment of Goenawan's first novel, this minor saving grace could not redeem The Perfect World. If I overcome my disappointment, it will only be because my desire for Japanese student narratives is insatiable, and, left with few alternatives, I pick up Goenawan's next hit. I return to one of The Perfect World's opening scenes, with a goukon, with the standard tropes of flirt, desperado, and the stand-offish, handsome nerd, waiting to meet their girls on an arranged blind date. Wrapped in a fleece in this year's tepid Tokyo winter, the dregs of tea cooling as I flipped open the pages, it was so obvious: I was here, ready to be suckered. It would have been so easy to take my heart. But Goenawan did not.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 2 Apr 2020