I freely recognize that I’m overly sensitive to portrayals of the pet-human relationship in any kind of fiction, and I have a huge number of deal-breaking tropes. For instance, I hate when pets are put at risk to prop up an antagonist and show how very, very evil that person is. I also hate shamelessly manipulative portrayals of the loss of a pet, pushing extremely personal buttons because the storyteller knows that it works.
On the personal front, I’ve lost two dogs this year. In January, our beautiful lady finally succumbed to old age at about 18 years. Over the summer, our boy dog (who will always be our boy dog in spite of the fact that he was about 12 years old) was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which was one of the more awful surprises we’ve experienced. (On the bright side, we’ve also adopted a sweet, hilarious little dachshund-Chihuahua mix who is a constant source of joy.)
So that’s the head space I was in when I picked up this book, which is about a man who loses pretty much everything but his beloved dog. When I say that, no matter how sad this story becomes, I never felt manipulated and that I was always reassured that Murakami was coming from the best, most genuine place in his storytelling, I think I have a certain level of authority in that opinion. If you’re like me in that you’re extremely wary when it comes to sad pet stories, be reassured in the case of Stargazing Dog.
Murakami’s human protagonist isn’t in a great place. He’s lost his job, he has health problems, his daughter is in the thicket of adolescent bitchery, and his wife has decided it’s all too much and is filing for divorce. The last remaining bright spot in his life is the family dog, Happie, brought home during the daughter’s more benign years but eventually becoming the father’s most loyal and constant companion (and vice versa).
That development represents the kind of astute choices Murakami makes in crafting the narrative. He shows the evolution of the relationship between man and dog, establishing it in incremental, unexpected ways that make it more persuasive in the long run. Murakami also shares the dog’s point of view, but he takes a very restrained approach to that, keeping the animal’s thoughts on a basic level that still manages to be extremely moving.
The pair embarks on an ultimately ill-fated journey that I really can’t bring myself to describe, mostly because I don’t want to spoil anything. But Murakami uses the trip and its individual events to reassert the foundational loyalty of the human-dog relationship to the point that, no matter the sorrow they may encounter, the uplift provided by that bond is what the reader ultimately takes away at the end. That’s kind of a magnificent accomplishment. (There’s also a sequel story, “Sunflower,” which goes to some less benevolent places using the main story as a framing device. It’s fine stuff too, but its effectiveness is entirely dependent on its grounding in Stargazing Dog.)
I love Murakami’s style of illustration. It straddles that line between stylized cartooning and very human vulnerability, not unlike Fumiyo Kouno’s Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms (Last Gasp). I could have done without some bits of awkward copy editing. That’s always the case, but it’s particularly true with a story that just begs to flow effortlessly because it’s so finely crafted. The presentation is attractive overall, though.
This is an extraordinarily lovely comic. It’s sad in the best kind of ways, using sadness to make an extremely worthwhile point about a fine and enduring kind of relationship. Given where my head is on the nature of that bond, it could have been devastating, but I ultimately found it wonderfully reassuring.