After Dark by Haruki Murakami

After Dark
by Haruki Murakami
Knopf, 208 pp.
CLR [rating:4]

Who Are We?

“Through the eyes of a high-flying bird,” we, the readers, and “we” the first person plural narrator of Haruki Murakami’s new novel After Dark, swoop down upon a city at four minutes before midnight. The city is Tokyo, and the time is the present. In fact, the time is so much the present that chapter breaks and page-headings inform us of its passage: from 11:56 p.m. when the novel begins, until its close at 6:52 a.m.

Place and scene are indicated with terse, script-like brevity: “We are inside a Denny’s”… and a few pages later, “The interior of the same Denny’s as before.” Several pages of dialogue pass with nothing more descriptive than the names of the characters followed by a colon and the words they speak. With these and other abbreviations of the narrative form, Murakami seems to insist upon the reader’s remove from After Dark. We, the reader, are kept at a distance, yet “we” the narrator are everywhere: “We look. We listen. We note odors. But we are not physically present in the place, and we leave no traces. We follow the same rules, so to speak, as orthodox time travelers. We observe but we do not intervene.”

Readers of Murakami’s 1993 collection of short stories, The Elephant Vanishes may recall the story, “Sleep”. In this vividly creepy tale (written in the first person singular typical of Murakami’s work) the narrator cannot sleep and has no desire to do so. She’s the wife of a boring dentist, the mother of their young son, and she finds her dull routines and stifling domestic life dramatically challenged by an unaccountable sleeplessness. She reads Anna Karenina compulsively and nibbles chocolate with the ecstatic pleasure she enjoyed before her marriage. Hers is no mere case of insomnia, but something else, something inexplicable. With its terrifying conclusion, “Sleep” now feels like a first foray into the broader districts that After Dark inhabits…

Eri Asai has exactly the opposite condition from the narrator of “Sleep”: she never wakes. Eri is the “sleeping beauty” at the very center of After Dark and her unaccountable sleep, “is not normal”. In the stillness of her bedroom, “we” will adopt “the vantage of a camera”, and this camera observes her and the room with a voyeur’s attentions. At least until the camera “moves in on” an unplugged TV set, which begins transmitting static-laced images of a “masked” figure: a man seated in chair, alone in a large, fluorescent-lit room. Later, Eri herself will cross the boundary between her bedroom and the screen. As for her sleep, the narrating voice assures us pragmatically, “Consciousness — or its absence is of no concern as long as the functions for sustaining life are maintained.”

Well, maybe… But consciousness, or its absence is very much the concern of After Dark, where a neon-bathed Tokyo is described in an opening passage by way of a lengthy biological metaphor. This city of over twelve million people is a “single collective entity created by many intertwining organisms”.

The first and most engaging of the intertwining organisms we meet and spend time with in After Dark is Mari Asai, Eri’s 19-year old little sister. We first see her in a second-story Denny’s, reading a large book whose title we will never learn, her Boston Red Sox cap and varsity jacket within reach, wearing yellow sneakers and a hooded gray parka, nursing a cup of coffee. Mari conveys something of the awkward sensitivity of that literary icon of alienated youth, Holden Caulfield — and it’s somewhat reassuring to see that growing up hasn’t changed so much in over 50 years, and that it crosses both gender and cultures.

But with After Dark, Murakami gives us a watcher in the sky, not a catcher in the rye; and “we” will observe other characters for other purposes through the long night of this novel. Nearly as soon as we meet Mari, we meet Tetsuya Takahashi meeting Mari. Takahashi is a young man with a horn (a trombone in fact) who’s been playing American jazz with friends in a nearby abandoned building. Mari and Takahashi will meet and part and meet again, and their budding friendship (with the hint of something deeper to come) feels like the soul of the book. Initially guarded, increasingly revealing, their conversations are both endearing and profound. Beginning with his first novel, Norwegian Wood (1987), Murakami has displayed a confident ear for conversation. They are as natural as any in literature, and After Dark is especially filled with talk.

As the story continues, “we” follow Mari meeting Kaoru, Komugi and Korogi, the three graces of the “Alphaville”, a so-called “Love Hotel” that takes its name from Goddard’s classic existential science fiction cum detective film. Murakami’s Alphaville is ironically (if you know the movie; and if you don’t, the novel itself makes the irony clear) where anonymous partners rent rooms for anonymous sex. But tonight, the night of After Dark, it’s where a young Chinese prostitute has been cruelly beaten. We’ll soon know who committed this crime, and his story too will intertwine with the “collective entity”.

Still, it’s Mari Asai who comes closest to being the protagonist of these pages, and her relationship to her sister is where the novel begins and ends. This relationship — Mari, plain and studious; Eri, “gorgeous” and shallow — is our first intimation of where After Dark is really looking. Takahashi addresses the question to Mari this way: “I wonder how it turns out that we all lead such different lives. Take you and your sister, for example. You’re both born to the same parents, you grow up in the same household, you’re both girls. How do you end up with such wildly different personalities?” Here is After Dark‘s central preoccupation: different lives and different states of being, this side and the other side, within ourselves and between ourselves and other people. In a novel where characters leave rooms while their reflections linger behind in mirrors, we know we’re in some kind of Wonderland, though not the “hard-boiled” kind of an earlier Murakami title – Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

Takahashi, who plans to give up music and study law, tells Mari about the time he spent in courtrooms, watching the trials taking place there like so many free movies at a multiplex theater. “I started seeing it like this,” he tells her, “that there really was no such thing as a wall separating their world from mine. Or if there was such a wall, it was probably a flimsy one made of papier-mâché.” Takahashi wonders about the two sides of this wall, “maybe it’s that the other side has already managed to sneak its way inside of us, and we just haven’t noticed.” These are themes familiar to Murakami’s work, though Takahashi concludes by stating what many readers might say when trying to describe them, “It’s hard to put into words.”

The genius of Murakami’s art is that he manages “to put into words” the most elusive qualities at the borders of our interior/exterior lives. Like rapidly vanishing dreams we try to recall upon waking, as meaning slips the grasp of memory, Murakami actually captures the landscapes within ourselves, and breaks through the wall between quotidian consciousness and ineffable unconsciousness.

After Dark is a novel that visits and observes the two sides of the mind; halves that combine to make us wholly human. If questions are unavoidable, Murakami suggests that answers aren’t truly available — only our imperfect questions, like a bird in search of a cage, to borrow Kafka’s wonderful image, go forth into a silent Universe. “No one answers our questions,” says the voice of After Dark. “Our question marks are sucked, unresisting, into the final darkness and uncompromising silence of the night.”

If the narration of After Dark is sometimes awkward, and Murakami’s familiar interests (‘50’s American jazz, unusual ears, pop-cultural icons, cats) feel too expected, this brief and crafty novel holds many enduring gifts for thoughtful readers. Anyone who’s enjoyed the author’s consistently entertaining and provocative work will recognize with pleasure and puzzlement After Dark‘s demanding artistic inquiry: “Who are we?”

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