[19 August 2007]
For those well versed in Haruki Murakami’s body of work, After Dark, his ninth novel to see translation into English, might best be described as an all-too-familiar gift, presented in new and unusual packaging. Stylistically speaking, the reader is immediately put off guard by two literary conventions previously unseen in Murakami’s bibliography. Firstly, the narration is conducted in the first-person plural, in an eye-in-the-sky, fourth-wall-breaking manner. Throughout the novel, “we” are able to shift our view and change our focus, in order to better observe the events taking place—just as a TV camera might. At the same time, this collective voice reminds us that we are here merely as observers, and that we are forbidden to intervene in what is occurring before us. Second, the novel, rather uniquely, takes place in real time. As the chapter breaks and page-headings frequently remind us, the entire story unfolds in a single night, between 11:56 p.m. and 6:52 a.m., and is brief enough to easily be read within such a timeframe.
Rest assured, these devices aside, After Dark is, for better or worse, quintessential Murakami, with all manner of familiar touchstones finding their way into the story. Lonely, alienated souls try to reconcile their feelings about the stifling nature of Japanese culture and the conformity it demands. Capitalism and consumer culture are omnipresent and viewed with disdain. The exquisite ordinariness of life is juxtaposed seamlessly with the fantastic. There are cats, and American pop music pipes in from every speaker.
Though all of these elements are present in the novel, they operate in the periphery and don’t speak to its essence. After Dark, at its core, is a novel about the duality, but also the interconnectivity, of society, reality, and, most importantly, human nature. This theme is established right from the very first page, where an overhead view of downtown Tokyo is compared to “a single gigantic creature—or more like a single collective entity created by many intertwining organisms.” Between midnight and dawn, we will encounter a number of dual-natured individuals, who—despite living wholly distinct existences—will cross paths and impact one another’s lives; directly or otherwise. These characters run the gamut of human personality: at one pole is the slow-witted but good natured Tetsuya Takahashi, the disheveled jazz trombonist who plans to give up his passion to pursue a law degree. At the other, the mysterious Shirakawa, a meticulous, hard working family man with a dark secret.
Of course, these themes of duality and interconnectivity are most apparent in the relationship between the novel’s two central figures, Mari and Eri Asai. On the surface, these sisters couldn’t be more different. Mari is bookish, severe and somewhat lacking in social grace. Bullied as a child, she suffers from diffidence despite the brave front she erects, and has a laundry list of complaints about her physical appearance: “I’m little, my boobs are small, my hair’s kinky, my mouth is too big, and I’m nearsighted and astigmatic.” Eri, by contrast, is both popular and beautiful. A model since middle school, she is compared to both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty over the course of the evening. That her bedroom’s sole decoration is a series of photographs of herself and her bookshelf holds mostly fashion magazines seems to suggest a vapid, self-centered attitude.
Despite these siblings’ conflicting personalities, their commonalities and the tendrils that link their lives together slowly reveal themselves before sun break. We learn that they share a confidant in Takahashi and that they both long for a closer relationship between them. Most important, we discover that these sisters’ respective journeys are intimately tied together; their relationship a homeostatic one. Mari is pulling an all-nighter because Eri cannot, or perhaps will not, awaken. And though Mari’s venture in a seedy entertainment district filled with dive jazz bars and “love hotels” seems fraught with danger, Eri is perhaps at greater risk in her own bed. Locked in a state of unnatural sleep for the past two months, Eri receives a supernatural visit from a man wearing a plastic mask located inside her television, the consequences of which could be grave.
That these story arcs are filled with ambiguities, with many subplots remaining unresolved, should come as no surprise. Much of Murakami’s recent oeuvre, most notably Sputnik Sweetheart and Kafka on the Shore, have left sizeable chunks open to the reader’s interpretation and imagination and After Dark is no exception. Suspense is ratcheted up, but fails to culminate in a satisfying payoff. Allusions are drawn, but the details are murky enough to keep us guessing. Ultimately, we are left with a feeling of unfinished business at the novel’s close. That said, After Dark is still an enjoyable read, provided one goes into it with the proper expectations. It’s the narrative journey that Murakami takes us on which is of prime importance, not the destination he leaves us at.
In this respect, he has given us an introspective novel, filled with memorable characters and an insightful view of society and ourselves.