After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami alternates capacious novels that move in and out of the material and Shinto spirit worlds with low-key, quieter meditations that function as philosophical mood pieces.

After Dark falls into the latter category. It’s like an understated Bruce Springsteen album that arrives between E Street Band opuses. As such, it doesn’t take in the full breadth of Murakami’s dynamic range. For that, you’ll have to go to either his mind-blowing masterwork, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1998), or the nearly as good Kafka on the Shore (2006).

To keep up the American pop culture analogy — which seems fitting, since the Japanese novelist operated a suburban Tokyo jazz club before he became a writer, and is just as likely to reference Love Story or Hall and Oates as he is Dostoevsky or Bach — After Dark exists in the same middle-of-the-night netherworld as Martin Scorsese’s 1985 film After Hours.

In fact, the slim novel could more aptly be titled After Midnight, because all but four minutes of it take place at night after the stroke of 12. The rest of the world is asleep, but Murakami’s cast of characters are wide awake amid a Tokyo “amusement district.”

There’s Mari Esai, a bespectacled student in a Boston Red Sox cap; Tetsuya Takahashi, a scruffy jazz trombone player with a hankering for chicken salad; Kaoru, a former female professional wrestler who manages a love hotel, Alphaville, that shares a name with Mari’s favorite Jean-Luc Godard movie; and Shirakawa, a cipher of a salaryman for the mysterious Veritech corporation who listens to Scarlatti cantatas while doing situps during his graveyard shift.

They’re all wide awake in dreamland — that is, except for Eri Esai, Mari’s beautiful and troubled sister, who is not only asleep this particular evening, but has been for weeks. And therein lies the trouble with After Dark.

It’s not the implausibility issue. Otherworldly things often happen in Murakami novels — cats speak, fish fall from the sky, devilish figures appear in human form as Colonel Sanders. And characters often seek to connect to an alternate universe to try to make sense of the here and now.

So it’s not entirely unexpected when the television in Eri’s bedroom springs to life of its own accord, a man with no face takes shape on the fuzzy screen, and pretty soon Eri gets sucked into a parallel universe inside the TV.

The problem is that while the adventures of the wide awake in After Dark are compelling, from the mystery of Shirakawa’s compulsion to violence to the coming-of-age courtship of Mari and Takahashi, the Eri sections are strangely inert — and not so eerie, after all.

After Dark‘s narrative style is overtly cinematic, and the novel sometimes reads like a screenplay. “Eyes mark the shape of the city,” the book begins. “Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from midair. In our broad sweep, the city looks like a single gigantic creature — or more like a single collective entity created by many intertwining organisms.”

And Murakami keeps cutting back between the amusement-district action and Eri’s bedroom, where there is no action at all. The novel hints at the mysterious troubles that have driven Eri into her deep sleep, but the bits of her story we hear are secondhand and nebulous. So the book becomes inert in her chapters, which I wound up skimming through, in a hurry to get back to the world of the wide awake.

After Dark is a slice-of-life snapshot that leaves most of its philosophical inquiries and plotlines unresolved. It is minor Murakami that I wouldn’t recommend as a starting point for the uninitiated — dive right into Wind-Up or Kafka for the total immersion experience. But it still contains inimitable Murakami novelistic magic to keep devotees satisfied until the next big book comes along.

RATING 5 / 10