After Dark is my first read for the Japanese Literature Challenge which is taking place from now until the end of March. This is the second of Murakami’s books that I have read after being impressed with the languid Norwegian Wood.
After Dark has a similar ambience to Norwegian Wood. It is a dream-like blend of the mundane and the metaphysical, making up for a lack of plot with incredible atmosphere.
Time moves in its own special way in the middle of the night. You can’t fight it.
Just before midnight, we meet a young woman, Mari, smoking and reading a book in a coffee shop. Before the book finishes, at dawn, she will cross paths with Takahashi, a trombonist; Kaoru, a tough but big-hearted manager of a love hotel called Alphaville; a Chinese prostitute who has been beaten up and robbed by a man called Shirakawa and, as is typical of Murakami, several cats.
While Mari’s quiet night has been hijacked by incident, her beautiful model sister Eri is asleep in bed. This is no ordinary sleep. Eri has been sleeping for the past two months, rising only to eat and use the bathroom. She has become a self-styled Sleeping Beauty who is trying to escape from reality. But strange things are happening in Eri’s bedroom. An unplugged television sparks to life broadcasting the image of a room where a man in a blank mask sits. As the night progresses, Eri will be transported into this room without knowing why or how.
After Dark is written, quite strikingly, in the first person plural. At times the ‘we’ is simply an observer, at others the voice feels like a film camera, tracking the action but never able to pierce the fourth wall.
It’s a narrative choice that works well as After Dark, at its core, is a novel about the interconnectivity and duality of human lives, exploring how individuals – despite living wholly distinct existences – will cross paths and impact one another’s lives; directly or otherwise. This theme is played out most clearly in the relationship between Mari and her sister Eri who on the surface could not seem more different. Mari is a quiet and bookish student who wants to be a translator while Eri is a beautiful model, interested only in handbags, diets and how she looks. Mari is awake at night on the streets of Tokyo precisely because Eri is asleep, but which of the two is in most danger remains to be seen.
Metaphors of duality abound, reflections remain in mirrors after a person has left the room while Eri finds herself trapped on the wrong side of a television screen, on the inside looking out. The theme is echoed structurally as the book’s short chapters swap back and forth between what is happening in Mari’s awakened world and what is happening to Eri as she sleeps.
Commuter trains of many colours move in all directions, transporting people from place to place. Each of those under transport is a human being with a different face and mind, and at the same time each is a nameless part of a collective entity. Each is simultaneously a self-contained whole and a mere part.
As you would expect with Murakami, the narrative is filled with ambiguities, with many of the subplots remaining unresolved. Why has the seemingly upstanding business man Shirakawa beaten up a prostitute and stolen her things? We learn little about him. A minor character is running from something, but we never find out what. Suspense is built up, but no pay-off is offered. And the most important question about the nightmarish events happening to Eri as she sleeps are left completely to our own interpretation. Eri’s chapters are wonderfully exocative and extremely creepy but can to often jolt the the reader from the main story, as if chapters have been inserted from a different book. Eri’s chapters are more metaphysical and keep us guessing, but often just leave the reader with a lack of resolution.
Still, with Murakami, it is never about the destination but always about the journey and After Dark is an interesting experiment in tone and mood where the less it spells out, the more it evokes. Jay Rubin expertly translates the changes in mood from the mundane to the poetic and the fantastical.
In After Dark as dawn breaks, connections are re-established and a blossoming romance is underway, suggesting that the only way we can survive in this world is by focusing on the experiences that we collectively share. Murakami is definitely an intriguing prospect and I look forward to reading more of his work.
READ ON: BOOK
NUMBER REMAINING: 444
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!