So there I was in the bookstore, minding my own business, when Haruki Murakami's name came out of nowhere and hit me in the face. I had no idea that the man had a new book out! I bought it on the spot - even though I usually wait for paperback - and finished it quickly.
After Dark is short, but don't let that fool you - it's Murakami in top form. If you're interested in reading some of Murakami's quirky, surreal, post-modern prose but are wary of diving in to something huge like The Wind-up Bird Chronicle this would make for an excellent introduction.
After Dark is odd. The novel takes place after nightfall on a single long evening - there are no chapter numbers, each chapter instead prefaced by an analog clock-face displaying the time. The plot is unusual and whimsically presented at most - it's not that nothing happens, but rather that the narrator isn't interested in following events to their conclusion. Some of the characters are on the verge of complete lifestyle upheavals; others seem to exist in a sort of twilit stasis. The novel raises many questions - Why is the older sister perpetually asleep? Who is the man with no face? Why do reflections linger in mirrors after the people casting them have moved on? Don't expect answers to these questions - those are plot points, and while this novel makes room for them and uses them to set tone and timbre, it doesn't address them directly.
The hallmark of Murakami's work is just this: that while he's more than capable of creating compelling, mysterious and even haunting plot lines, his books really take place somewhere else entirely. Murakami seems to take for granted the idea that no narrative is ever really complete - so he doesn't waste time trying to create any illusions to the contrary. Rather, After Dark focuses on and works because of the playful and engaging interaction between the characters, including in some cases the narrator.
Between the pages of this book, you'll find:
- A gradual, subtle and deftly drawn budding romance between two young college students - a depressed girl who has spent her whole life in the shadow of her beautiful older sister and a jazz musician on the verge of abandoning his love for music to pursue a career in law.
- A portrait of that older sister, lovingly drawn by a narrator who emphasizes the unpassable void between reader and character. We never hear her speak - she's asleep almost the entire time, vaguely threatened by some malevolent force which we never come to understand.
- A love hotel staffed by a handful of colorful characters, from a retired professional wrestler whose blonde hair is at odds with her Japanese identity to a scared young woman who has spent 3 years on the run from an unnamed enemy.
- A night-shift systems analyst who performs a brutal act of violence and whose place of employment seems to be somehow related to the coma-like state of the older sister.
Although the plotlines involved are followed whimsically at best, Murakami succeeds in making us identify with and care for alll of the characters. It's almost odd how well it works - how natural it seems when a romance buds after a discussion of how pretty the girl's sister is, how sad but inevitable it feels when the musician plays his last solo.
In the end, Murakami presents almost an extended haiku - a single night, a mere snapshot of the lives of these characters in their mysterious world. Yet that haiku does what it's meant to - it communicates volumes. This book is short - when I was finished, I sat there scratching my head and wondering how such a complex portrait could be painted in so few words.
If you enjoy fiction and are interested in trying something new, pick up a copy of Haruki Murakami's After Dark. I promise you you that you won't be disappointed. If you're still skeptical, read the first two chapters in the store - if you can put it down after that, I'm the one who'll be impressed.