Title: After Dark
Author: Haruki Murakami
Obtained: borrowed from library
Alfred A. Knopf (Random House)
A short, sleek novel of encounters set in Tokyo during the witching hours between midnight and dawn, and every bit as gripping as Haruki Murakami’s masterworks The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore.
At its center are two sisters–Eri, a fashion model slumbering her way into oblivion, and Mari, a young student soon led from solitary reading at an anonymous Denny’s toward people whose lives are radically alien to her own: a jazz trombonist who claims they’ve met before, a burly female “love hotel” manager and her maid staff, and a Chinese prostitute savagely brutalized by a businessman. These “night people” are haunted by secrets and needs that draw them together more powerfully than the differing circumstances that might keep them apart, and it soon becomes clear that Eri’s slumber–mysteriously tied to the businessman plagued by the mark of his crime–will either restore or annihilate her. (from the dust jacket of After Dark)
The cover, at first glance, appears to be strips of color separated by weird bands of light. It actually kind of reminds me of looking at a busy city street through a window covered with half-open vertical blinds (which, by the way, I hate, but that’s neither here nor there). Upon further inspection, it really looks like a brightly lit city at night–the bright neon lights, the golds of the lighting of diners, lobbies of hotels, and who knows what else. No matter how I look at it, the window-thought keeps coming back. Indeed, we are referred to as observers, a point of view, as if we were viewing the happenings in the book from a window.
I cannot stress how much I loved this book. It took me maybe three hours to read, despite the writing style (which I will discuss later). Mari as a protagonist is so much more engaging than Maria in Goodbye Tsugumi. Mari is much more observant, going so far to notice when her at-first unnamed trombonist friend omits a word when she questions him about her sister. She even seems to have a little bit of spunk in her:
“I’m kind of a low-key guy. The spotlight doesn’t suit me. I’m more of a side dish–cole slaw or French fries or a Wham! backup singer.”
“Which is why you were paired with me.”
“But still, you were pretty damn cute.”
“Is there something about your personality that makes you prefer the past tense?” (page 13)
Mari is intelligent enough to be at least semi-fluent in another language (and has, in fact, been chosen to study abroad in said country, despite her status as a freshman in college). While Mari’s adventure with a prostitute, the “love ho” manager, and her trombonist friend are interesting, it is what happens to her sister that is more strange.
Eri, we discover through Mari, has been asleep for months. She wakes to eat, use the restroom, shower and change her pajamas, but she is otherwise in a deep sleep. In fact, she doesn’t even seem to move. Her television has been unplugged from the wall; and it is this fact that sends Eri’s part of the story spiraling towards “weird”.
Eri’s television comes to life, despite the lack of power. The screen is at first blurry and unfocused, but soon we see a man, referred to by the unnamed narrator as the Man with No Face. He watches Eri sleep; he seems to stare directly through the television set. Eri is soon transported through the television, and wakes up in a bed on the opposite side.
That Eri is transported through to the other side of the television is of no concern. It could simply have been a dream. It is the Man with No Face that makes the situation strange and bordering on the creepy. A strange man is watching Eri sleep, without her knowledge, and through an unplugged television set. What’s worse, we never really find out who this man is, though there are sneaking suspicions that he is tied to the Chinese prostitute that Mari runs into on her journey. This theory is never confirmed; he remains the Man with No Face through the book.
The book’s writing style distances us, as the reader, from the protagonists. It keeps us acting as silent observers; we are the point of view, the unnamed narrator continuously reminds us. It is through us, through our eyes, that the story is being told. We cannot possibly know what Mari is feeling; we only sometimes know her thoughts, and even these are usually cornered with qualifiers: seems is one used very often. We can, of course, guess what Mari is thinking by reading her facial expressions. Really, the story doesn’t concern itself much with feelings and thoughts. It is dialogue and action that drive the plot of this book; of a story told within one single night, within roughly six hours’ time. Still, the writing keeps us engaged:
“She reads with great concentration. Her eyes rarely move from the pages of her book–a thick hardback. A bookstore wrapper hides the title from us. Judging from her intent expression, the book might contain challenging subject matter. Far from skimming, she seems to be biting off and chewing it one line at a time.” (page 5)
This novel is hard to put down. I said I read it in hours, and I wasn’t kidding. I picked the book up around 12:30 in the afternoon and, with a couple short naps in between chapters, I finished it around 4:30. It is one that I would definitely recommend for a quick, enjoyable read.