Newest Review: ... unidentified condition that causes her to sleep almost continuously, waking very occasionally to eat or to use the toilet. Eerily, the t... more
An Alluring Tour of Tokyo By Night
After Dark - Haruki Murakami
Member Name: fizzywizzy
After Dark - Haruki Murakami
Advantages: Lots of excellent prose; captures spirit and colour of contemporary Japan
Disadvantages: One dimensional characters; overly bizarre sub plot; clunky 1st person plural narration
So says the manager of a Tokyo jazz club in this darkly alluring novella by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. The plot is paper thin and almost defies explanation but Murakami's writing is so profoundly compelling that he creates something quite remarkable from almost nothing.
The action covers the period from just before midnight until that time just before dawn. Mari is a nineteen year old student who looks set to sit the night out with a book in an all night diner in downtown Tokyo. Enter Takahashi, a young jazz musician who knows Mari vaguely through her sister, Eri. The two of them talk about Eri and Takahashi seems keen to continue their conversation another time but for now he has to leave for a band rehearsal.
Some hours later a beefy, peroxide haired woman comes into the diner looking for Mari; she's the manager of a nearby love hotel and she needs Mari's help. A young Chinese prostitute has been badly beaten by a customer at the hotel; the manager has been told by Takahashi that Mari can speak Chinese and she wants her to act as translator.
Meanwhile Eri lies in her bed in a stark, almost sterile room; she has been afflicted by some unidentified condition that causes her to sleep almost continuously, waking very occasionally to eat or to use the toilet. Eerily, the television in Eri's room switches itself on and on the screen there's the image of a man wearing a plastic mask.
'After Dark' is unusual in that it mixes the very mundane with the strangely surreal. In many ways the ordinariness is rendered surreal because the action takes place at night. Although the setting here is Japan, the situations in the novel - diners, convenience stores, all night bars - reminded me of the paintings of the American artist Edward Hopper, who captured nocturnal scenes in similar environments. For the characters that occupy this night time world this is the norm. Mari frequently spends the night out, returning home when the trains start running again: life at home has been difficult since Eri became ill and it seems that Mari seeks sanctuary in places where she can be anonymous and forget her troubles. Takahashi's band rehearses at night because it's cheaper to rent the space. For Kaoru and the other staff of the love hotel, night time is business time and it's a place where those who seek to be anonymous can blend in.
The various methods of narration have an unsettling effect on this tale. An unknown first person plural voice describes the scene in Eri's room; I found this quite disturbing because the voice included me, and that made me feel complicit in some kind of intrusion into Eri's solitude as if I really shouldn't have been there. I resented the way that the use of the first person plural narration was trying to compel me to accept as truth sweeping statements as if there could be only one world view.
For me 'After Dark' works in spite of rather than because of certain elements. It's the second of Murakami's novels I've read, the first being 'Norwegian Wood' which, although the writing is unmistakably Murakami, has much more meat around the bones of the plot. 'After Dark' is more of an impressionistic piece of writing which relies on the creation of a mood rather than the development of a plot. It is heavy on dialogue but I found the (presumably intended to be) profound discussions of the characters to be pretentious and mostly boring. These intensely serious dialogues made me think of the themes covered in manga where simplistic truths are portrayed as something more important.
From a cultural point of view I loved 'After Dark'; the prose may be esoteric but it is suffused with illuminating details of Japanese life and culture. These details help paint a vivid picture of the dark underbelly of Tokyo at night; the workaholic executive, the lonely hotel worker, the exploited Chinese prostitutes. Murakami doesn't shy away from exposing some of the less appealing aspects of contemporary Japan.
I couldn't help thinking that I'd missed something in this novella. The sub plot with Eri isolated in her room didn't belong to the rest of the story, other than in the connection with Mari. For me the only 'naturally surreal' (if that can be) element of 'After Dark' was just too off the wall. I loved the feelings of surreality imposed on the detail of everyday life on the other hand; this sense of the unreal in very familiar situations gives the story a deliciously dark flavour. Once you get your head round the fact that there is very little plot it's a lot easier to accept this curious sub plot for just another of Murakami's idiosyncrasies instead of trying to explain and understand it.
If you like books that are strong on plot this probably isn't something for you. However, that's not to say that you shouldn't bother with Haruki Murakami's other novels; 'After Dark' does tend more towards the esoteric than his other writing. At a shade over 200 pages this is a book that can be devoured in one sitting and it does feel like the kind of book that needs to be read in this way. Strange it may be at times, but it is also an immensely satisfying read.
Summary: An often mesmerising story of a night in the dark underbelly of Tokyo