Book Review 45: After Dark

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.'

Page 13

After Dark is the story of 7 hours in the lives of two sisters -- Mari and Eri. It takes place one night, between 11:56 PM and 6:52 AM. It explores the narrow lines that separates the "respectable world" from the underworld, and the real world from the "other" world.

If you know me, or you surmise by the various time stamps of my assorted Internet missives, you know I am a fan of the night. The amount of light and the temperature aren't the only things separating night from day. The night itself brings out different people and opens up the mind to possibilities that would get singed out of existence by the sun's rays. So perhaps I have an affinity for this book by virtue of the simple fact that it takes us through one of those powerful nights that has a magic all its own.

I enjoyed Haruki Murakami's "After Dark." Besides the them of the night, I attribute that to a few things:

  • The shift to 3rd person from 1st person
  • Murakami's use of language
  • My adjusted expectations of a Murakami novel

Unlike most Murakami novels, this one is not told by a lonely 30-something guy who's career is not going well and who has (or recently lost) a cat. It's told in third person, from the perspective of an omniscient Director of Cinematography.

For most of the novel, we follow Mari and her adventures that start when we zoom in on her sitting in a Denny's.

On her table is a coffee cup. And an ashtray. Next to the ashtray, a navy blue baseball cap with a Boston Red Sox "B." It might be a little too large for her head. A brown leather shoulder bag rests on the seat next to her. It bulges as if its contents had been thrown in on the spur of the moment. She reaches out at regular intervals and brings the coffee cup to her mouth, but she doesn't appear to be enjoying the flavor. She drinks because she has a cup of coffee in front of her: that is her role as a customer. At odd moments, she puts a cigarette between her lips and lights it with a plastic lighter. She narrows her eyes, releases an easy puff of smoke into the air, puts the cigarette into the ashtray, and then, as if to soothe an approaching headache, she strokes her temples with her fingertips.

Page 5

One thing I like about Murakami is the detail he brings to his characters. The physical descriptions get their clarity not from the adjectives describing their subjects, but from the actions the subjects take, like stuffing a purse in a rush or the periodic grabbing of a coffee cup. These little stories tell us more about the characters than any number of descriptive words could.

Mari is a student who has studied the Chinese language. She soon meets Takahashi, a musician who once dated her sister, when he wanders into the Denny's.

His right cheek bears an eye-catching scar. It is short and deep, as if the flesh has been gouged out by something sharp. Nothing else about him stands out. He is a very ordinary young man with the air of a nice—but not very clever—stray mutt.

Page 7

He sits down to chat with her, and she listens without enthusiasm. They meet up a few more times over the course of the evening.

Being an amateur jazz musician is not how he planned to make his living. He studied to become a lawyer, but decided against that career.

'As I sat in court, though, and listened to the testimonies of the witnesses and the speeches of the prosecutors and the arguments of the defense attorneys and the statements of the defendants, I became a lot less sure of myself. In other words, I started seeing it like this: that there really was no such thing as a wall separating their world from mine. Or if there was such a wall, it was probably a flimsy one made of papier-mache. The second I leaned on it, I'd probably fall right through and end up on the other side. Or maybe it's that the other side has already managed to sneak its way inside of us, and we just haven't noticed. That's how I started to feel. It's hard to put into words.

Page 91-92

He knew that a career in law was not for him. And this theme of the thin wall runs throughout the novel. For Takahashi, it means he has trouble seeing a clear line between "the good guys" and "the bad guys."Either is a role anyone could find themselves in easily.

Mari has little experience with the the darker side of modern society, but that changes as we go through the novel. The manager of love hotel seeks her out later in that Denny's after learning of her existence from Takahashi. A customer brutally beat and robbed a prostitute in the love hotel, and the manager needs Mari to help translate for the victim. Mari spends time with the prostitute, the manager, and other staff members of the hotel -- all people whose lives have not turned out as expected and find themselves living on the other side of the respectability line. They are on the seamier side of Japanese life.

From here, we get a look at the world of human trafficking and violence. We don't see the whole thing through Mari's eyes. We jump into other characters' views -- always in third person, however.

That thin veil isn't the only one in the novel. Mari's sister, Eri, is going through her own line crossing episode.

When we first meet Eri she is sleeping soundly in a room. She has been sleeping for months. It is profound supernatural sleep. Eventually, she disappers from our world, and crossed the line into the "other" world. It's a world on the other side of a TV screen. A TV that somehow runs even when not plugged in.

Our third person perspective let's us see what happens, and once she is on the other side, we get to follow her.

And so we decide to transport ourselves to the other side of the screen.

It's not that difficult once we make up our mind. All we have to do is separate from the flesh, leave all substance behind, and allow ourselves to become a conceptual point of view devoid of mass. With that accomplished, we can pass through any wall, leap over any abyss. Which is exactly what we do. We let ourselves become a pure single point and pass through the TV screen separating the two worlds, moving from this side to the other.

Page 102-103

Sleep is a powerful thing in Murakami's world -- a lot happens to characters while they sleep. The difference between the waking world and the sleeping world is an arbitrary one at best. Other novels featured characters who recharged others as they slept, complex dream worlds, and sleep prostitutes who don't provide sexual services, but instead lay with clients while they sleep, never nodding off themselves.

While Mari spends the whole night awake, Eri spends much of it asleep. Except when she's on the other side, and then Murakmi treats us to this rich description of Eri waking up.

Before long there is movement in Eri's face again—a reflexive twitching of the flesh of one cheek, as if to chase away a tiny fly that has just alighted there. Then her right eyelid flutters minutely. Waves of thought are stirring. In a twilight comer of her consciousness, one tiny fragment and another tiny fragment call out wordlessly to each other, their spreading ripples intermingling. The process takes place before our eyes. A unit of thought begins to form this way. Then it links with another unit that has been made in another region, and the fundamental system of self-awareness takes shape. In other words, she is moving, step by step, toward wakefulness.

The pace of her awakening may be maddeningly slow, but it never moves backward. The system exhibits occasional disorientation, but it moves steadily forward, step by step. The intervals of time needed between one movement and the next gradually contract. Muscle movements at first are limited to the area of the face, but in time they spread to the rest of the body. At one point a shoulder rises gently, and a small white hand appears from beneath the quilt. The left hand. It awakens one step ahead of the right. In their new temporality, the fingers thaw and relax and begin to move awkwardly in search of something. Eventually they move atop the bedcover as small, independent creatures, coming to rest against the slender throat, as if Eri is groping uncertainly for the meaning of her own flesh.

Page 103 -104

That level of action-oriented description again climbs to the surface in Murakami's writing. Every minute detail is critical to creating a level of amazement in what is one of the most mundane daily tasks we do -- wake up.

I'm sure someone has already gotten their Masters degree in literature by examining the meaning of sleep in Murakami novels, but if not, I may choose to do that someday, decades in the future if I decide I want an English degree (or would that be more appropriate to a Japanese degree?).

I've read enough Murakami now to know that there are rarely answers in his books. The plot lines will not be neatly wrapped up, and we won't alway know what happened, why it happened, or what it means. That still frustrates me somewhat, but it didn't bother me too much with this book. While cleaner answers would have been nice, I no longer expect them.

When reading a Murakami novel it helps to just stay with the flow of the words and drink up their sweet tasty nectar. Spend time with the characters who are fascinating people. But don't count on clarity at the end because it won't be there.

Even when people come together in a Murakami novel, they are still alone. The lonliness that permeates his books runs strongly through this one too. Most characters can deal with and accept that loneliness. It's a part of their lives and identity.

Even though they live in one of the most densely populated cities in the world, they are ultimately alone inside their own heads. Relief comes in brief moments when one person connects with another, knowing that connection is still going to be brief.

It may sound like it's a depressing book. To an extent it is. But it's not a book that leaves a dark cloud over my head. I thoroughly enjoy this walk we took one night through these characters' lives. That opportunity we get to walk that line and peer through the veil reminds us of the beauty that can be found on this side -- and at the same time, how fragile it is.

If you want to read a good mystery or simple story, don't read this. It doesn't have the tightness of story to satisfy. If, instead, you want to journey with the characters as they go through the night, this is a great book. If you simply love the night, this is a good book to read. Of course Murakami fans should definitely read it. The shift from first to third person alone makes it interesting.

But most importantly, read it because you love the language. Read it because you love the sensuous use of words that you could lazily swim in. Read it for it's vivid descriptions and how much life Murakami can bring to a character in just a paragraph or two.

Read it because the writing is just beautiful.

You can find more of my book reviews here.


Secret forest said...

I've just discovered Murakami — I'm currently reading Norwegian Wood. I was wandering which other book by him I could read because I'm really having fun. Thanks a lot for this compelling post, I will read After Dark for sure.

Chris Mollo said...

Really great post. I'll have to read this book!