Let’s Enchant the Night á la Murakami Style

imagesIt has been several years since I read anything by Japanese author, Haruki Murakami. So, whilst browsing around the fiction section of my local library, I literally stumbled upon his now several-year-old novel, After Dark. I had never heard of the book, nor had I read any recommendations or reviews. But there is something about the familiarity of a name that plays a huge factor in one’s choices. And so it played out. No apprehension. No trepidations. I was actually looking forward to a fantastical novel that would defy common logic but still be quite rational, entertaining and captivating at the same time as the others of his have been. 

And in some ways After Dark is much like his other novels, but in so many others it is fundamentally different. Considering some of his other stories involving dancing dwarves, talking cats, people who morph into frogs, and sheep with plans for world domination – you would not be wrong to expect another ‘strange’ novel. But surprisingly, it is not. Sure a girl gets trapped inside a TV set for a bit, but that is as mundane as a walk to the shops for Murakami.

Typing this review, I have now decided that perhaps my haphazard thoughts on the book are better off written as points of discussion and observation rather than a prosaic review. Oh well, it’s not as though I am going for a publishing gig with this.

At 191 pages, too short for a Murakami novel, the execution is not any more than the conception. All of the action takes place between 11:56 pm and 6:52 am on a winter night, ‘after dark’ literally, when days are shortest and nights are longest. This all-night story is set in a seedy downtown entertainment district of Tokyo. But as is common with Murakami, whose very exportable brand of realism wavers between sur- and hyper-, the maps that matter are mental, not geographic.

The writing is straightforward: simple present tense in a first person plural voice, limited to a narrow field of vision that is directly likened to a shifting camera focus. Although it occasionally slips into a character’s thoughts or dictates the reader’s emotional response, the spotlight is on images.

In this it implies a sense of deeper meaning, even if it is or remains hidden. Therefore, the night needs to be enchanted. So in the nocturnal milieu of Tokyo’s 24-hour cafés and love hotels, the novel makes an eerie metaphysical wager. As the manager of a small jazz bar says at one point, “Time moves in its own special way in the middle of the night. You can’t fight it.” It seems ‘dark’ is an extended metaphor throughout the entire novel: at the most superficial, it describes the darkness of night, but it also describes the darkness within humanity.

There is much to recommend the combination of doppelgangers, jazz music, familiar venues (Denny’s), iconic movies (how many Jean-Luc Goddard movies can one mention in one story?), a story within a story, and unrevealed and mysterious names – all familiar Murakami leitmotivs. But in After Dark he achieves his double-world theme by repeatedly emphasising the otherworldly quality of the neighbourhood at night, as opposed to the day. Hence the title, After Dark, which is almost a reference to the jazz song “Five Spot After Dark.”

A tad ironic that as I read the book in the comfort of day in almost one sitting, I did wonder whether I was in a universe of ‘light’ whilst the characters were in a parallel universe of ‘night.’

Also ironic is that Murakami’s divided physical world is also reflected in the divided psychological world of his characters. Splitting character psyches is hardly a new technique, except that in After Dark every single character seems to be a doppelganger – a ‘night’ side to balance the ‘day’ side – whether in a sibling or a stranger. It’s almost too neat. But more importantly, these split personas function as much more than excavations of internal struggles – the journey to identify these doppelgangers and discover who mirrors whom is actually the way that the story evolves.

I found it very interesting how Orwellian references kept cropping up: there is an explicit reference, followed by the use of cameras to catch a criminal (and let’s not forget the camera-ish narrator), and expanded upon by a Man with No Face who ominously watches – without blinking or turning his head – the sleeping sister. (Here Murakami explicitly references Sleeping Beauty, but the Man with No Face also reminded me of Sartre’s gaze.) And even though, he writes in many extended metaphors, there are also quite a number of pages of dialogue written like a play, in which characters reference the monitoring state rather badly.

I did realise that although Murakami is renowned for using a similar male protagonist in every book – a drifting and isolated man – this book actually has several central female characters. However, many of them are underpowered and abused by males. A mythic notion of gender, really, is where the underlying power of this novel comes from: oppressed women struggling to escape from sinister men.

There are few explanatory connections and reasons for acts. Instead, the novel progresses through hallucinatory edits. Twice, light itself seems to slow down, become sluggish and viscous, as people leave their likenesses in mirrors, the reflections still peering out when their owners have left the room. Except the second time, the mirror image does something that the person hadn’t done. Beyond the mirror, just as beyond the TV screen, there appears to be another realm. Just know that there are coincidences (and I think that is as far an explicit spoiler as I am willing to write here without ruining a good story for you.)

The book is philosophically intriguing in the way it deals with time and the haunting, omnipresent eyes and is innovative with the use of the plural first-person cinematic narrator. It offers a lingering familiarity with likeable characters that lasts longer than his short fiction, but does not offer the pleasure of fully immersing a reader inside the phantasmagoria of the story, as in longer books such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

It is hard to draw a firm conclusion from all this, but this ambiguity adds to the beauty of After Dark. What is clear is that he captures the feeling of alienation and longing in modern urban life quite well.

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