Slowly working my way through Haruki Murakami’s bizarre world. After Dark - his 2007 novel - is a far different narrative than what I’ve read from him before. You can almost say it’s straightforward but not quite. It’s interesting use of a first person plural narrative technique is what I found most intriguing. Almost as if the reader were being guided by a cinematographer, Murakami paints a portrait of Tokyo in the hour between midnight and dawn with an almost film noir sensibility. The imagery is vivid, cinematic: the trash in the streets, the steam rising from the manhole covers, the highly bright neon casting its glow over a semi-deserted downtown district, the stray cats pawing through the trash bags, the vapor from the pedestrian’s mouths on a colder evening.
It is amidst this atmosphere that the story is told, like a camera zooming in on the initial setting, directly to the first main character - Mari - a shy, loner of a girl reading a book and drinking coffee in an all night Denny’s. She is soon joined by a charismatic amateur Jazz musician/student named Takahashi, who had once met Mari at a social gathering some years earlier. Takahashi decides to invite himself into Mari’s world, as much as Mari wants to simply be left alone.
Next we see Mari’s sister Eri - who sleeps in her bedroom - and has been sleeping for weeks. In fact, she will never once wake up through the entire novel. She lies in what appears to be a semi-conscious state. Not that she is ill or that anything is wrong with her. She merely sleeps, as the television in her room suddenly flickers to life and we soon discover that she is being observed by a mysterious man on the other side of the screen - the Man With No Face. We don’t know who this man is or why he is watching Eri so intently, but soon Eri will find herself on “the other side”, somewhat confused, trapped in the man’s shadowy, dreamlike world.
Meanwhile, as Takahashi takes his leave of Mari to head to an all night band practice is suddenly confronted by a young tough girl named Kaoru, who works in the nearby “love hotel”. We soon learn that Takahashi had summoned her to find Mari because Mari speaks Chinese. One of the love hotel’s clients - an illegal Chinese immigrant/prostitute was beaten and robbed of all her clothes and belongings by a john. Mari is needed to help communicate. Kaoru contacts the Chinese gangsters who control the young prostitute and gives them a photo (from the security camera) of the man who beat her. Kaoru thanks Mari for her help. This begins a friendship between Mari and Kaoru. We are then privy to who the john is - an office worker for a tech company, seemingly anonymous. Could be anyone. He works the night shift and sometimes takes sojourns to the love hotel during the night. Locked in his office, he is safe from any retaliation from the gangsters - or is he? It is at this point these different stories interweave and bounce off one another.
There really isn’t a “plot” per se, other than the interaction between these characters, their conversations and their thoughts and feelings as observed by the “all seeing eye” of the narrator. The novel is permeated with observation, as if we, the reader are a fly on the wall to every precise detail. The point of view is virtually another character in and of itself. Darkness is also ever present; a metaphor: the “hidden things” within the night as well as within human nature. The darkness of the city is also a contemporary parallel of how Man had always been - usually retreating to the safety of their dwellings as the sun sets and the night encroaches. Only this is the 21st Century and the night is no longer as mysterious. There is another world that continues to exist while everyone else sleeps - “the other side” (as in Eri’s experience via the television in her bedroom). There are also elements of noir fiction here with regard to the imagery, tone, the ominous feeling just underneath the surface of things, that at any moment something terrible could happen; but despite this darkness - whether literal or within the human soul and psyche - the novel does end on a hopeful note, as the morning once again makes itself known, once again bringing light to the darkness.
This is a wonderfully written novel and a beautiful narrative experiment as the whole story takes place - sometimes simultaneously - with the countdown of the clock as we reach closer to dawn. Everyone’s experiences bump up against one another, sometimes unknown to the characters within. A snapshot of a single evening on earth, in one city, among just a small number of its inhabitants. You sense the lives of the others going on around them. A keyhole glimpse into a much more grand and mysterious world. Highly recommended.