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Onyx reviews: After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Every city takes on a new identity late at night. The denizens of this shadow city are different from those who live in it during the day—it's like a new shift taking over at a factory. Imagine the Edward Hopper painting "Nighthawks" or the parody version "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" that features Bogart, Elvis, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe bellied up against the counter in a dingy diner. It's a slower, dreamier world where insecurities and frailties are exposed and magnified.

Jack Finney explored this flip-flopped world in his novel The Night People, where a group of suburban residents run afoul of the law because they act against social tradition by holding picnics in empty parking lots late at night and other mostly harmless hijinx. Finney's novel was fundamentally upbeat—his characters feel like they've discovered a new world filled with possibility.

In After Dark, Haruki Murakami also refers to his characters as night people. The story opens in a diner a few minutes before midnight. It's not the boulevard of broken dreams, but rather a brightly lit Denny's in Tokyo. Most of the patrons aren't alone—Mari Asai is the only one by herself, reading to pass the time. She doesn't seem to be waiting for anyone or anything in particular—she rarely looks at the clock or at the door to see who enters.

A garrulous young trombone player named Tetsuya Takahashi, on his way to an all-night rehearsal with his jazz band, invites himself to join her. Tetsuya recognizes Mari because he went on a date (of sorts) with her older sister Eri a couple of years ago. He's curious why a 19-year-old girl would be sitting by herself late at night in a place like this, but Mari isn't talkative. After a fleeting visit, he promises to come back and check up on her after his rehearsal if she's still there.

Mari's sister Eri is a TV model, more beautiful than Mari—at least in Mari's judgment. Mari wears a Boston Red Sox baseball hat and downplays her looks and her personality. The relationship between the sisters is reminiscent of another recent Japanese novel, Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino, though somewhat less perverse and more surreal.

Despite her beauty—or perhaps because of it—Eri is undergoing an existential crisis. She has taken the peculiarly Japanese phenomenon of hikikomori—where teenagers and young adults cave in to pressure and lock themselves in their rooms for months and years at a time—to an extreme. She went to bed two months ago and hasn't gotten up since, except to eat the food left for her and tend to her personal hygiene. Snow White turned Sleeping Beauty.

Whereas Eri rarely awakens, Mari has difficulty sleeping. She can't stand to be in her parents' house while Eri exists in this suspended animation. The novel's surreal aura reflects the perceptions of someone who is sleep deprived, as Mari wanders from one strange encounter to another.

Murakami uses a conspicuously self-aware literary device to explore Eri's condition. A third person plural narrator floats like an airborne camera, peering down at her bed from just beneath her ceiling. This narrator embraces readers but never invites them inside Eri's thoughts. "We" merely observe and speculate, keeping "our" distance.

The strangeness doesn't end there, for Eri is not always in her bed. Sometimes she's in another bed on the other side of the TV screen in her room. She passes through the glass screen and, from time to time, so does this theoretical camera-observer-narrator. Her public life is viewed through the TV screen, so it's unclear which Eri is real—the one in her bedroom or the one seen on television?

The bedroom inside the TV screen belongs to a man named Shirakawa, a technician who works late-night shifts upgrading computers for his company. Shirakawa goes to a love hotel during a break and beats up a Chinese prostitute. The establishment, called Alphaville, happens to be the place where Tetsuya and his band are rehearsing. It's also the title of a dystopian science fiction movie by Jean-Luc Godard, Mari's favorite director, filmed on the streets of Paris at night.

Tetsuya remembers that Mari speaks Chinese, so he sends for her to assist the love hotel's owner, Kaoru in communicating with the beaten woman. This completes an imaginary and inexplicable thread linking Eri to Shirakawa to the prostitute to the brothel owner to Tetsuya to Mari.

As far as the story goes, that's about it. The events of After Dark take place in a single night between midnight and 7 AM. Murakami returns to Eri from time to time as she passes from one side of the TV set to the other and back again, but we learn more about Eri from her sister's conversation than we do from these scenes.

The TV screen in Eri's room is just one of a number of reflective devices Murakami employs to represent the conflict between the inner person and their public persona. People look at themselves in mirrors and when they move away their reflections remain behind, as if they have a life separate from that of their images.

Late night is the perfect time to examine loneliness and alienation in its different manifestations. The characters are all distant from their respective families. Eri and Mari are no longer close like they were when they were younger. Eri is socially isolated, having succumbed to the pressures of her modeling career. Mari is alone because she considers herself inferior to her sister. The Chinese prostitute is alone in a country where she can't speak the language and is under the control of a gang. Tetsuya is at a crossroads, trying to figure out if he should give up the jazz music he loves to play in favor of attending law school. Kaoru, once a celebrity wrestler, is unable to form any long-term bonds because people are out to hurt her and she moves from job to job, usually from one love hotel to another, before anyone can get too close to her. Shirakawa lives in the nighttime while his wife dwells in the daylight; their paths rarely cross.

The Kobe earthquake of 1995, a cataclysm which formed the thematic glue in Murakami's short story collection After the Quake, is mentioned a couple of times, too. That natural disaster, which claimed over 6000 lives, had a profound effect on the psyche of those who experienced it—a day when everything in people's lives came raining down upon them. The solid earth beneath their feet turned to liquid.

A soundtrack of jazz accompanies the book. The chapters are identified not by a title or an ordinal number, but rather by the hands of a clock depicting the passage of time. In some ways, the book seems like an improv. There's no real logic to it, and a series of meaningless coincidences add to the mystery. Why does the Chinese prostitute's cell phone, discarded in a convenience store by Shirakawa, end up in Tetsuya's hands several hours later? Merely to add to the tension of Tetsuya's conflict. The faceless speaker on the other end utters threats intended for the prostitute, but Tetsuya wonders if he should take them to heart.

It's not really clear what the point of After Dark is beyond being a portrait of lonely people (perhaps it is the boulevard of broken dreams after all), a reflection on the surreal world that comes to life when most people are asleep and a representation of the bizarre and inexplicable ways that lives cross each other from time to time.

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