After Dark by Haruki Murkami

After Dark My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I unwittingly picked the ideal time to read this novel – alone, late at night, when I simply didn’t feel like going to bed. Being awake while surround by the silence of sleep and darkness perfectly complemented this surreal, hypnotic read. It’s my first Haruki Murakami novel, and a guarantee that I’ll be reading more.

The story is driven mostly by dialogue and observation, not plot, but despite the consequent slow pace, After Dark held my attention and before I knew it I was almost done with the novel. It’s composed of three intertwined stories that take place over one night, each unfolding as it connects with another. It begins with Mari, a 19-year old student reading alone in a busy diner just before midnight. She is joined by Takahashi, a musician who remembers Mari from a holiday several years ago. As Takahashi chats to Mari, we are able to learn about her sister Eri, who we then find deep asleep in her room.

The narrative continues to develop in this manner, exploring the connections between people and events, moving to a new character only once a link to them has been established. As a result of her conversation with Takahashi, Mari meets Kaoru, the manager of a love motel where a Chinese prostitute has just been beaten up in one of the rooms. This incident links us to Shirikawa, a businessman working through the night. The office Shirikawa is working in reappears when we return to Eri – the office is seen on her TV screen in the novel’s most surreal and perplexing scenes.

These interconnections are the lifeblood of the narrative, and in addition there are myriad threads of detail delicately weaving things together, some of which the characters themselves find significant. Takahashi can’t recall Mari’s name, but he does remember that it differs from Eri’s name by a single syllable. Mari notes with some tenderness that the beaten Chinese prostitute is the same age as she is. Eri and Shirikawa are both using sleep to escape their troubles, while Korogi, one of the staff members at the love motel, wishes she could do the same.

All these connections fit neatly into an idea expressed at the beginning – that the city is a “single collective entity, created by many intertwining organisms. Countless arteries stretch to the ends of its elusive body, circulating a continuous supply of fresh blood cells, sending out new data and collecting the old, sending out new consumables and collecting the old, sending out new contradictions and collecting the old. To the rhythm of its pulsing, all parts of the body flicker and flare up and squirm” (3). Takahashi later echoes this concept with a theory that all systems are like living organisms.

The organisms are given life by the information passing through them, as are people. The information circulating through us is made up of memory: “people’s memories are maybe the fuel they burn to stay alive. Whether those memories have any actual importance or not, it doesn’t matter as far as the maintenance of life is concerned. They’re all just fuel” (168-169). In a literary parallel, the novel itself is given life by the very stories it is telling. Or rather, the stories are being observed instead of written or read. The novel is framed as if there were no author and no reader, just an invisible “we” watching people and events. This is one of its most interesting aspects. Murakami experiments with narrative, using a present-tense “we” and breaking down the barrier between author and reader leaving only passive observers of reality. After Dark begins when ‘our’ “[e]yes mark the shape of the city”, and ‘we’ sweep in from above “like a high-flying bird” before “[o]ur line of sight chooses an area of concentrated brightness and, focusing there, silently descends to it” (3). We enter a restaurant, where we could focus on anyone, but Mari, reading alone, “very naturally” (5) captures our attention and provides the entry point for the stories to follow. It gives the novel an organic, unplanned feel. In fact, the viewer/narrator doesn’t seem to have any real intentions other than to see what’s going on in the city on this particular evening. ‘We’ are “pure point of view” (108), unable to have any effect on the scene we’re watching because we’re not actually there: “We are invisible, anonymous intruders. We look. We listen. We note odours. But we are not physically present in the place, and we leave behind no traces… We observe, but we do not intervene” (27). All that we can do is “gather data, and, if possible, judge” (108).

After Dark is a book pretending that it hasn’t been written and isn’t being read. It’s an experience in observation and the author is as powerless as the reader to influence anything; both are on equal footing as the viewer/narrator. Lacking omnipotence, it should also be noted that we are not omniscient – we are only privy to those details we can perceive with our eyes and ears as the viewer/narrator. For example, we don’t know what book Mari is reading because we can’t see the title and Mari never says what it is, but we can guess from her expression while reading that it’s relatively complex. Takahashi doesn’t tell Mari his name, so it remains unknown until it’s mentioned later.

Because of our limitations as viewer/narrator, much of the story remains a mystery. What the characters don’t know and thus don’t talk about, we cannot know either. And because it does not always make sense for them to explain their actions or discuss their feelings, we left to draw our own conclusions from what we are able to observe. It’s clear from Shirikawa’s actions and a conversation with his wife that he’s avoiding his family, but because he never voices his reasons for this, they remain unclear. Nor do we ever find out what exactly is going on during the strange events in Eri’s room or why she has chosen to sleep for so long because she is unable to offer any explanation.

This might be frustrating for some, but for me part of the pleasure of reading After Dark lies in the details themselves, in poring over fragments of information or finding the connections between people, places and events. Consequently, I suggest you avoid this if you want action or drama, if you demand closure, or if your preference is for stories that you don’t need to think too much about – it will be a complete waste of a great book.

The lack of conclusion means you probably won’t feel blown away, but it might leave you feeling blissfully calm and contemplative, making this a rare beauty of a novel.

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