BY SARA LEHOULLIER
Author: Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami has been getting a lot of buzz over his new two-volume book 1Q84, which is selling like hotcakes in Japan even though the plot has remained a secret. After a 5-year wait, it seems his fans are satisfied.
But 1Q84 hasn’t yet been published in English, and while on vacation I came across After Dark, which happens to be his last novel. I didn’t know what to expect, since I haven’t read any of his other work, but I really enjoyed it and found it difficult to put down. In fact, I actually read it in one go.
It’s a surreal, heavily visual novel, drifting through a single night in Tokyo, Japan, and gliding by the things that happen after dark when rational behavior stops and real life blurs with dreams. The narration is an eerie first person plural, traveling through each scene like a movie camera, following each character as they make their way through a series of bizarre and magically interconnected events.
At a couple of points during the night, this (these?) narrator(s) even try to cross the line between themselves and those they are watching, which makes the story a little unsettling.
After Dark opens at 11:56 pm in a Denny’s in Tokyo. The central character is a 19-year-old girl, Mari, who isn’t sleeping. She would prefer to spend the night reading a book and smoking alone, she’s interrupted by an old acquaintance, the chatty Tetsuya Takahashi.
Her connection with Takahashi sparks the chain of events that follow—a friend of his, Kaoru, pulls Mari out of Denny’s on a mission, and once she leaves the safety of the restaurant, she’s in for a long night.
First stop, Alphaville, the “love ho”, or love hotel, where Kaoru, a former female wrestling champion, is the manager. Alphaville is also the name of a Goddard film – Mari describes it to Kaoru:
“Well, for example if you cry in Alphaville, they arrest you and execute you in public”
“’Cause in Alphaville, you’re not allowed to have deep feelings. So there’s nothing like love. No contradictions, no irony. They do everything according to numerical formulas.”
In the love ho Alphaville, all transactions are carried out by vending machine; customers pay by credit card, their key comes out of a slot, and then they return it after the time’s up. Eventually Mari leaves and moves throughout Tokyo, sometimes alone, often joined by one of her new friends, and always thinking about her sister, the impossibly beautiful Eri.
Eri sleeps throughout the entire book, and has been asleep for the past two months or so. She travels back and forth between her room and a dangerous dream world. I found Eri’s story incongruous and bizarre, but then again it could be symbolic of the feeling of being stuck in an unsatisfying life, or dreaming awake, or insert your favorite metaphor here. I kept thinking she was a robot.
In After Dark, every character—Eri; “Cricket,” the love ho cleaning lady; the man who beats prostitutes for fun—has their own story and is followed closely by the narrators and their weird little camera. The book becomes an expanding web of interconnected narratives and pasts; there are those on the outside, moving around Tokyo after dark, and one on the inside, trapped in a deep sleep.
The whole story is really about Mari, who has been constantly overshadowed by Eri’s beauty (Eri is frequently referred to as Snow White – kind of obvious, I know). Mari is the self-proclaimed shepherd who stays awake, watches, and guards all night, because she can’t sleep in a house where her sister cannot wake up.
I liked After Dark, and I think it’s a good one for a day at the beach or a rainy afternoon inside. The characters are complex and often witty, the story is interesting, albeit a little strange in sections, but overall it was a nice departure from the ordinary. Murakami has a reputation for finding new and imaginative ways to bring stories to life; he also has said that he hopes his stories offer a sense of freedom from the real world – in After Dark, he has succeeded.