Night is where you hide from yourself, and where dark deeds are done. Murakami’s latest (published here in June, but available in Japan since 2004, where it was titled, in a Coca-Cola kind of way, Afutãdãku) is a short novel exploring the nightside of human existence: its characters are all either lost, hiding, caught up in or drifting through the dark regions of a city after dark. Covering the events of a single night between 11:55p.m. and 6:40a.m. (the chapters are headed with little clock icons), and taking place in a series of soulless city sets (all-night eateries, a love-hotel, an office after-hours), we follow a succession of rambling conversations between Mari Asai (whose beautiful sister, after announcing she was going to sleep for a while, hasn’t woken for several months) and Takahashi (law student by day, jazz musician by night, on the cusp of deciding which life he’s going to commit to), witness the aftermath of a characteristically Murakamian “act of overwhelming violence” in a love hotel, and get a glimpse of the even stranger, rather Lynchian psychodrama involving Mari’s sleeping beauty of a sister and the sinister Man with No Face.
I mention David Lynch because he (in films like Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) as well as Murakami (in books like Dance, Dance, Dance and The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, and many of his short stories) share an incredible ability to muster a sense of intense, looming psychological menace far more threatening than mere physical violence (though both Murakami and Lynch’s works feature sudden eruptions of over-the-top violence). Both also cast a cool air of light, quirky humour, as well as containment and composure over the surface of their works — Murakami’s prose is friendly, simple, almost innocent, Lynch’s films have an air of innocence that takes you by the hand, as a child would, only to lead you to places no child would ever go. This surface expresses, perhaps, the blank perplexity Murakami and Lynch’s characters feel towards whatever dark inner impulses they are forced to struggle with (a situation often captured through the contrast of a day-life as overbright and perfect as their night-life is sordid, dark and ugly — think of teen queen Laura Palmer’s nights of drugs and prostitution in Twin Peaks). Thankfully, both creators also take their excursions through the dark to the other side, affording at least a glimpse of redemption (Laura Palmer beatified as a glowing Christmas tree fairy at the end of Fire Walk With Me, providing an incredible feeling of hope to the end of one of the most harrowing films I’ve ever seen). Murakami’s moments of redemption are more low-key, but equally poetic in being felt rather than understood. By the end of After Dark there’s a sense that decisions have been made, paths chosen, freeing the two youngsters, Mari and Takahashi, from being stuck in the night-time limbo where the others they have met (the violent businessman Shirakawa, the love hotel cleaner Korogi) are hopelessly mired.
A definite improvement on the rather rambling and overlong Kafka on the Shore, After Dark is not just classic Murakami, I think it is a new a step in an already talented author’s work.