For awhile I've been wanting to read an Haruki Murakami novel, but his recent books have scared me off with their length, so when the 191-page After Dark was published earlier this year, I had no more excuses.
After Dark takes place over a single Tokyo night. The short chapters are headed by clocks showing the time from 11:56 PM to 6:52 AM. The narrative moves and hovers like a camera objectively observing events, sometimes just telling us what we're seeing, sometimes speculating about what's going on inside the characters' heads. I was reminded of the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet, but in a good way — Murakami is certainly more lyrical and more sympathetic to his creations.
The camera in After Dark mostly follows Mari, who is reading a big book in a Denny's, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.
Hooded gray parka, blue jeans, yellow sneakers faded from repeated washing. On the back of the chair next to her hangs a varsity jacket. This, too, is far from new. She is probably college freshman age, though an air of high school still clings to her. Hair black, short, and straight. Little makeup, no jewelry. Small, slender face. Black-rimmed glasses. Every now and then, an earnest wrinkle forms between her brows. (p. 5)
It is not until near the end of the novel when we learn why she is in a public place and not home sleeping. As the night progresses, Mari meets an old acquaintance and jazz trombonist named Takahashi, who is practicing nearby in a room where noone cares about the noise. We learn a bit about Mari's older and prettier sister Eri, who is a fashion model and occasional TV personality, and sometimes we see Eri herself, in a long coma-like sleep alone in a room furnished with the starkness of dreams.
Mari is studying Chinese in college, and during this long night in Tokyo she is called upon to help speak to a young Chinese prostitute who has been beaten up by a client in a "love hotel" called the Alphaville. We see this man later on, back at work.
The room is a large one. The man has stayed late to work in the office after everyone else has gone home. A Bach piano piece flows at moderate volume from a compact CD player on his desk. Ivo Pogorelich performs one of the English Suites. The room is dark. Only the area around the man's desk receives illumination from fluorescent lights on the ceiling. This could be an Edward Hopper painting titled Loneliness. (p. 77)
Because this is night and chance encounters are occurring, people feel compelled to talk to one another, to disclose secrets, hopes, and fears. And as the novel draws near its end — "The new day is almost here, but the old one is still dragging its heavy skirts." (p. 173) — the reader fears as well that Murakami is going to leave us stranded in the dawn. But before the final fadeout, After Dark treates us to a scene of such sublime beauty that everything preceding comes into sharper and deeper focus.