9 June 2007

After dark

After Dark, by Haruki Murakami (Knopf)

The night needs to be re-enchanted. So in the nocturnal milieu of Tokyo’s 24-hour cafes and love hotels, Haruki Murakami’s new novel makes an eerie metaphysical wager. As the manager of a small jazz bar (whom it is tempting to read as an avatar of the author himself) says at one point: “Time moves in its own special way in the middle of the night. You can’t fight it.”

Just before midnight, we meet a young woman, Mari, smoking and reading a book in a coffee shop. Before dawn she will have met a trombonist, Takahashi, as well as Kaoru, the tough blonde manager of a local love hotel, where a Chinese prostitute is beaten up by a mysterious man. Meanwhile, Mari’s sister Eri is asleep, as she has been for the last two months, and something very strange is happening in her bedroom. An unplugged television set sparks to life, showing a room where a man sits wearing a cellophane mask. Later, Eri will be sucked through the screen and trapped in that room.

As usual in Murakami, the uncanny is juxtaposed with exquisite ordinariness. Mari, the serious, still centre of the novel, chats about battery farming or cinema or her beautiful sister’s modelling career. There is also the man who beat up the prostitute, in his office late at night, talking to his wife on the phone or doing sit-ups on a yoga mat with Scarlatti on the CD player.

Explanatory connections, and reasons for acts, there are few. Instead the novel progresses through hallucinatory edits. Twice, light itself seems to slow down, becoming sluggish and viscous, as people leave their likenesses in mirrors, the reflections still peering out when their owners have left the room. Except that the second time, the mirror image does something that the person hadn’t done. Beyond the mirror, as beyond the TV screen, there appears to be another realm.

There are holes, and you can fall down them. One of the love-hotel assistants talks of her troubled life: “The ground we stand on looks solid enough, but if something happens it can drop right out from under you. And once that happens, you’ve had it …” We know from Murakami’s previous fiction that people sometimes go down wells. But holes need not be physical ones in the ground. The strangeness of the novel’s action, it is suggested at one point, is due to it happening in “a place resembling a deep, inaccessible fissure. Such places open secret entries into darkness in the interval between midnight and the time the sky grows light … No one can predict when or where such abysses will swallow people, or when or where they will spit them out.”

Such fatalism is made only more resonant by the novel’s matter-of-fact, cool style. Indeed, it is altogether too cool for comfort. When Eri is trapped on the other side of the TV screen, she is described thus: “Her pupils have taken on a lonely hue, like gray clouds reflected in a calm lake.” Beautiful as the image is, there is an existential dread inherent in it, amplified by the fact that the languorous narrator has taken such poetic care over his words while looking on, right there in her bedroom.

Well, I should say “narrators”: the narrative voice is a mysterious first-person plural. ((Or, as the TLS review chooses to call it, a “third-person plural”.)) Often the use of “we” is merely a formal way to solicit the reader into sharing a particular point of view, or following a train of thought. But something more peculiar is going on here. The narrators inveigle you into imagining yourself as a swooping night-bird or a TV camera, whispering softly for you to join the “we”, but they also drop subtle hints of a collective identity that you do not share: they have sets of “rules” and “principles”. One gradually comes to suspect that the narrators are not even human.

The subtle dislocation of a narrative “we” that denotes a separate, alien grouping should be borne in mind when reading the astonishing synthetic description of an entire city waking up: “Each of those under transport is a human being with a different face and mind, and at the same time each is a nameless part of the collective entity … Handling this dualism of theirs skillfully and advantageously, they perform their morning rituals with deftness and precision: brushing teeth, shaving, tying neckties, applying lipstick.” Turning their attention to crows out scavenging for food, the narrators deadpan: “Dualism is not as important an issue for the crows as for the human beings.” As with much of the novel’s humour, the mode is comic-sombre.

After Dark is perhaps the closest Murakami has yet come to composing a pure tone-poem. Aspects of his earlier styles – the dark, surreal farce of A Wild Sheep Chase, the mournful realism of Norwegian Wood, the supernatural yearning of Sputnik Sweetheart – here intermingle in a story that spells out less but evokes as much if not more. Exposition is set to the minimum, while the mood-colouring is virtuosic. Morning, at the end of the novel, is an extraordinary blend of the hesitant blossoming of romance and an ode to renewal with unhealed sorrow and continued foreboding. The novel could be an allegory of sleep, a phenomenology of time, or a cinematic metafiction. Whatever it is, its memory lingers after many sunsets.

  • sw

    In some ways, I always thought that this was the novel Houllebecq has been trying to write.

  • That’s an intriguing comparison. In what ways? As far as I can tell, if Houellebecq has been trying to write After Dark he’s been making rather a bad fist of it.

  • Andy C

    I, too, would like to know how Houellebecq and Murakami are similar. Or is it just that they are both foreign?

  • sw

    Ha Ha! That’s very funny. Ha! They’re both “foreign”. Depends on where you’re from though, doesn’t it?

    There were two aspects of After Dark that made me think of Houellebecq when I was reading it.

    Obviously, we have the man who beat up the prostitute: an aseptic character, coolly unable to connect the pain in his hand to someone else’s pain. He is an automaton of sorts, unconnected to other people, his family, his co-workers, organising his life around the classical music on the radio, a few meals he does not relish, and his sit-ups. He seemed to have stepped out of and away from Camus by way of Houellebecq (whose Platform begins as a frank re-write of the intro to L’Etranger).

    Even more Houellebecqian, After Dark is a peculiar science fiction. As you point out, there is a warping of physics and technology and as you put it tremendously, the “subtle dislocation of the narrative we” – that “alien” and “strange” difference exacted from an uncomfortable “we”, something that Houellebecq aims for in Atomised. But in both Atomised and After Dark, one can contentedly read the book for quite some time, picking up on the oddness but not quite placing it, until you come towards the end and you realise that the narrator is much less trustworthy and much more freaky than you had imagined, and whatever concepts you had of who “we” are changes. Murakami doesn’t slap this on like a punchline, but achieves a much more unsettling effect.

    Tonally, Murakami has a much lighter touch, as when the characters try to explain themselves and make sense of what they’re doing. Houellebecq never quite accomplishes “exquisite ordinariness” but I feel that he wants to juxtapose something like “exquisite ordinariness” not to the uncanny but to the obscene (which are not entirely unrelated concepts).

    So, why is this the book that Houellebecq has been trying to write? Murakami handles the effects of dissociation from morality and from other people in a way that Houellebecq does not – Murakami uses silk gloves and a gentle push where Houellebecq uses a mallet and a giant dildo.

  • a mallet and a giant dildo
    That may be the best evocation of Houellebecq’s literary arsenal that I have ever seen.

    It’s interesting that the prostitute-beater put you in mind of him in the first place. The figure of a man ascetically peforming yoga to Scarlatti sonatas is, as you say, sort-of-existential, but his answer to whatever he perceives the existential problem to be – ie, to cleave nonetheless to whatever fragments of culture are available – seems quite different from what happens in Houellebecq.

    I had the perhaps more troubling thought that this man was a demonic mirror-image of your standard Murakami narrator – slightly disconnected socially, contenting himself with jazz and beer etc – and hence perhaps, deliberately, of Murakami himself.

  • sw

    I far prefer your reading of the character as Murakami’s alter-ego to my own Houllebecqian comparison. It makes me rather sad to imagine Murakami in his place, coldly noting the aftermath of pain and suffering in his characters and casually cleaning up after the crime, with something like a writer’s cramp in his hand.

    Not to quibble endlessly, but you do allow me to clarify why this particular character reminds me of a Houellebecqian character. I am not so sure this character is “contented” with jazz and beer, although he is doing something that contents other characters in the Murakami oeuvre; and I’m not sure that he actually “cleaves” to these fragments of culture. And for both reasons, I was reminded of Houellebecq’s characters, who have specific cultural appetites (monoprix meals, wines, music) but neither relish them nor cleave to them. They exist together, by habit, by some convention, by some accidents of fate, because you have to have something, because others do it. These cultural moments have no more weight, no more density, than the acts of violence or sexuality interspersed between them.

  • Yes, you are right that we do not know whether the man cleaves to his Scarlatti and yoga or merely adopts them for the sake of something, however arbitrary, to adopt. We do not know this since what is so disturbing about him as a character is that we are given no access at all to his interiority: he is merely a subject of surveillance. In this, for me, he has a different feel from that of a Houellebecqian character, who would tend to insist boringly on his own nihilism.

  • sw

    Agreed.