9 June 2007
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.