by Haruki Murakami
Knopf Publishing Group, 2007
A classic Haruki Murakami novel will remain in your mind for weeks, month-even years. This is what Norwegian Wood (2000) did to me, and I've been hooked on Murakami ever since. Rightly so as well, as the Tokyo-based author has received multiple awards, including both a Franz Kafka Prize and the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award in 2006.
Unfortunately, Murakami's eleventh novel, After Dark, fails to deliver that award-winning quality.
After Dark takes place in a seven-hour period between midnight and dawn. The story follows the footsteps of five wandering characters in Tokyo, each of whom are spiritually, emotionally, or psychologically lost. As the story progresses, we observe these characters' encounters with one another, and discover the secrets that bind them together. The novel is intended to be a dramatic, metaphysical speculation about human interconnectivity.
Of the five characters, Mari Asai and Tetsuya Takahashi emerge as the story's protagonists. Mari, a strong-willed yet reticent 19-year-old student, spends most of her time reading in solitude. She is doing this at an anonymous Denny's when Tetsuya, an older law-student-turned-musician, comes across her.
She sits at a four-person table, reading a book. Hooded gray parka, blue jeans, yellow sneakers faded from repeated washing. On the back of her chair 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.
Finding that Tetsuya was an acquaintance of Mari's older sister, Eri Asai, the two strike up an uncertain relationship, the terms of which become more defined as the hours pass. This relationship proves to be the most important of the novel, as it is one of the only concrete elements that anchors the plot.
Murakami is lauded for his uncanny depiction of the isolation and loneliness in modern Japanese life. His novels such as Norwegian Wood; South of the Border, West of the Sun; and Sputnik Sweetheart demonstrate his masterful ability to capture the essence of longing and desire. These novels specifically dwell on the wistful angst of unrequited love. Although spare, his language is saturated with emotion. Perfectly distilling the nuance of human interactions, Murakami's characters become flawed and vulnerable all at once; they are not dictated by plot, but instead grow organically from their emotional personalities.
Regrettably, we do not find this same depth of character in After Dark. While the factual foundation is laid for Mari and Tetsuya, Murakami fails to fully develop their emotional identities sufficiently enough for us to be actively invested in the welfare of them. Instead of fleshing out the characters in his trademark fashion-through acute observation of situation and psychological insight-Murakami instead resorts to using dialogue to state his claims, such as in this scene between Mari and Kogori, a night-time "love hotel" worker:
Kogori nods. "You seem to have a good, strong grip on yourself."
Mari shakes her head. "Not me," she says. "When I was little, I had no self-confidence at all. Everything scared me. Which is why I used to get bullied a lot. I was such an easy mark. The feelings that I had back then are still here inside me. I have dreams like that all the time."
"Yeah, but I get you worked hard over the years and overcame those feelings little by little—those bad memories."
"Little by little," Mari says, nodding. "I'm like that. A hard worker."
With this dialogue, Murakami deprives us of one of the most rewarding aspects of reading fiction: to formulate an opinion about a character on our own terms. A reader likes to be shown something, so that he can infer a conclusion-he doesn't want the conclusion to be told to him. These kinds of tell-all conversations occur throughout the novel. As result, we have a surfeit of superficial information about Mari and Tetsuya, but no psychological backbone to tie it to.
While there is a quiet, curious attraction that buds between Mari and Tetsuya, it fails to bloom by the end of the night. When Tetsuya asks her out, Mari declines, explaining that she'll be studying abroad for the next six months. Tetsuya tells Mari he will wait for her to return, and will write her in the meantime. Mari placidly agrees, dubious that he is genuinely interested in her. Although this resolution may be promising, Mari and Tetsuya's relationship, as a whole, is underwhelming: a tangible sense of attraction has not been created. They have seemingly poignant conversations with one another, yet we know nothing about the complexities of their psyches, or the breadth of their emotions.
As the events of Mari's night unfold, we discover that she wanders the city to avoid the strain of her home life. This stress is brought about by a remarkably unusual circumstance: her sister, Eri Asai, has unexplainably been in slumber for two months. "How or why this condition was brought about we as yet have no way of knowing. Eri Asai is in a deep, deliberate state of sleep as if her entire body has been enveloped in warm wax. Clearly, something here is incompatible with nature. This is all we can conclude for now." (25)
Sadly, that is all we ever conclude from Eri Arai. She is asleep; not only do we not find out why by the end of the novel, but we also never understand the bizarre phenomena that afflict her. She is in a room sleeping; suddenly, unplugged television sets turn on, a threatening man with no face appears ("We shall call him the Man with No Face"), and Eri becomes able to transport herself through time, space, and invisible walls.
Murakami introduces Eri in short, dark, noir-like chapters intermittently spliced into the main storyline. These chapters are not given a context or an explanation, and make a sharp stylistic departure from the rest of the novel. Whereas Mari's activities occur in a real, physical world, Eri's occur in the confined, surreal space of her room. Here, Murakami's tone becomes foreboding, and his language more tense: "The television is a new intruder into the room. We, too, are intruders, of course, but unlike us, the intruder is neither quiet nor transparent. Nor it is neutral. It is undoubtedly trying to intervene. We sense its intention intuitively....Something is about to happen in this room. Something of great significance." (28)
Murakami also uses an intrusive, directorial voice here, as if he is setting up a scene in a play. This voice allows Murakami to play with narrative perspectives in these chapters, as made evident when he introduces an ever-present, observing camera: "Our point of view, as an imaginary camera, picks up and lingers over things like this in the room. We are invisible, anonymous intruders. We look. We listen. We note odors. But we are not physically present in the place, and we leave behind no traces. We follow the same rules, so to speak, as orthodox time travelers. We observe but we do not intervene."
Murakami, acting as a director, uses this camera to control what the reader sees in these chapters. By explicitly defining that the camera's view is the reader's view, he intends to psychologically draw us directly into the scene. However, the camera does nothing but alienate the reader from the narrative. Who is the camera? What is its purpose? Why does it even exist? Do we even care? Readers cannot identify with a floating camera flitting about, nor can we benefit from its omniscient, streaming voice of cryptic knowledge.
Unlike Murakami's more imaginative novels such as Kafka on the Shore and Wind-Up Bird Chronicles—both of which won him awards for their innovation—After Dark is unable to successfully lace together a realistic world with that of the fantastic. The inclusion of Eri Asai's storyline is a feeble attempt at metaphysical exploration. Mari's and Tetsuya's city stories are too deeply rooted in reality to benefit from experimental devices such as an omniscient, invisible camera, or faceless characters that can pass through electronic surfaces.
When magical realism does appear in Murakami's work, it prominently displays itself in the story; however, in After Dark, Eri Asai's storyline is so disconnected from the main plot, the reader cannot comprehend its meaning. Truth be told, in Murakami's novels, plot is often irrelevant. But this has worked for him—so long as there is enough characterization and emotional substance to carry the story on its own. Unfortunately, After Dark lacks the support of either of these elements, and its plot is weak. Add to this a peculiar storyline about a comatose girl, and a narrator's voice that sharpens its tone and distances its readers. Lastly, wrap this up in the underlying tension that exists in the novel, which is borne from the foreboding suspense Murakami teases the readers with, making us believe that something dire is about to happen after each page we finish. This tension is frustrating, and neither builds nor ever becomes resolved.
By the end of the novel's brief 191 pages, we are left with the unidentifiable taste in our mouths—all we know is that it's not good. And it's certainly not a Murakami.
Sandra Lew currently resides in San Jose, California, where she is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at San Jose State University. She works in the video game industry, and when she is not writing, can be found playing games on her Xbox 360.
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