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Book Review: After Dark by Haruki Murakami

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Haruki Murakami’s After Dark takes place over the course of seven hours during an autumn night in Tokyo. From midnight to dawn we follow five lost souls: a woman in a quasi-comatose state; a jazz musician at an all-night practice session; a prostitute assaulted at a “love hotel”; a salary man working late on a software project; and a 19-year-old girl looking to escape from the tension of her strained home life. Before the sun rises, each of these stories will intersect with the others.

Murakami has long been admired for his depiction of the isolation and loneliness of modern Japanese life. Some have lauded him as the J.D. Salinger of Japan. Murakami has even translated The Catcher in the Rye into Japanese, and his breakthrough novel Norwegian Wood captured some of the spirit of that coming-of-age classic. Norwegian Wood sold four million copies, and struck a resonant chord with a younger generation of Japanese readers. After Dark focuses on a similar theme of Japanese youth struggling to reconcile their ideals with the stultifying conformity of the surrounding culture.

But the comparison with Salinger fails to do justice to the peculiar, surrealistic tone of Murakami’s fiction. Readers of Kafka on the Shore, Murakami's best known work in English translation, will recall fish falling from the sky, a man who could converse with cats, and various other bizarre touches. After Dark evokes a similar dream world ambiance. People disappear into television sets, or find that their image remains in the bathroom mirror even after they have left the room.

Murakami focuses, in his words, on “the secret entries into darkness in the interval between midnight and the time the sky grows light,” a time when “no one can predict when or where such abysses will swallow people, or when or where they will spit them out.” Much of the power of his stories comes from the paradoxical quality of their settings, which at one moment seem intensely realistic, but the next instant have veered off into a mysterious alternative universe.

Much of After Dark will be familiar, even to the Western reader. The book starts in a Denny’s, and along the way we visit a 7-Eleven, check out TV shows, and listen to rock and jazz music. But these are all part of Murakami’s elaborate set-up. The moments of normalcy never last long in his narratives.

Murakami’s willingness to twist and turn his plots in strange directions is reminiscent of the work of French director Jean-Luc Godard. It is perhaps significant that the love hotel in After Dark is called Alphaville, the name of Godard’s inspired 1965 film. In this movie, Godard presented a dystopian sci-fi world in which no special effects were used and the sets were Parisian streets. The strange planet, in essence, was very much like our own.

Murakami achieves a similar effect here. His After Dark is a potent and disturbing work, one that is all the more effective for the familiar aspects it presents. He reminds us that the essence of horror in the post-modern narrative is not some gothic extravagance, but the realities that await us outside our doorstep.

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About Ted Gioia

  • http://www.gpb-katie.blogspot.com Katie

    I wanted to read this one before I read your review and now I think I’ll just have to get my copy ASAP. I haven’t read anything else of his, although I have heard of him. I’m looking forward to it.

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • monty mike

    Thanks for the review, look forward to reading. Big Murakami fan.

  • Citric Acid

    i have just finished reading ‘after dark’. And again the author did what he does best, mesmerized me with his many scenes through the imagery of his words.
    Very dreamy :)

  • http://jameswharris.wordpress.com Jim Harris

    I wonder how much the translation to English effects this stark little novel? It’s very vivid and contemporary but has little to suggest Japanese culture. It’s almost as if world culture has all melded together. It had more American pop culture than Japanese. Was the cultural specifics converted for American readers, or do people in Japan eat at Denny’s and shop at 7-Eleven?

  • Josh

    In response to Jim Harris, yes — Denny’s and 7-Eleven both exist in Japan… and in higher density than in the US at that.

  • Jon

    Also in a response to Jim Harris. There was an interview Murakami gave to salon.com a few years in regards to his book The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. On the whole he has considered that particular book to be his most Japanese. He said this because he wrote most of it while in the United States. He says for many of his other novels the inverse is true; in his other novels he (in his own words) tends to write with a more western influence intentionally. This may indicate some of these extra touches you are referring to. It seems to be a common trait of his work.

  • Leiyah

    I just finished reading this book and I was mesmerized by the way he detailed every scene and emotions. I love Korogi’s line about memories being fuels =) Makes me think how it is written in Japanese =)