Haruki Murakami’s After Dark

“You are the town and we are the clock.
We are the guardians of the gate in the rock
The Two
On your left and on your right
In the day and in the night,
We are watching you.”

– W.H. Auden, The Two

That sense of dread, of something sinister lurking beneath the surface of things, is the keynote of Haruki Murakami’s new novel After Dark, a searing and magical book that is part poetry and part noir, like reading a combination of Resnais, Godard and Hideo Nakata in novel form, with shades of Bunuel thrown in for good measure. Set in the witching hours between midnight and dawn, After Dark takes its main protagonist, the nineteen year old Mari, on a Persephone like descent into an urban underworld, a landscape of bars and seedy love hotels and all night supermarkets that is at once a kind of inverted negative of the city and an existential dystopia, a place that is both science fiction and frighteningly everyday. Add to this a second line of narrative that could come straight out of Beckett, and you have a minor miracle of a novel by someone who is indisputably one of the greatest writers of our time.

What makes the dissonance in After Dark so successful is the presence of all the trademarks of Murakami’s earlier fiction. The checked-out young musician, the self-sufficient teenager who just wants to be left alone with her book, a sleeping woman, the bouncer / manager of a seedy hotel who used to be a professional wrestler, the sharp-edged executive working late into the night, the woman in hiding from an unspecified enemy which might just be her own past, cats, food, conversations about jazz. Read the first chapter of the novel and you’ll feel yourself sinking into the familiar atmosphere of books like Kafka on the Shore and South of the Border, West of the Sun. This is deception, because the second chapter takes you out of this scene into one that could come straight out of a horror film, and by the third chapter you’re plunged into an underworld of violence and sex more edgy than anything Murakami has written since Hard Boiled Wonderland. The sense of disconnection, of emotional orphaning, that is Murakami’s stock in trade, will return, will become, in fact, the central theme of the book, but in After Dark it comes accompanied by a deadlier bass note of menace, making the book itself an embodiment of the dangers lurking beneath the familiar.

Menace is, as I’ve said, the keynote of the book – a menace that always threatens but is never quite realised. Time after time, like the director of a horror film, Murakami takes us to the point where calamity seems inevitable, only to have it pass without incident. In a repeated motif in the book, characters observe themselves in a mirror, but when they move off their reflection stays behind them. Murakami’s novel has the same effect – disaster stares us in the face and moves on, but the image of it is left lingering in the mirrors of our mind.

The task of the novelist, Milan Kundera writes (in his new collection The Curtain), is to “get into the soul of things”. For many of the greatest novelists of this century (Kundera himself included) this has meant exploring man’s growing isolation in the modern world, the sense of something missing or terribly wrong, that it is impossible to put a name to (Kafka’s The Trial being, for me, the finest exemplar of this). It is a territory that Murakami has always been at home in, his larger novels turning existential crisis into full-blown magical fantasy. In After Dark, however, he puts the clamps on his imagination, stays mostly away from the fantastic, and rather than barging boldly into the nether regions of the soul as he is prone to do, chooses to remain poised on the surface, letting the dark hints gather like shapes seen murkily underwater. This menace is partly social – as Mari’s new friend Takahashi says:

“To my eyes, this system I was observing, this ‘trial’ thing itself, began to take on the appearance of some special, weird creature…like, say, an octopus. A giant octopus living way down deep at the bottom of the ocean. It has this tremendously powerful life force, a bunch of long, undulating legs, and it’s heading somewhere, moving through the darkness of the ocean. I’m sitting there listening to these trials, and all I can see in my head is this creature. It takes on all kinds of different shapes – sometimes it’s ‘the nation’, and sometimes it’s ‘the law’, and sometimes it takes on shapes that are more difficult and dangerous than that. You can try cutting off it’s legs, but they just keep growing back. Nobody can kill it. It’s too strong, and it lives far down in the ocean. Nobody knows where it’s heart is. What I felt then was deep terror. And a kind of hopelessness, a feeling that I could never run away from this thing, no matter how far I went. And this creature, this thing doesn’t give a damn that I’m me or you’re you. In its presence, all human beings lose their names and their faces. We all turn into signs, into numbers.”

Both Mari and Takahashi experience, in the novel, a sense of recognition when faced with a potential alter – Mari in meeting a nineteen year old Chinese prostitute, Takahashi in seeing a murderer brought to trial – that Sartre would recognize as the vertigo of otherness. But it is not only other people we are separated from by thin walls, identity itself is a bubble, beneath which yawn great abysses of hatred and self-doubt, ready to consume us. In what is perhaps the novel’s most powerful metaphor, the blurring of the line between television and reality becomes a code for a beautiful young woman’s struggle to break out of her own image, to establish a self independent of the perception of others. The self, Murakami suggests, is provisional; identity is the thin membrane with which we separate ourselves from worlds both internal and external that threaten to overwhelm us, and when the darkness comes and our assurance wears thin, then doubt and dread are an ever present medium in which we drown. And yet to shun the knowledge of these fears would be to fall into a kind of endless emotional slumber that is as much of a withdrawal from existence as being undone by them. It’s a feeling we have all experienced, and After Dark succeeds because of the ease with which Murakami plugs into this emotion, takes us straight to the heart of this darkness. His ability to create worlds that perfectly reflect our most intimate nightmares has always been Murakami’s true gift, and it is on full display here.

It is not the only gift on display. Though only 191 pages long, After Dark is a masterpiece of both form and language. Structurally, the action of the book takes place between midnight and dawn, or, to be more precise, between 11:56 pm and 6:52 am. The regions Murakami describe seem outside of time, a kind of karmic after-hours, but for all that time is a constant presence here – chapters take their titles from the moment they start at, the need to make it to sunrise becomes the force driving the characters forward through the night’s stasis. All this doesn’t seem too impressive, until you realize that it isn’t just the action that’s orchestrated by the clock, it’s the tone of the book itself. As the novel advances, Murakami’s writing turns first darker, then quieter, then, finally, lighter, perfectly mimicking the sense of a night slowly passing. It’s a formidable achievement, and one that will make you want to read the book a second time, just to see how it’s done.

Even more impressive, perhaps, is the way After Dark is, in a very fundamental way, cinematic. Murakami’s novels have always had a close tie with cinema, but in After Dark that linkage blossoms into its full potential. It’s not just the repeated use of a ‘camera’ theme, where the reader is explicitly told that “our viewpoint takes the form of a midair camera that can move freely about the room”, and the point of observation zooms in and out in a way that seems immediately familiar to anyone used to movies, but that would be inexplicable to someone who had never seen a film in his / her life. It’s not just the clever way Murakami adds soundtrack, introducing scratchy old jazz numbers at critical points in the book. It’s not just the constant cutting back and forth between scenes – again more a staple of cinema than of the novel. It’s not even the multiple film references (there’s a hotel in the novel called Alphaville, after Godard’s brilliant 1965 film, and a long conversation about Love Story). It’s the way Murakami consistently refuses the inwardness of his own characters, insistently remaining an observer of the action he creates, rather than entering into the thoughts of his protagonists. There’s hardly a first person sentence in the book – we are almost never taken into the minds of its characters, instead we are taken into our own minds and subtly told what we would deduce and how we would feel watching the characters play out their roles. After Dark is both a novel and a film script, or rather it is the narration of a film script by an invisible narrator, who, in describing what the final film would look like once it was made, makes it come alive for us.

Finally, of course, there is the prose itself. Consider this passage from the first half of the book:

“Eventually the camera circles around to the front and shows his face, but this does not help us to identify him. The mystery only deepens. His entire face is covered by a translucent mask. Perhaps we should not call it a mask: it clings so closely to his face, it is more like a piece of plastic wrap. But, thin as it is, it still serves its purpose as a mask. While reflecting the light that strikes it as a pale lustre, it never fails to conceal the man’s features and expression. The best we can do is surmise the general contours of his face. The mask has no holes for the nose, mouth or eyes, but still it does not seem to prevent him from breathing or seeing or hearing. Perhaps it has outstanding breathability or permeability, but, viewing it from the outside, we cannot tell what kind of material or technology has been used to make it. The mask possesses equal levels of sorcery and functionality. It has been both handed down from ancient times with darkness and sent back from the future with light.”

Four things (at least) are worth noting here. First, the vividness with which Murakami’s description brings the face of the unnamed man to life, so that we see, clearly as on a movie screen, the picture he is trying to convey. Second, notice how the description, while at one level lucid and precise, manages, somehow, to transcend itself, takes on, especially in those closing lines, a kind of lyricism. Third, consider how this image of a man wearing a mask that is not so much a mask as a second skin, thick enough to conceal his identity, but thin enough to have no separable existence of its own, resonates perfectly with the larger theme of the book about identity and the true self; is, in fact, the entire heart of the book reduced to microcosm. And finally, re-read if you will that magical first line – “Eventually the camera circles around to the front and shows his face, but this does not help us to identify him” (italics mine). That ‘us’ is sheer genius. There is, of course, no possibility of our ‘identifying’ the man, since, firstly, we are in a fictional world where everyone is made up and therefore no one is recognizable and secondly, because even if the face were clearly visible to the observer, we, as readers, could not see it. Yet with that casual ‘us’ Murakami has placed us doubly in the heart of the narrative, made us assume that we are not only seeing what he sees, but that, being established inhabitants of this world that is, in fact, just 48 pages old, we are already familiar enough with it to make recognizing the man a distinct possibility. It’s such richness of writing that makes Murakami the master he is.

It probably isn’t giving away too much about the book to say that in the end things turn out okay. Nothing is resolved, really, but nothing particularly bad happens. As Murakami puts it (I can’t resist one last long quote):

“A cycle has been completed, all disturbances have been resolved, perplexities have been concealed, and things have returned to their original state. Around us, cause and effect join hands, and synthesis and division maintain their equilibrium. Everything, finally, unfolded 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. None of our principles have any effect there. No one can predict when or where such abysses will swallow people, or when or where they will spit them out.”

That’s as good a summary of the plot of the book as any you can find. It’s important to pay attention here to the phrase, “perplexities have been concealed”. Because that is what, at the close of After Dark, the imminent dawn really is – a reprieve, a return to the temporary sanity of the usual order. The darkness is not vanquished, it has simply been repealed for a while. As the Chinese mobsters who embody the agents of darkness (much like Auden’s two watchers) put it: “But you can’t get away. You can run, but you can’t get away”. After Dark ends on a gentle note, but it is a note in a minor key. The darkness will be back, perhaps sooner than we expect. And so, we fervently hope, will Murakami.