In our Edge of the Universe column, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.
The bars are closing and the night’s last trains are shuttling people out of the city to their suburban beds. The city would be empty if it weren’t for the few remaining people who have decided to stay up After Dark.
Mari Asai, who studies Mandarin, sits in a Denny’s, reading a novel, when a stranger, Takahashi Tetsuya, joins her. Technically, Takahashi is not a stranger. He went to school with Mari’s sister, Eri, and he and Mari actually met once at a party the year before. Takahashi is staying up all night because he is playing trombone with his band. Takahashi exits the restaurant, but Mari is soon joined by one of his friends, Kaoru. A former wrestler, Kaoru manages Alphaville, a love hotel, where a Chinese prostitute has been beaten. Could Mari help out?
Like many of Haruki Murakami’s novels, After Dark is probably best taken as an exploration of alienation. Murakami’s narrator speaks directly to the reader, at one point explaining “we are perspective.” The reader is likened to a bird, an eye, or a camera, empowered to see things, but seemingly powerless to connect to the people we watch in this narrative. The city, meanwhile, is described as an organism, suggesting that everyone in it is intertwined and connected. Ironically, perhaps tragically, everyone still feels isolated and struggles to communicate with others.
We soon learn that Mari’s sister, Eri, has fallen into a deep sleep. It’s like she is retreating from the world, but her sleep is so deep that she has begun to connect to another world. As Eri sleeps, we see her television begin acting oddly. Inside of it, we watch as a figure appears. We cannot make out his face, which is covered by a translucent mask, but he seems to be watching Eri. Soon, Eri wakes up in the other world, trapped and alone. We are there to witness her isolation, but cannot otherwise intervene.
No doubt, many readers will immediately notice that After Dark strongly recalls Murakami’s previous novels. It explores alienation, Takahashi is a jazz musician who did-alright-in-school-but-could-have-done-better-if-he’d-worked-harder, and the ghostly other world recalls the creepy supernatural event in Sputnik Sweetheart. As Takahashi might say, there’s probably no good reason for longtime Murakami fans to pick up this novel.
Nevertheless, I really enjoyed After Dark and do recommend it. Even if the ingredients are familiar, that doesn’t mean they’ve lost their power forever. I found the premise of staying up all night appealing, especially since Murakami avoids the benders and parties that often appear in stories set after dark. Much of the novel consists of dialogue between Mari and Takahashi, and I enjoyed the way Takahashi carefully reasons his way through his exchanges with Mari. The novel’s narrator, always reminding readers that they are detached, ghostly observers, also intrigued me. In other words, although I understand why some readers would not immediately embrace After Dark, it’s still one of my favorite Murakami novels.
I listened to Random House Audio’s production of After Dark. Janet Song narrates the novel. Her voice often reminded me of Liara T’Soni from the Mass Effect video games, and she reads Murakami’s characters in a moderate style that I felt worked for the novel.