Review by Andrew Crumey
Published in Scotland On Sunday
Harvill Secker, £14.99
Now approaching his sixties, Haruki Murakami continues to write literary bestsellers with a youthful feel. After Dark is about a nineteen-year-old girl encountering the nocturnal low-life of a modern Japanese city, ably translated into an Americanised English that is pacey and spare, offering a swift and easy reading experience. But it is hard to say whether Murakamiís continuing preoccupation with young protagonists, a feature of most of his novels, is a sign of undiminishing vigour, canny marketing, or arrested development.
Not much happens in After Dark, though what little action we get is striking. The girl, Mari, is in a late-night diner when she meets Takahashi, a former date she has forgotten, whose real interest was always in Mariís beautiful sister Eri. The pair catch up on each otherís back-story (Mari, significantly, is studying Chinese), then Takahashi goes back to his jazz band rehearsal in the basement of a nearby love hotel. Soon afterwards Mari gets a call from there: a Chinese prostitute has been beaten up and they need a translator. So Mari enters the shadowy world of the love hotel and its staff.
The story ramifies interestingly as we find out about the outwardly ordinary, respectable office worker who abused the prostitute, and about the sinister vice gang who plan to take revenge; but this potentially gripping plot is kept low-key thanks to constant flips into the parallel story of Eri. Here we see another Murakami hallmark, his taste for outlandish fantasy. Asleep in her bed, Eri is sucked inside a TV set.
Murakami gets away with it thanks to the authorial voice he uses; a present-tense narration that treats everything in the novel as though it were a film being watched on screen. ĎThe room is dark, but our eyes gradually adjust to the darknessÖ Our viewpoint takes the form of a midair camera.í Having been turned into a lens ourselves, we arenít too put out when something similar happens to Eri; though the same objectivised view permeates Mariís story too, making much of the novel read almost like a synopsis interspersed with dialogue. As with so much in Murakamiís writing, it is difficult to decide whether all of this is the result of careful calculation, or else a sign that he is making everything up as he goes along.
Inside the television set there is a man in a mask. Why has he been watching Eri through the screen, and why has she now joined him? Donít expect any kind of logical answer because we never get one; the whole thing is a striking image but not a meaningful one. Equally, donít expect any resolution of the prostitute story; we are shown, as in a film, the abuserís near-collision with the gang member who is hunting him, but they go their separate ways without incident. Closure is not Murakamiís style; instead everything is left hanging, and in his better novels (such as the recent Kafka On The Shore), this enigmatic quality is what makes characters and events stick in the mind once the book is closed. After Dark is an altogether thinner affair, and as soon as the plug is pulled, the pictures vanish without a trace.