Do you ever read a book and like it very much but can’t quite figure out why? Disliking a book is easy. Most of the time I know with immediate certainty what I don’t like about a book. The stronger the dislike, the more specifically I’m able to pinpoint the exact source of my displeasure. But a good book, and especially a good book like After Dark, is diffuse and ethereal and uncertain. I can’t tell you what makes a good book, but I know it when I see it.
After Dark, by Haruki Murakami is a novel set in Tokyo after dark…or to be more precise, between 11:56 p.m. and 6:52 a.m. Mari and Eri Asai are sisters. Eri is in her bedroom, in a sleep described as “enchanted.” It is a strange sleep. Her sister Mari is hanging out at the Tokyo Denny’s and various other all-night establishments, including at one point, a love hotel. A love hotel being pretty much what it sounds like…a place where people go to have sex. At the Denny’s, Mari runs into Takahashi, who went to school with her sister, and they have many interesting conversations. Sleeping in her room, Eri Asai is sucked into a television set. A mysterious salaryman beats up a Chinese prostitute at the love hotel and then goes home to his family. These are some of the things that happen in Tokyo between the hours of 11:56 p.m. and 6:52 a.m.
I read this book for one of my book groups, and the member who selected it endorsed it in the following way: “It’s not as weird as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and I think I know what he’s up to.” Our book group has not met yet to discuss the book, so I’m still not sure what Murakami is up to. Here is a quote someone posted recently on Facebook from Murakami: “If a person would just make the effort, there’s something to be learned from everything. From even the most ordinary, commonplace things, there’s always something you can learn.” Does this quote hold the key to After Dark? Who knows?
I’m not always a fan of the book that makes me feel like I need to figure it out. I feel sometimes that these books are written by people who are deeply insecure and want to make the rest of us feel stupid. And quite frankly, I can feel plenty stupid on my own, with or without the help of your book. I don’t think Murakami is trying to make any of us feel stupid. I think that perhaps he has stories to tell which he feels cannot be conveyed without a little, shall we say, reality slippage?
Here is a list of the things I like about After Dark:
– The characters. Eri Asai is sleeping mostly, so there’s not much to say about her. But Mari, Takahashi and some of the folks they meet in their night ramblings are interesting and compelling people. Despite the very weird things happening in their lives, you can kind of relate to them. You can imagine someone like Mari or Takahashi. You can imagine thinking some of the same thoughts they think. In After Dark, the weirdness doesn’t get in the way of solid characterization.
– The tone and style. I have no idea if I’m using these terms correctly…it’s been a long time since I took an English class. But I love the way the characters talk to each other. It’s strange in just the right amount. You think to yourself, “Does anyone really have conversations like this?” And my answer is, maybe in Japan? Or maybe in the middle of the night? Or maybe just in Murakami’s world? But there’s an essential truth to the way they talk that keeps it from being too strange.
I like the style of narration. Murakami invites you to be a disembodied point of view, but a plural disembodied point of view. A whimsical, but thoughtful, plural, disembodied point of view: “After a quick survey of the interior, our eyes come to rest on a girl sitting by the front window. Why her? Why not someone else? Hard to say. But, for some reason, she attracts our attention–very naturally.” Oh, does she? And I believe the narrator. She does attract my attention. Our attention. We float around like a camera in Eri Asai’s room. Our field of vision moves here and there. There are times when we would like to become involved in the action we see, but we can’t. And yet, we are complicit all the same. We are complicit in our watching.
– The watching. I think the watching is an important part of whatever Murakami is up to here. We are invited to be like a camera. Eri Asai is sucked into a television. We’re not sure how. Why? What is all the watching about?
I confess, I have no real idea. From the little I know about Japanese culture, I know that conformity is very important. You can get in trouble for running to catch the bus. Perhaps in that kind of society, you would be especially concerned with watching. Perhaps in any society today there’s a tendency to feel watched. Perhaps we’d all like to imagine ourselves in the center of some reality television show, as horrifying as that might actually be.
I don’t know what the exact story is that Murakami is trying to tell, and that’s okay with me. It still feels organic. I believe there’s still a story that’s at the center of the novel, and that it happens to involve a girl in an enchanted sleep being sucked into a television without much explanation seems incidental. The story being told is also deeply about connections. Connections being made and lost and re-established. And that’s a kind of story I understand.
I’ll spend the next couple of weeks thinking about what the rest of it means, and maybe in the end, that is the whole point. To inject the story into your brain like a virus that works its way through your neurons. To write a story just weird enough to avoid any easy dismissal…that’s not a bad idea at all.