“After Dark” by Haruki Murukami

After Dark cover by Vintage publishers

I love tales of urban alienation told at night, and given that I’ve been meaning to acquaint myself with Haruki Murukami for a while now, this seemed like a good place to start. The strange thing is that Murukami doesn’t seem to know what to do with his book once it gets underway, despite two great pitches (indeed, the pitches make up the blurb of my copy).

The novel’s made up of 5-ish basic story threads, with two main ones uniting them. In the first, a lonely girl named Mari is sitting alone in a café reading a book when she finds herself being shepherded along to a love hotel where a Chinese prostitute has been beaten up, so that she can translate and find out what’s happened. In the second, her older sister Eri has been sleeping for two months, and in her silent bedroom, an unplugged television flickers to life, before settling on a creepy image of a man with no face watching her through the screen.

It’s an intriguing beginning, and as dark though the story gets at times, it’s a very poetic one (something I understand to be a trademark of Murukami’s style). It’s interesting that the novel reads as though it takes place in real time (indeed, it’s light enough that you could easily finish it in less time than the story unfolds) and it does give a good pace to the proceedings. But what those proceedings are exactly isn’t delved into enough.

Now fair enough, this is a novel that takes place over the course of less than one night in Tokyo, between midnight and dawn. Some things can’t be covered off entirely – for instance the prostitute is pimped out by Chinese gangsters and its implied that the owner of the hotel is embroiling herself in dangerous dealings by trying to help the girl, but we never really find out what’s happening with her. In Eri’s room, strange supernatural things happen, but we again never really find out what’s actually happening.

The novel is told in a very cinematic style (the narration is a shared-first-person style, told in the present tense and scenes are laid out by what an unseen camera is focussing on) and it would lend itself very well to a short film, but it ends up reading as though the movie is better than the book – only that the movie doesn’t exist.

After Dark is an intriguing read, but a beguiling one. I enjoyed it enough, but at the end of it, I found myself wondering, “Well what am I supposed to do with all of this?” It sort of comes down to a sense that Murukami finished half a novel and then decided that if he ended it there it would be viewed as deep and enigmatic. Perhaps it is, and as an exercise in imagery and prose, it’s great, but I’m finding something else of his to read to really get what he’s like as an author.


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