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Michael Dirda
A surreal novel of suspense from one of Japan's most exciting writers.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, May 20, 2007

AFTER DARK

By Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin

Knopf. 191 pp. $22.95

Last year, Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore won the World Fantasy Award for best novel. This shouldn't come as a surprise. Ever since the Japanese writer began publishing in America -- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, A Wild Sheep Chase-- Murakami has been out front, riding the zeitgeist, investing his work with an aura of the surreal, uncanny and fantastic. Over the past 25 years, literary fiction has increasingly disdained the strict tenets of social realism. Our finest writers are now producing what is essentially science fiction (Cormac McCarthy's The Road), alternate history (Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union) and absurdist fantasy (the short stories of George Saunders). A hot author such as Jonathan Lethem proudly introduces the work of Philip K. Dick for the Library of America. Neil Gaiman, creator of the Sandman series, has achieved rock-star status. We are living in an age when genre fiction -- whether thrillers or graphic novels, children's books or sf -- seems far more exciting and relevant than well-wrought stories of adultery in Connecticut.

After Dark is a short book, hypnotically eerie, full of noirish foreboding, sometimes even funny, but, most of all, it's one that keeps ratcheting up the suspense. At times, the novel recalls those unsettling films of Jean-Luc Godard or Michelangelo Antonioni where something dire seems always about to happen, even as attractive young people, full of anomie and confusion, meander aimlessly through an ominous urban landscape. The entire action of After Dark takes place over the course of just one night, starting at four minutes to midnight and ending at 6:52 a.m. That action is conveyed to us from a hovering eye-in-the-sky viewpoint, as if a camera were floating invisibly through each chapter, recording what it sees but sometimes also talking directly to the reader.

What the camera lens first zeroes in on is a Denny's in Japan. The restaurant is crowded, a jukebox is playing. Soon we swoop down on one particular customer: "She sits at a four-person table, reading a book. Hooded gray parka, blue jeans, yellow sneakers faded from repeated washing. On the back of the chair next to her hangs a varsity jacket. This, too, is far from new. She is probably college freshman age, though an air of high school still clings to her. Hair black, short, and straight. Little makeup, no jewelry. Small, slender face. Black-rimmed glasses. Every now and then, an earnest wrinkle forms between her brows. . . . The music playing at low volume is 'Go Away Little Girl,' by Percy Faith and His Orchestra. No one is listening, of course."

Mari Asai is her name, as we discover when an old friend of her sister's recognizes her. That sister, Eri, we soon learn, is cover-girl beautiful. She is compared to Snow White and later to Sleeping Beauty. Even before he runs off, Takahashi, carrying his trombone, tells Mari that he'll be jamming in a basement not too far away. By this time, the jukebox is starting on Burt Bacharach's "The April Fools."

Why is Mari here in the middle of the night? This isn't a safe neighborhood. Nearby is a love hotel named Alphaville, where couples can rent rooms by the hour. Is she waiting for someone or fleeing something? We just have to wait and see. But when we turn the page, the point of view has suddenly shifted location, and we now hover in the bedroom of Eri Asai. The beautiful young woman sleeps so soundly that she hardly seems alive. So deep a sleep isn't normal. The room itself appears sparsely furnished, except for a television. As we observe Eri in her coma-like state, the TV begins to flicker into life, even though it is clearly unplugged. An image starts to form on the dark screen, the image of a man sitting in a chair, staring into this very room, unblinkingly focused on the sleeping Eri.

Meanwhile back at Denny's, the clock reads 12:25 a.m. Mari is still hunched over her book, when suddenly a large powerful woman, dressed in a leather jacket, storms in. She goes right up to the studious girl and asks her to come to Alphaville, where something terrible has happened to a young Chinese prostitute. According to Takahashi, Mari speaks Chinese. Can she help communicate with the frightened girl?

By this point, the unnerved reader is beginning to worry. What kind of intrigue is going on around Mari? Can she -- or we -- trust the fat Kaoru? And what's in store for the sleeping Eri? Why, too, is there so much mask imagery and so much talk of invisible barriers and of waking up? Soon other, increasingly disturbing characters begin to appear. What organizing principle links all these disparate scenes and people? The sense of menace escalates:

"A motorcycle comes to a halt at the front entrance of the Alphaville: a big, tough-looking Honda sports bike. The man driving it wears a full-face helmet. He leaves the engine running as though he wants to be ready to get out fast if he has to. He wears a tight-fitting black leather jacket and blue jeans. High-top basketball shoes. Thick gloves. The man takes off his helmet and sets it on the gas tank. After a careful scan of his surroundings, he takes off one glove, pulls a cell phone from his pocket, and punches in a number. He is around thirty. Reddish dyed hair, ponytail. Broad forehead, sunken cheeks, sharp eyes. After a short conversation, the man hangs up and puts the phone back into his pocket. He pulls his glove back on and waits."

Through his short enigmatic chapters, Murakami -- aided by Jay Rubin's perfectly pitched English -- manages to convey something of the interconnectedness of city life and its constant air of expectancy and danger. As one character says to Mari: "Let me tell you something. . . . The ground we stand on looks solid enough, but if something happens it can drop right out from under you. And once that happens, you've had it: things'll never be the same." *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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