It's nighttime in Tokyo, and everything affects everything else. Oh, the connections and events were always there, but now, as the Denny's empties out and our main character goes from one among many to practically alone in the restaurant, those connections are magnified. In a city teeming with millions, the streets are reduced to a cast of only a few, and their actions spiral out and shape one another. In Haruki Murakami's 2004 novel After Dark (English translation 2007), which follows its characters through the night and into the early morning hours, these actions range from the subtly earth shattering to the mundane. Milk put back on the shelf by one character is purchased by a second, a cell phone left in a store is answered by another, and threats and referrals alter the players in the game and their relationships with one another.
The characters of Tokyo's witching hours are not aware that we are watching them, and they make no attempt to show us the most important parts of their lives. They are staying up at night reading and practicing their instruments, and, when they converse with one another, they do so in their own fashion, sharing stories and keeping their distance with equal frequency.
Mari is out in the dead of the night, aiming to spend the night awake in the middle of the big city. She has nowhere to go, but her goal has never been any specific destination. In only a short while, Mari will be going to China as an exchange student. If one follows the chain of cause and effect back, however, it becomes clear that every step was merely a reaction to others' influence. Mari did not go to a Chinese school because she had any affinity for Chinese culture, but rather to flee the competition of her former school. She is not going to China out of any desire to test herself or see the world; the trip is simply an extension of that initial flight away from expectations.
And yet, Mari is comparatively free, defined by the shadows of another, in which she's lived her life, but at least given the freedom to vanish within those shadows. Her sister Eri is not so lucky; she's been locked into a role, set up on a pedestal, for her entire life. Constrained by food allergies, she eats a special diet that the rest of her family doesn’t share. Constrained by her looks, she is a successful model and is all but worshiped by men.
That is, until Eri begins to cut herself off. It's not a conscious decision. She tries to reach out and unburden herself to nocturnal jazz musician Takahashi, but to no avail. On the night that After Dark takes place on, Takahashi confides to Mari: "No matter what I say, it doesn't reach her. This layer, like some kind of transparent sponge kind of thing, stands there between Eri Asai and me, and the words that come out of my mouth have to pass through it, and when that happens, the sponge sucks almost all the nutrients right out of them. She's not listening to anything I say—not really. The longer we talk, the more clearly I can see what's happening. So then the words that come out of her mouth stop making it all the way to me." (pp. 118-119)
Several months ago, Eri announced that she was "going to go to sleep for a while" (p. 153) and then put herself entirely beyond human interaction and influence. She is still alive, but she hasn't woken up. As we watch, she seems on the verge of moving on. There's another room merging with hers, linked to it by the bed that she's isolated herself in. This new room is empty and boarded off from the outside world. Or perhaps it was created by that outside world's influence, its isolation undermined by another character's pencil left abandoned on the floor.
Mari and Eri are not alone. Other characters who are on the cusp of turning points in their lives, or in the middle of nothing at all, also populate their late night metropolis. Some of them, such as Takahashi, are haunted by dreams of their past that prevent them from moving on. Others have built new lives over the ruins of the old and have managed to move on. Still more seem to have no lives at all, just to appear out of the darkness and disappear back into it like spirits or gods, altering the world around them without being affected by it in return.
In Orson Scott Card's Characters & Viewpoint (1999), Card describes the cinematic viewpoint: "It is as if the narrator were a movie camera looking over the viewpoint character’s shoulder" (p. 167). I don't think that there’s a better way to describe the opening of After Dark. Though the narrator never successfully enters the story, he is a palpable presence all the same. We don't hear the thoughts of characters, here. That layer of depth is replaced by the narrator's speculations and conclusions about the scene around us. Murakami and the reader are as one, and we observe and try and make sense of the world around us:
After a quick survey of the interior, our eyes come to rest on a girl sitting by the front window. Why here? Why not someone else? Hard to say. But, for some reason, she attracts our attention—very naturally. 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. (p. 5)
As the novel continues, however, it becomes almost unbearable to keep our objective distance. Piece by piece, we're drawn into these characters' lives, entrusted with their secrets, and filled with sympathy for them, until our watching nonintervention becomes impossible: "'Run!' we shout to her. On impulse we forget the rule that requires us to maintain our neutrality. Our voice doesn't reach her..." (p. 145)
Murakami defies easy interpretations, and every time an obvious metaphor suggests itself it is obfuscated by an incongruous detail—a dropped pencil or a skin-tight mask. That’s not to say that After Dark is incomprehensible or meaningless. The book is, rather, as multifaceted as the world seems to its protagonists, and it is perfectly possible to come up with a theory that fits ninety-five percent of the novel's layers—but those last few percentage points are all too resilient (realistic?) in their failure to adhere to any handy pattern.
Tokyo, here, is a bizarre blend of the real and the fantastic, though the bizarre is always muted and the real always vibrant, and the two are blended together until it's hard to ever tell them apart, leaving the composite feeling bizarrely alien for a place that most assuredly exists, the tale exhibiting a strangeness that’s hard to connect with an opening in a Denny's. Of course, Tokyo could be considered a foreign setting to most readers who approach the novel in its English translation, but the city is where Murakami has lived for much of his life. Yet Murakami does not act like a writer taking us through familiar streets. Instead he is a child brought to unfamiliar surroundings, leaping from one topic to the other with absolute abandon, fascinated by everything he sees. His Tokyo soon ceases to suggest the Tokyo of our own world but rather the exotic streets of a New Crobuzon or an Ambergris. Murakami's creation is the inverse of the fantasy ideal of that perfectly realized imaginary city; instead of using the oddities that can be found in mushroom men and remade convicts to reflect our own world, Murakami uses the familiarity of street lamps to suggest another world entirely.
In City of Saints and Madmen (2001), Jeff VanderMeer brings Dradin, a newcomer to the city of Ambergris, to the most familiar of locales. Over the course of the book, protagonists visit restaurants and art exhibits. China Miéville's Perdido Street Station (2000) takes us through train stations and back-room printing presses. The fantastic is both evoked and grounded by the twisted showing of the real. In After Dark, the same technique is used on the backstreets of Tokyo, nudging the familiar ever so slightly out of context to create something totally different.
After Dark is a snapshot. It’s a story of a single night, and the characters within it were never told that this is a story and probably wouldn’t see the significance of their lives if pressed. Plot lines are introduced and, once their immediate effect has been achieved, allowed to slide into the (now prophesied) uncertainty of the future. If there’s meaning to these events, it's the reader's job to pick it out and put it in its proper order. If there's an overarching plot, you'd have to fight hard to justify your interpretation of what it was. After Dark is an ephemeral masterpiece. It’s quiet and vivid and engrossing and organic, filled with all the hallmarks of a good story without bothering to possess any of the standard pieces of your average tale. I've heard it said that you can only capture moments with poetry, not with prose. I don't know about that, but After Dark captures the early morning hours like nothing else I have ever read.