May 23-29, 2007

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Haruki Murakami

Photograph by Elena Seibert
Tokyo dreaming: Haruki Murakami's latest novel tracks the denizens of late-night Tokyo.

Midnight's Minions

Haruki Murakami's new novel, 'After Dark,' tracks Tokyo's night crawlers

By John Freeman

'I KNOW a bank where the wild thyme blows," said Oberon to Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, "where oxlips and the nodding violet grows." In Shakespeare's time, such nighttime riverbanks might have held miraculous strange things. In the 21st century, however, dark magic flowers more often in our cities, which blaze on through the night, circadian rhythms be damned.

In After Dark, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami (Kafka on the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) has given these metropolises their modern-day Midsummer Night's Dream. The action unfolds cinematically in the all-night diners and love hotels of contemporary Tokyo, between midnight and 5am. The only pixies are the immigrant hotel workers who clean up a mess left by a john who beat up his date for the night.

The book begins with our point of view as if from a hand-held camera panning over the cityscape. "In our broad sweep," Murakami writes, "the city looks like a single gigantic creature—or more like a single collective entity created by many intertwining organisms."

Like Robert Altman in Shortcuts, Murakami then zeros in on a handful of those "intertwining" lives. Here are the prostitutes, students, hotel employees and Chinese mafiosos who people the Tokyo night. In a daring but successful twist, we also meet a beautiful model who went to sleep months ago and refuses to wake up.

Murakami once ran a jazz club and has spoken about the influence of that music's premium on improvisation in his writing. More than anything he has written to date, After Dark showcases that crosscurrent. Even if it wasn't written like a jazz solo, After Dark feels spontaneous, improvised.

As is so often true in the nighttime, the story gives the impression anything could happen. What's remarkable is how efficiently After Dark lures us into this fugue state. Murakami has delicately retooled his prose to noirlike brevity. Sentence fragments, short declarative statements and an abundance of dialogue makes the novel move along swiftly, with surface and undercurrent creating an atmosphere of lonely menace.

"The room is dark," Murakami writes, describing a salaryman who has roughed up a prostitute and then headed back to finish a night shift. "Only the area around the man's desk receives illumination from fluorescent lights on the ceiling. This could be an Edward Hopper painting titled Loneliness."

Murakami makes frequent use of such tableaux, pausing between bursts of conversation of other characters to linger on the minute details of, say, a sleeping woman, a park, a 7-Eleven at 4am. "All kinds of stuff is scattered on the street: aluminum beer cans, a trampled evening newspaper, a crushed cardboard box. ..."

The characters feel not unlike this detritus—lifted up and scattered about—which allows Murakami to wring some pathos out of their collisions here. Hotel workers take care of a prostitute; a student is fetched from the Denny's to translate (since the prostitute only speaks Chinese); the young musician who is the conduit between these worlds briefly falls for the student.

It is extremely difficult to write this well and this lightly about a demimonde cast, and still make it matter. In a few hours, there will be a new day, and the one Murakami's characters are leaving will be mostly erased, and workers will begin hustling to the subway. As Murakami writes, "the new day is almost here, but the old one is still dragging its heavy skirts."

And yet, it is during this in-between time that the dark side of love stalks romance most thrillingly. So it's important to give it a long-lens gaze. Murakami gives this special time its due—and its story. The novel will most certainly last until the next morning, and the next and the next.

After Dark by Haruki Murakami, translated by Jay Rubin; Knopf; 191 pages; $22.95 cloth

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