Through a series of chance encounters, a Japanese novelist captures the loneliness of modern life.
There's a dreamlike quality to Haruki Murakami's mesmerizing new novel, After Dark, set during the wee hours of a Tokyo night, "slack time in the city," when the trains stop running but the karaoke bars bustle. As in last year's story collection, "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman," and his longer novels, including "Kafka on the Shore," Murakami captures the palpable loneliness and essential unfathomability at the heart of modern life.
Murakami's cultural references are almost exclusively Western and often musical. His new novel's strongest evocations are of two American visual artists: Edward Hopper's desolately lonely paintings and the slow-motion video installations of contemporary artist Bill Viola.
Murakami seems, magically, to have translated the essence of these artists' two-dimensional works into quietly luminous prose, adding the humanity that is his signature. In classic Murakami form, amid the alienation are flickers of hopefulness springing from seemingly random, serendipitous human interactions and connections.
At the center of "After Dark" is 19-year-old university student Mari Asai, who is loath to go home to where her more beautiful older sister, a fashion model named Eri, has been in a deep, self-induced sleep for months, essentially avoiding her fast-paced life.
When we meet her, Mari is hanging out in a Denny's restaurant, reading. Her solitude is soon interrupted by an intruder, a long-haired jazz trombonist named Takahashi, who once had a crush on Mari's older sister. He is as loquacious as Mari is reserved.
Our perspective on this encounter is cinematic but remote, as if from an overhead camera that zooms in on the pulsing city from on high. This voyeuristic "single point of view" shifts throughout the novel between Mari, the people she encounters during her long night's journey toward human connection, and her sleeping sister, Eri.
Unlike a more traditional omniscient narrator, Murakami's "imaginary camera" is an impassive observer, like a scientist set to record empirical evidence but incapable of interpretation.
"We are invisible, anonymous intruders," Murakami writes. "We look. We listen. We note odors. But we are not physically present in the place, and we leave behind no traces. We follow the same rules, so to speak, as orthodox time travelers. We observe but we do not intervene."