By Haruki Murakami
Alfred A. Knopf, 191 pages, $22.95
Haruki Murakami works wonders with daytime. In the Japanese novelist’s very best books—Dance Dance Dance (1988) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994)—un- or semi-employed protagonists discover that, when the rest of us are stuck at work, the everyday world turns out to be as startling and strange as the high seas Sinbad sailed away on.
After Dark, Mr. Murakami’s latest, confines itself instead to the witching hours between 11:56 p.m. and 6:52 a.m. (A clock face, mighty handy, begins every chapter, but you will have to supply your own jazz soundtrack.) There isn’t a plot here so much as a flipbook of Edward Hopper paintings. See the clean, well-lighted diners, the mini-marts and empty swing sets, the darkened office cubicles and by-the-hour hotel rooms.
And in the foreground, a roundup of the usual screwballs: the too-talkative trombonist and the former lady wrestler; the Chinese hooker who gets the stuffing beaten out of her and the businessman who returns to work wondering why the hand he hit her with won’t stop hurting; the plain-Jane insomniac who strangers treat like a confessional booth and her sleeping-beauty sister, out cold for two months straight, except, of course, for the brief, nightmare portion of this particular evening, which she spends literally trapped inside her television set. This is not to mention the convenience-store clerk who intercepts the menacing call meant for somebody else and the runaway girl branded like cattle by someone bad somewhere else. They are all of them dull as drunks at the end of the bar.
Not to harp, but Mr. Murakami used to do better than this. For starters, all his kooky characters used to have a lovely, honest, uncanny—well—kookiness, and the conversations they had, however meandering, meant something, to them and to us. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Dance Dance Dance both had the structure and melancholic cool of hardboiled detective fiction, but instead of puzzling out who got killed where with what, they were devoted to solving the mystery of how, after great falls, human beings actually can be put back together again. They were novels of rehabilitation.
Those masterpieces came out a long time ago now. And I’ve begun to worry that Mr. Murakami was totally and completely broken by 1995, which was worse for Japan than 2001 was for New York: first the Kobe earthquake, about which he wrote a short-story collection, then the sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway, of which he gathered an oral history. Since then, he’s mostly written books about how people get lost and stay that way.
So before the runaway lifts up her shirt to show off burns the shape of bird’s feet, she discloses what passes, amid Mr. Murakami’s many riddles and weird visions, for a thesis statement, and the news is bad: “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. All you can do is go on living alone down there in the darkness.”
Still, Mr. Murakami lets there be light. Commuter trains fill back up. Traffic patterns re-form. Everybody wakes up, except the characters in the book, who crawl into bed and get the deep or troubled sleep they deserve. At which point, After Dark blinks shut, like a dream you’ve already forgotten.
Mark Lotto is a frequent contributor to The Observer.