Haruki Murakami’s After Dark takes place over the course of seven hours during an autumn night in Tokyo. From midnight to dawn we follow five lost souls: a woman in a quasi-comatose state; a jazz musician at an all-night practice session; a prostitute assaulted at a “love hotel”; a salary man working late on a software project; and a 19-year-old girl looking to escape from the tension of her strained home life. Before the sun rises, each of these stories will intersect with the others.Murakami has long been admired for his depiction of the isolation and loneliness of modern Japanese life. Some have lauded him as the J.D. Salinger of Japan. Murakami has even translated The Catcher in the Rye into Japanese, and his breakthrough novel Norwegian Wood captured some of the spirit of that coming-of-age classic. Norwegian Wood sold four million copies, and struck a resonant chord with a younger generation of Japanese readers. After Dark focuses on a similar theme of Japanese youth struggling to reconcile their ideals with the stultifying conformity of the surrounding culture.
But the comparison with Salinger fails to do justice to the peculiar, surrealistic tone of Murakami’s fiction. Readers of Kafka on the Shore, Murakami's best known work in English translation, will recall fish falling from the sky, a man who could converse with cats, and various other bizarre touches. After Dark evokes a similar dream world ambiance. People disappear into television sets, or find that their image remains in the bathroom mirror even after they have left the room.Murakami focuses, in his words, on “the secret entries into darkness in the interval between midnight and the time the sky grows light,” a time when “no one can predict when or where such abysses will swallow people, or when or where they will spit them out.” Much of the power of his stories comes from the paradoxical quality of their settings, which at one moment seem intensely realistic, but the next instant have veered off into a mysterious alternative universe. Much of After Dark will be familiar, even to the Western reader. The book starts in a Denny’s, and along the way we visit a 7-Eleven, check out TV shows, and listen to rock and jazz music. But these are all part of Murakami’s elaborate set-up. The moments of normalcy never last long in his narratives. Murakami’s willingness to twist and turn his plots in strange directions is reminiscent of the work of French director Jean-Luc Godard. It is perhaps significant that the love hotel in After Dark is called Alphaville, the name of Godard’s inspired 1965 film. In this movie, Godard presented a dystopian sci-fi world in which no special effects were used and the sets were Parisian streets. The strange planet, in essence, was very much like our own. Murakami achieves a similar effect here. His After Dark is a potent and disturbing work, one that is all the more effective for the familiar aspects it presents. He reminds us that the essence of horror in the post-modern narrative is not some gothic extravagance, but the realities that await us outside our doorstep.