November 5, 2007

Book review: "After Dark," by Haruki Murakami

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After Dark
By Haruki Murakami
Alfred A. Knopf / ISBN: 978-0-307-26583-8

"You know what I think?" she says. "That people's memories are maybe the fuel they burn to stay alive. Whether those memories have any actual importance or not, it doesn't matter as far as the maintenance of life is concerned. They're all just fuel. Advertising fillers in the newspaper, philosophy books, dirty pictures in a magazine, a bundle of ten-thousand-yen bills: when you feed 'em to the fire, they're all just paper."

There are lots of people out there, myself included, who believe Japanese author Haruki Murakami to be the creator these days of some of the most beautiful dialogue currently being produced on the planet; and after coming across an example like the one above, how really can you not agree? For years a well-known secret among the Western world's literary hipsters, it was not until Murakami's embrace by indie heavy-hitter McSweeney's at the turn of the millennium that he acquired a mainstream following within English-speaking countries; now that his work is getting more and more known, however, there are more and more people now aware of what a magical and sometimes almost perfect thing a Murakami novel is. I'll admit right off the bat, for example, that I'm a big and longtime fan of Murakami myself; that before today's review I had already read four of his thirteen books now available in English, and in fact love his work so much that I've named one of my past Macintoshes after him. (See, anytime I acquire another Mac, I rename the hard drive after a writer I really admire, so that I can tell them apart when linking them together as an in-home network...and,, never mind.)

After Dark, by Haruki Murakami

Murakami's latest English novel, then, the slim but still deeply strange After Dark, becomes this week my fifth full-length novel of his, and in fact it's this past knowledge of his projects that makes my thoughts concerning this one a little odd; because as existing fans already know, a big part of what makes Murakami so enjoyable is precisely the weird things that happen along the way, of the effortless manner by which the author slips from concretely "real" character drama into Amelie-style precious magical realism, into traditional horror and other existing literary genres, even into a bizarre logic and style that is uniquely his own (which I suppose I'll call "Murakamian" here for lack of a better term). And After Dark, frankly, has less Murakamianism than any other book of his I've read -- lots of weirdness still, to be sure, but now almost exclusively shuttled off to an appropriate part of the storyline (the main character's dream world, to be specific), with the rest of the novel instead being firmly rooted in the everyday reality of a contemporary Tokyo in the middle of the night.

Such a thing is simply bound to disappoint a lot of Murakami's fans at first, who consider this seamless blending of reality and surreality a chief reason to read his work in the first place; and indeed, as a long-time fan myself, I too was a little disappointed at first that this novel contains almost no Wild Sheep Chase-style waking strangeness within its covers. But on the other hand, it turns out that Murakami is such a master anyway at even a straight-ahead story, I couldn't help but to end up loving After Dark anyway; and perhaps even more importantly, it now serves as that mythical object we Murakami fans thought would never actually exist, a gentle introduction to the author's work that you can finally recommend to friends who get skittish at the mention of the word "experimental," and who have had such a hard time understanding why you're such a big fan of such work in the first place.

So what exactly is Murakamianism anyway, and why do so many people fall so obsessively in love with it? Well, that's a difficult question to answer, and in fact its complexity is a big reason why certain people get drawn to it; because the fictional worlds that Murakami creates within many of his stories are ones almost impossible to easily define, ones ultimately grounded in the same boring reality that you and I exist in out here in the physical world, but also with telling differences that can only be called fantastical in nature. Murakami's world, in fact, mirrors in many respects the one that David Lynch and other traditional Surrealists have created over the decades -- a reality much like the ones all of us create when we dream, where things seem normal even when impossibly bizarre details emerge on the edges of this normalcy. Much like Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, for example, traditional physics and outward appearances matter little in Murakami's universe -- it is a place where office buildings can actually contain natural caverns on their insides that stretch for dozens of miles, a place where people can get trapped at the bottom of wells for months at a time without suffering any ill effects.

Yet there's a reason that Murakami is considered by most to be a "mainstream" or "literary" author, while those he is most frequently compared to are often known as "genre masters" at best (albeit acknowledging as well that the terms "mainstream" and "literary" are just as narrowly defined as any genre these terms are supposedly in opposition to...but that's a whole different essay for a whole different day). And that's where it can get so difficult sometimes when describing Murakami to others; because it's easy to acknowledge that there's a very real difference between him and so-called "genre" artists, but difficult to pinpoint what exactly that difference is. Poetic dialogue? Like I mentioned at the beginning of this review, that's certainly a big part of it; but then, so is the actual behavior of his characters, not just what they say, with so many of them so ready to simply accept the weirdness going on around them, much like if they actually were in the middle of a dream. And then there's the razor-sharp and bone-dry humor on display, a trait we Westerners thought for centuries was the exclusive domain of alcoholic Brits, until finally getting our hands on more and more contemporary Asian literature and realizing that they're pretty good at it too; and then let's not forget all the wonderful things that do exclusively come with Asian literature, like the much different approach to sentence structure, the bigger societal emphasis on minimalism and choosing your words wisely.

That's an aspect of Murakami's work, in fact, that I think unwise to underestimate; that ultimately they are stories written in an Asian language by an Asian person in an Asian culture, and as such were written with an entirely different mindset and collection of cultural touchstones than ones written by a Westerner, even with the extra layer of normalization that naturally comes with any English translation. I myself am not well-versed in Asian history and literary styles, so unfortunately cannot tell you in detail what they actually are or where they come from; but as a fan (a big fan) of such contemporary Asian writers as Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, I can certainly tell you when I see these differences, and can assure you that I like the differences. It's the same situation, I suppose, as meeting an American at a cocktail party and somehow being able to tell that they've spent time overseas; it's not necessarily what they say that leads you to the conclusion, but rather the specific words and phrases they use, the opinions they express, the breadth of their world-view, even such cosmetic details as the way they hold their cigarette or whether they put ice in their drink.

Like I said, Murakami's most well-known works are a delightful and heady mix of these two elements -- of a decidedly Asian literary style (meant here in the most precocious way possible), mixed with a traditionally Surrealist outlook on the world, making his novels ferociously loved by those who grasp the implications of combining such elements, and thoroughly incomprehensible to those who don't. And that, like I said, is what makes After Dark so intriguing within Murakami's overall career, because it is inarguably one of the most straight-ahead, non-fantastical plots he's ever written -- a story that almost completely takes place within the very ho-hum, physics-obeying world of Tokyo at the turn of the millennium. More specifically, it's the story of 19-year-old college student Mari, who is spending this particular night haunting the still-open venues of a slightly artistic, slightly seedy section of the city, randomly stumbling across all kinds of interesting characters along the way and finding herself in all manner of minor adventures.

In fact, there's an early aspect of After Dark that I found quite telling about the book, and indicative of Murakami's surprising strengths as a non-fantastical storyteller; that apart from a few details like "love hotels" that have no direct Western equivalent, the rest of this story can realistically be imagined as taking place in any city on the planet (as long as it just happens to have a transit system that stops at midnight, a crucial plot detail), without breaking hold of the extra-strong sense of place that Murakami has created. For example, as a bohemian American I couldn't help but to keep picturing this story actually taking place in San Francisco instead of Tokyo, and it's amazing how well the story holds together even when pictured at a new location halfway around the world -- how this neighborhood of all-night diners and artistic squats and hourly-rate motels could so very easily be the Mission District at three in the morning, our protagonist a prickly undergrad who missed the last BART back to Berkeley that night. It's an aspect of Murakami's writing that I wasn't expecting, of how universally adaptable it would become when removing the Surrealist elements, and will be a big pleasant surprise to any existing fan who is tempted to think how pointless a Murakami novel would be without the weirdness.

But as mentioned, there is weirdness in After Dark as well, just proportioned out in a more traditional way than Murakami usually does it; almost exclusively through the description of a dream, that is, one being produced that same night by Mari's beautiful but troubled sister Eri, who a couple of years ago announced one evening that she was going to bed, and ever since has been peacefully but inexplicably sleeping an average of 23 hours a day. In fact, I find it interesting that I just so happen to be reading the 1850s American Gothic story House of the Seven Gables right now too, at the same time that I read After Dark; because in this case, Murakami seems to be deliberately copying the style of these old Victorian-era horror writers, specifically mentioning for example how strange all this strangeness actually is, even sometimes breaking the invisible wall between narrator and audience in order to point out certain details in a cinematic style, a popular literary technique among many Victorian writers that in our modern times has fallen out of style. (An example, for those finding it difficult to picture what I'm talking about: "What's this, dear reader? Is it a...a dagger we see on the dressing stand? Why yes, Fearless and Attentive Reader, it is a bloody dagger we see!") It sounds silly and cheesy when objectively described, and in another author's hands it would be; and that's why I suppose it comes as big a surprise as it does when Murakami successfully pulls it off, especially because of being known precisely for the opposite, for pulling off truly odd narrative details without calling even the tiniest amount of undue attention to them.

It's for all these reasons, of course, that I say that After Dark might be the perfect book for those getting introduced to Murakami for the first time; because in many ways it's a very traditional story, one that will sit very comfortably with anyone already used to the work of urban-focued, character-driven Western artists. But on the other hand, the book is still a distinctly Murakamian one, one that is satisfyingly off-kilter, and is bound to both enchant the long-time Murakami fan as well as quietly blow the mind of the new one. Most importantly, perhaps, the book serves as a nice introduction to weird literature for people not used to thinking that way yet; it's a story that gently trains you to acknowledge a separate secret world just beneath the one we usually inhabit, an intriguing combination of traditional character drama with J-Horror, a path that many new Murakami fans will naturally want to travel down some more when they're done with this book, and a little more deeply next time. It's certainly not one of his masterpieces, but then again never claims or even aims to be; it is instead a short, tight and accessible story, one that will hopefully help explain to the non-believer why his fans consider his actual masterpieces so brilliant in the first place. After Dark is one of those books perfect for an extra-smart, extra-bitter college freshman or suburban stay-at-home parent; if they respond favorably to it, then and only then do you hand them The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and officially blow their mind.

Out of 10:
Story: 9.8
Characters: 9.7
Style: 10
Overall: 9.9

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Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:31 AM, November 5, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |