A gentle exhale after the epic, dreamlike surrealism of Kafka On The Shore, Haruki Murakami's After Dark has the feel of an Edward Hopper painting or a Wong Kar-wai movie, an enchanted nocturnal loneliness that's more cinematic than literary in nature. Murakami's omniscient voice even takes the form of a camera, peering in on his eccentric cast of characters from a deliberate distance. Setting all the action between 11:56 p.m. and 6:52 a.m., when most of the world is in slumber, the ever-beguiling author suggests that different rules apply during these witching hours, and that even the people who are awake exist to the reader as if they were part of a dream.
Explaining the premise to a Murakami story is usually a sure way to make him sound silly, but here the main thread is reasonably straightforward. Parked at a Denny's in an unnamed Japanese city, Mari flips quietly through a book and orders enough food and coffee to justify her spot in the booth. Her plans for a tranquil evening are interrupted by an obscure acquaintance from her past, a young trombonist who carries much of the conversation before heading back out into the night. One piece of information he gleans from Mari—that she speaks Chinese fluently—leads to her next encounter with Kaoru, the panicked manager of a local "love hotel" who desperately needs her translating skills. Kaoru takes Mari back to her by-the-hour "love ho" (named Alphaville, after the Jean-Luc Godard film), where a Chinese prostitute has been horribly beaten by a businessman client. Meanwhile, Mari's gorgeous fashion model sister Eri is having strange metaphysical problems back home.
The opening lines set the tone: Taking a bird's-eye view, Murakami writes, "the city looks like a single gigantic creature—or more like a single collective entity created by many intertwining organisms." And as the book progresses, Murakami does a lot of the intertwining, assembling his characters into that "collective entity" by making connections both plausible and highly unlikely. Mari and Eri, too, are basically a two-sided coin: One wanders through the conscious world at night as the other sleeps her way into a bizarre unconscious realm. The ephemeral nature of this material probably could not be sustained over a full novel—though given Murakami's talent for making the slight seem epic, he might be able pull it off—but After Dark, at slightly more than novella length, is well-proportioned enough to work its magic.