Urban noir springs superbly from the strange and poignant universe of Haruki Murakami, writes After Dark By Haruki Murakami Harvill Secker, 201pp, $ 29.95
AS you open After Dark, time is inching towards midnight, along with a subtle, enigmatic shift in the quality of reality. Haruki Murakami’s signature world is about to stir into life; it seems familiar but interfaces enigmatically with a surreal dimension.
During the next seven hours, having positioned the reader as an invisible camera eye, Murakami takes us on a journey into superb noir territory. A young, insomniac student, Mari, reads and smokes in a late- night diner; cue Edward Hopperish scenes of raw, strip- lit loneliness on flat black. He immerses us in the forlorn, public spaces of a nocturnal Japanese metropolis imbued with an American flavour. This mixing is typical of Murakami, perhaps Japan’s most acclaimed and globally recognised author. He records and pursues the new permeability of Japanese culture to Western influences.
Mari is joined by a young man, Takahashi, a tenuous acquaintance who is a jazz musician. Murakami loves jazz; throughout this novel, tracks are called up and coolly played out in a manner reminiscent of David Lynch’s psychonoir Twin Peaks.
Intermittently, the exposed public spaces surrounding Mari are exchanged for a private place, which is even less reassuring. We are returned to a bare, still room where an exceptionally beautiful girl, Eri, sleeps deeply. Eri is Mari’s sister and, at a symbolic level, her double.
The relationship between Mari and Takahashi doesn’t go anywhere fast. Their chat is banal. Not much happens except that, via Takahashi, Mari inadvertently gets caught up in an incident in a love hotel, Alphaville ( a popular venue for pentup couples and sex workers).
With this overt reference to Jean- Luc Godard’s 1960s avant- garde movie Alphaville, Murakami encodes his narrative debts to cinema. The city of After Dark is neither obviously dystopic nor futuristic, there is no controlling computer presence similar to Godard’s Alpha 60; it merely seems contemporary. However, he conjures visual effects that feel like new- wave screen techniques. He fixes our viewpoint, for example, as a character exits a room, leaving us absorbing its unedited emptiness. It is only within Eri’s room that things are different.
Here, the sleeping Eri is in peril. She is comatose, supremely vulnerable, about to be imprisoned in the uncanny, pixilated 2- D universe of her unplugged television. As we watch, and the hands creep around the clock ( the text is punctuated by little clock- face graphics), Eri’s disconnected TV splutters into life. A faceless, menacing male figure stares out at her. Next thing we know her real bed is empty and there she is, caught in gloom and static, frantic to escape from behind the screen. This strikes a chord from William Gibson’s Neuromancer; actually, from all the ghosts in fiction’s cyberpunk machinery. Still, this is not a heavy- handed SF move but, as is often the case with Murakami, more of a metaphor. Eri’s predicament remains dreamlike and inexplicable, lacking clear reason or progression, but at the same time highly evocative of a distressed emotional state. Sleeping women are a fixation. Remember Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman ( the story that lends its title to Murakami’s most recent short- story collection), which contained the image of an unconscious female slowly dying, invaded by strange insects? After Dark activates Murakami’s repertoire of motifs and, in a unique, irrational fashion, creates that distinctive miasma of quiet anguish. The sleepless Mari and inert Eri are twinned, the story suggests at one point, by a traumatic childhood experience of entrapment.
Mood often defines the noir experience more than plot and this is what makes this novel cohere. Mari’s neon- lit love hotel encounter involves translating for a Chinese sex slave who has been beaten up by a company man, Shirakawa. The Chinese girl cannot escape her fate; her hoodlum boss reclaims her. There is little progression but the mood intensifies. It is one of low- level, restrained menace, purring and revving like the gangster’s motorbike.
Shirakawa is a brutal, icy, stylish computer analyst in a big corporation. We zoom in on him working nights in the stark vacuity of his firm’s office block, nursing his aching fist. He is never caught for his crime. Briefly it seems a thriller will unfold. Murakami toys with the possibility that, Quentin Tarantino- fashion, Shirakawa will lose an ear, but the moment passes.
Murakami’s night in the city is a more reticent affair than screen treatments of the same species, such as Martin Scorsese’s desperate After Hours ( 1985) or Jim Jarmusch’s quirky Night on Earth ( 1991). There is something purely feline in the shadowy, nocturnal stalking of his characters.
Cats, like dormant women, attract him. He once owned a jazz club named Peter Cat. Solitary creatures haunt his fiction ( look back at ManEating Cats ). Mari and Takahashi feed vagrant cats in a park. Murakami has us slink about, invisible, listening in and watching. We are acutely aware that we are voyeurs and that implicates us, somewhat, in the restrained menace of the narrative.
It would have been fascinating, in light of the elusive characteristics of Murakami’s work, to have had some access in the text to comment on the process of translation. After Dark is translated, as is usual, by Murakami expert Jay Rubin. It is hard not to wonder what has been involved in the shift from one language to another and one culture to another, especially a culture as unique as Japan’s. Mostly, one imagines, Rubin would not just have waved a magic wand but made particular decisions.
After Dark is nevertheless a wonderful, lowkey adventure in the mechanics of noir and a troubled mindscape. It is an intensely lyrical expression of the tenebrous, strange, and poignant Murakami universe. Stella Clarke is a Canberra- based literary critic, has a PhD from Warwick University and has taught extensively in Britain and Australia.