Trou­bled mind­scape

Ur­ban noir springs su­perbly from the strange and poignant uni­verse of Haruki Mu­rakami, writes Af­ter Dark By Haruki Mu­rakami Harvill Secker, 201pp, $ 29.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stella Clarke

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: John Tiede­mann

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