Friday, 25 September 2015

Book Review - 'After Dark', by Haruki Murakami

It seems fair to me to believe that most authors would want their readers to feel some sense of satisfaction upon reaching their end of their novel - or, if not that, then at least a vague feeling of regret that it's over. I know that I have felt both many times over the years, when authors have successfully managed to draw me into their story and get me invested in its cast of characters.

Try as I might, I just can't imagine that any author would actually want to leave their readers feeling frustrated and slightly confused. Or, maybe, their actually are authors who want their readers to feel that way. After all, why else would some authors go so far in their deliberate pursuit of the surreal. Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, definitely gives the impression of falling into this group. He is an author known among his fans for the sheer strangeness of much of his work – and is even considered to be something of a master of the surreal by some. But, like with anyone who deliberately aims for the surreal, it seems as though his work is likely to be highly frustrating to anyone who prefers things to be a little more straightforward.

After Dark is a novel very much of this particular style – one that attempts to blend elements of real-world, character driven, drama with overtly surreal and strange imagery.

This is a novel where reflections linger in mirrors long after a person has left the room, and where a young woman can sleep undisturbed for two months. It is a novel where this same young woman can find herself drawn into an image broadcast onto her television (which happens to be unplugged at the time), and through it into a strange white room. It is a novel where the readers find themselves invited to become a character within the story – taking up a spot next to the invisible narrator as a silent observer, powerless to actually change anything that occurs. It is, finally, a novel that ultimately stubbornly refuses to explain any of this – leaving the reader to form their own impressions about what just happened, what it means, or if it even means anything.

Mari Asai, a young student, finds herself stuck in the city after mission the last train home – but, she isn't overly bothered. As it turns out, she missed the last train deliberately, hoping to give herself some time away from her family, and is now content to spend the night reading and drinking coffee in an all-night diner. Takahashi, a young jazz musician, is similarly stranded – though, his own plans for the night centre around an all-night practise session with his band. The two meet briefly, finding some common ground in Mari's older sister, Eri. Later, Mari is interrupted a second time by a woman named Kaoru, the manager of a nearby Japanese 'Love Hotel', who needs help with a Chinese prostitute who has been severely beaten by a client – the girl does not speak Japanese, and Kaoru has heard that Mari speaks fluent Chinese (informed by Takahashi, as it turns out). Meanwhile, out in the suburbs, Eri Asai sleeps an impossibly deep sleep that has remained largely undisturbed for the past couple of months. But, as she sleeps, the television in her room flickers to life, showing an image of a strange white room, and a Man with No Face.

In the end, it was the stranger aspects of the novel that became its greatest weakness, for me. There is a way to do 'surreal' right, of course, and the line between the right way and the wrong way can sometimes seem awfully blurred – but, After Dark just seems to have fallen on the wrong side of it. Every time we are drawn back to Eri Asai, or the Man with No Face, it feels like too great a departure from the rest. And, the unexplained occurrence of reflections lingering in mirrors simply begins to feel like strangeness simply for its own sake. It really just ends up being distracting. Which is a shame, because there is still quite a bit to like about this novel. Mari and Takahashi both make for endearing characters in their own way – Mari is studious and overly serious, and Takahashi is laid back and a little goofy. The points where the two are simply talking are often a highlight. And, I would have quite happily read an entire novel based around the character of Kaoru, the ex-female wrestler turned hotel manager – it's really just a shame she has only a couple of scenes. The drama of the Chinese prostitute and the client who beat her would also have been easily enough to carry the bulk of the novel, if it weren't ultimately pushed to the side. What we have instead is a novel that feels oddly disjointed. Odd, dream-like, imagery jammed together against elements of more realistic drama – and, the two halves just don't fit.

There is always a place for the surreal in fiction, of course. But, the main impression left with me by the time I reached the end of After Dark is that, in this particular case, the story as a whole might have been better off without it. In the end, it really only served as a distraction from the much more interesting character-driven drama that served as the novel's greatest strength.

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