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Creatures of the night

After Dark A Novel Haruki Murakami Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin Alfred A. Knopf: 194 pp., $22.95

May 13, 2007|Edward Champion | Edward Champion, a San Francisco writer, hosts the literary blog Return of the Reluctant, www.edrants.com.

THE title of Haruki Murakami's latest novel may connote the smoke-hewn, jazz-strewn flow of Hugh Hefner's old television show. But the book's post-midnight Tokyo is a lonely place where the trains have stopped running and the love hotels and the family restaurants are sanctuaries for the loners and the sad sacks stuck working graveyard.

"After Dark" shares narrative elements with other Murakami works: young quasi-drifters actuated by unexpected circumstances, dreams as an escape from existential tedium and sinister phone calls. Here, Murakami positions this toolbox of tics onto a narrative workbench using an omniscient voice expressed over seven hours, announcing itself as a bird, a camera and, just as the sun is about to rise, "a pure point of view." This approach gives Murakami a mechanism that skillfully builds on his affinity for precise detail. He relies less on phantasmagoric intervention and more on behavioral subtleties. We are told, as a camera observes a woman through a television set, that "we can not clearly distinguish between the words and the silences that Eri Asai is forming with her lips."

Unlike many of Murakami's other characters, "After Dark's" two heroes, Mari Asai and Tetsuya Takahashi, aren't acutely passive slackers. Night may darken their daily duties, but it can't blacken the ever-shifting shutter speeds of Murakami's cockeyed Kodak. Mari is a student learning Chinese, hiding under a tight-fitting Red Sox cap and only intermittently wearing glasses, going well out of her way to occlude her view of the world. She's drawn to a Denny's restaurant because she wants to be "alone for a while someplace other than my house." At home, her sister Eri is stuck in a sleepy stupor, with a television set sending a parallax transmission from another universe. Over her routine chicken salad, Mari meets Takahashi, a slim young man who enjoys playing jazz trombone at ungodly hours while putting off his inevitable entry into law school.

There's also Shirakawa, a sociopathic engineer just a few DSM-IV codes shy of Patrick Bateman, representing the feral yin to Mari and Takahashi's insouciant yang. He is immaculately dressed and particularly fixated on his company's silver-colored eraser pencils, perhaps because of their misleading luster or their phallic composition. He is so bored by his job that he takes a Chinese prostitute to a love hotel called Alphaville for the sole purpose of assaulting her.

By siphoning his imagination into this taut story structure, Murakami more willfully contains his narrative powers than he did in his expansive masterpiece, "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle." While his story threads aren't always sufficiently resolved, the narrative is more conclusive than Murakami's other major slim novel, "Sputnik Sweetheart." He is less successful with Eri's bedroom limbo, the least compelling component to the tripartite plot, because he rides a repetitive test pattern shtick that grows tedious. But his unusual in-camera narration permits even his minor misfits to shine while focusing on how humanity overlooks the spectral figures toiling before dawn. There's a bar regular described as "one of those unidentifiable people who inhabit the city at night." "Time moves in its own special way in the middle of the night," says the bartender who serves him. "You can't fight it."

Murakami is masterful with symbolism. Milk, far from putting the leche in lechery, serves as fey nectar against the darker impulses of human nature. Shirakawa's debauchery is interrupted by his wife's request to pick up a carton of Takanashi low-fat milk on the way home. "Milk is a food of great significance" in Takahashi's life, perhaps because his name is only one letter removed from the Yokohama milk company's. The novel also toys with technology's assault on the everyday world. Shirakawa commits his crime in Room 404, the number matching the error you get when a Web page cannot be found. Efforts are made to bring up Shirakawa's crime on a security camera DVD, but the hotel workers cannot track the precise frame sequence and the incomprehensible manual offers little help.

Background music is everywhere in this novel. Burt Bacharach's "The April Fools" tortures Denny's diners, while Shirakawa remains transfixed by a Scarlatti cantata playing in his office. Culture is sometimes a galvanizing agent, but this is contingent upon one's ability to distill the offerings. Mari isn't able to properly remember "Love Story's" plot line, but she's well aware of Alphaville's cinematic antecedent. The hotel workers are not.

Murakami also measures wise minutes within these hours of folly. An overworked cab driver manages to recognize Shirakawa as a previous fare. A cleaning woman at Alphaville "belts out a song using the tip of her broomstick as her mike." These moments suggest an underworld of small victories.

There's also the question of whether Mari and Takahashi are willing to shed their adolescence for more mature perceptions. They make personal revelations to each other as they swing in a playground, then migrate to a park bench after they've become better acquainted. Along less productive lines, Murakami also has his characters spouting batty mantras such as "Walk slowly and drink lots of water" and "A man has only one life. Ears, he has two," illustrating the absurdity of cure-all spiritual homilies that fail to account for life's complexities.

"After Dark" doesn't always hit the high notes, but it is, like Takahashi's music, straight-ahead jazz -- with a quiet grace as likely to be overlooked as a snare shuffle.

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