I have come across a book in which the writing is so hauntingly beautiful that it terrifies me.
Let me elaborate.
Haruki Murakami’s After Dark is written in such a way that, after I had finished reading it, I realised that I lost all comprehension of when reality stops and dreaming begins. We've all been at that awkward hour of the night when you lose focus on what is and isn't happening (regardless of whether or not you've been drinking). The more I thought about it, the more it scared me. It's like when somebody asks you what time you went to sleep and you reply, "oh, it must have been about 2", how can you know the time when your conscious switches off and the subconscious takes over? In true Murakami fashion, he blurs the lines between the physical and the metaphysical to create a confusing, yet comforting sensation in the reader.
The story is split into two worlds; nineteen year old Mari’s conscious world and her sister, Eri’s unconscious one.
We meet Murakami’s young protagonist, Mari, at 11.56pm in a diner.
After a quick survey of the interior, our eyes come to rest on a girl sitting by the front window. Why her? Why not someone else?
She is immersed in her book, chain smoking, and occasionally sipping her coffee. She does not want to be disturbed. But like the narrator, people are drawn to her. First a young trombonist with whom she had double dated with her sister years earlier; an ex-wrestler who is now the manager of a ‘Love Hotel’; and a Chinese prostitute, battered by a client.
Murakami paints a succession of dark, Hopper-esque tableaux's in a gallery of the night as Mari moves from diner, to hotel, to bar. The reader can see that she doesn’t really belong to that world. She wants to, why else would she wander aimlessly, refusing sleep? But Murakami’s night belongs to the misfits who choose to inhabit it. Mari merely serves as the go-between for these creatures of the underworld; they divulge their secrets to her, they know they can trust her because she doesn’t belong there.
Murakami peppers the book with images of Eri, the delicate model, sleeping in her empty room. We learn that she has been asleep for two months, it is hinted at that this is helped by some sort of prescription drug addiction, although it is never specified. It should be boring just reading about a literal sleeping beauty but it is in these chapters that Murakami paints his most nightmarish scenes. For example (in a 'The Ring' style of Japanese horror) as Eri slumbers, her unplugged TV turns itself on and displays a man sitting in a chair, wearing a cling-film mask, staring at her. The reader is left questioning whether they are seeing reality or Eri’s dreams.
In fact, throughout the book, Murakami causes us to question everything we have considered to be normality; even with Mari’s character who we assume is living in the world of the conscious has these creepy dream-like experiences that raise discomforting questions in the reader. Is Mari awake because her sister is asleep? Can the two not coexist? Are they intimately connected as two half of the same whole?
Murakami’s magical and bewildering story of Tokyo after midnight blends the comfort of familiarity with the uncertainty of the uncanny so fluidly that you feel yourself wondering if the world truly becomes a different place after dark; whether everything that you considered to be normality disappears.