A few days ago, my daughter, who just graduated from high school, was bemoaning the fact that when college runs out she'll never have summer vacation to look forward to again (this is a young woman who thinks ahead). I told her she was wrong, that summer vacation is a state of mind, and that as soon as the Memorial Day buzzer goes off, your brain somehow switches to a more relaxed frequency for the duration of summer. You may still go to work each morning, or carry on with the everyday responsibilities of life, but somehow it's not as onerous as it is the rest of the year. This is one of those things that's hard to explain, but I know it's true.
How else to explain beach reading? We don't go on vacation the whole summer, but come June a lot of us do lighten the content of our reading lists for the next three or so months. (The phrase "beach reading" is, in fact, hideously misleading. Trust me, I lived at the beach for 12 years and have done the research: even under a beach umbrella, the glare makes it nearly impossible or, at the very least, painful.) I guess it's just a desire to have reading material that's consonant with our lighter mood. It's hard to read Dostoevsky when there are leaves on the trees.
I'm not just talking about reading trash. I read trash all year round. No, it's a question of books that are more suitable for some seasons than others, and there are even some books that are most appropriate for certain times of day. I have always thought of James Agee and Walker Evans's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" as a book to open in the middle of the night—any time of the year, but maybe best when you can leave the windows open and listen to the night sounds while you read. P.G. Wodehouse is perfect for late-afternoon summer days. Raymond Chandler is perfect nighttime reading, of course. And now I've found another candidate for the midnight hour—Haruki Murakami's "After Dark."
This latest offering from the prolific writer is one of his sweeter efforts, more akin to "Sputnik Sweetheart" than "Kafka on the Shore." But Murakami lite is still Murakami, which is to say, you wouldn't confuse him with anyone else. The story is set in late autumn, but it seems cool, not cold yet (the characters wear coats, one wears a wool hat, but there are people sitting outside on the sidewalks, where the action takes place). Fall or not, the story has the weightless feel of summer, and definitely a late-night feel. The action starts at 11:55 p.m. and ends the next morning at 7:55 a.m. in a big Asian city, probably Tokyo, although in his usual cultural-swapmeet fashion, Murakami opens his story in a Denny's.
Murakami has a way of writing that is simultaneously unsettling and inviting, like the feeling you get while the roller coaster is on its initial climb—but Murakami can sustain that feeling for a whole book. "After Dark”'s opening paragraph, in which we are looking down on a huge city at night, a city the author compares to a large single organism, ends thusly: "Midnight is approaching, and while the peak of activity has passed, the basal metabolism that maintains life continues undiminished, producing the basso continuo of the city's moan, a monotonous sound that neither rises nor falls but is pregnant with foreboding."
A young woman, Mari Asai, is sitting at a table, reading and nursing a cup of coffee. A young man, Tetsuya Tkahashi, joins her. He knows her sister. They talk. He leaves. A woman enters and sits down with Mari. Tetsuya has told the woman, who manages a love hotel, that Mari speaks Chinese. The woman needs Mari to help her calm a Chinese prostitute who's been beaten by her client. Interspersed with this are scenes in the bedroom of Mari's sister, Eri, a fashion model. Eri has been sleeping almost around the clock for weeks. She is not, her sister says, in a coma, just sleeping a lot. We will be brought back to this room several times. We also meet the man who beat the prostitute. Mari and Tetsuya will strike up an acquaintance that Murakami, not being in the movie business, doesn't push past its pleasant beginnings. We watch Tetsuya, a jazz trombonist, in a jam session. We spend some time in that love hotel. We watch the businessman who administered the beating make his way from home to office, while the motorcycle gang that runs the prostitutes searches the city for him. And always, we keep returning to Eri Asai's room.
All of Murakami's books are quiet and often dreamlike, but this is the quietest of all. If the action described above sounds busy, remember that it's spread out over nearly 200 pages. There's a lot of silence in this story, and the chapters that take place in Eri's room are as quiet as the bottom of the sea.
There is a television on in Eri's room. We see, grainily, a man in a suit on the television. And then, later we see Eri herself on the screen, on a bed, asleep in another room. She has been transported somehow. The bed in her bedroom is empty, and the implication is that if she cannot get back somehow, she will die. This is the best, and by far the creepiest part of the novel. Murakami achieves in print what Japanese horror moviemakers have been doing on screen for the past decade, although he is nowhere near as violent or sadistic. The menace inherent in a silent room, though: this he gets better than anyone.
Toward the end of his story, Murakami writes, "Everything, finally, unfolded in a place resembling a deep, inaccessible fissure. Such places open secret entries into darkness in the interval between midnight and the time the sky grows light. None of our principles have any effect there. No one can predict when or where such abysses will swallow people, or when or where they will spit them out." By writing about the mysteries of the night with nothing but specifics, Murakami makes the nightscape as vivid as a dream, and as hard to grasp. Like night itself, this is an extraordinarily elusive story—elusive but utterly beguiling. "After Dark " is one to keep by the bedside table, the pefect insomniac's companion.
The only puzzle is why Murakami, who is so much of a jazz fan that he once ran a jazz club and who isn't shy about naming his books after songs ("Dance, Dance, Dance," "Norwegian Wood"), didn't call his book "'round Midnight."