Haruki Murakami’s After Dark isn’t the first book of his that I’ve read and it certainly won’t be the last.
To date I’ve read five. His short story collection Blind Willow Sleeping Woman, His anthology of birthday stories which also included one of his own original stories (imaginatively titled Birthday Stories), his debut novel Norwegian Wood, his less popular yet no less masterful South of the border, West of the Sun and most recently After Dark
Given that I’d read a fair bit of Murakami when I encountered this book, I was prepared for a story that would shake me in my boots yet would be impossibly pieced together from vignettes of real, day-to-day, ordinary life.
Boy was I wrong.
After Dark is a story about the dark things that dwell in us. Be it jealousy, lust, or greed, it’s about all the nefarious forces in the world. And these forces, according to the book, work in mysterious ways in that period after midnight and before dawn. The small hours of the night when the blackness around us is more than the black of the night sky.
I encountered a little bit of this tingling sense of deep foreboding during some of his short stories in Blind Willow Sleeping Woman but this entire book is filled with chills. But note this: this isn’t horror. There’s no murderous, torturous ghoul lurking about or some sickening killer. There’s no sense of the macabre or gothic in this. There’s no blood, no legends of long forgotten deaths and such.
And this actually makes it creepier. The absence of any sort of melodramatic, tangible evil can do wonders to unsettle readers and all throughout the book, I found myself on edge, waiting for something to happen.
Atmosphere wise, it’s spot on.
But there is a catch.
This story has no beginning and no end. True , the book does start and end from a chronological point of view but from a narrative perspective, it’s just a tumble of events that spill forth inexplicably and the readers are simply expected to just swallow it up whole. For instance; a main storyline is of a young girl who’s fallen into a deep yet non-coma sleep that’s been going on for two months and when she wakes mysteriously one night, some dark force has mysteriously transported her to the other side of the television in her room. And then when she goes back to sleep, lo behold, she’s back in her room. Likewise, there are shown multiple instances where reflections in mirrors are shown to have a life of their own (this really gave me the creeps) although they don’t do anything that could be deemed evil or dark.
Looking back and thinking back, it’s hard to really say that THINGS happened in this book. Even if some mishaps occur to our main characters, the book is more focused on the atmosphere and setting and you get a feeling that this is what it set out to do; Unnerve the readers by narrating some random yet mysteriously connected events that take place after midnight.
Added on to this is the voice of narrator; We aren’t looking at this story through the eyes of the main characters. Neither are we undefined, omniscient forces that can see, hear and know everything that happens in a story. The voice is self-aware and more importantly, separate from the readers. By using phrases such as ‘We are on this side now’ and ‘We are walking alongside them’ Murakami, in one brilliant stroke has separated the narrator from both the characters and the readers. By acknowledging a sentient presence hovering over each incident, he stops us from being immersed completely.
And this actually unnerves us even more. This makes the readers wonder ‘why are we peering into this scene? What will happen to us?’ By making us feel like unwelcome watchers in corners, Murakami has given his story an edge; we can’t connect to it, we can’t comprehend it, we can’t see the reasons. We are just passive, almost helpless observers just waiting for something to happen.
Almost helpless? Sorry, I mean COMPLETELY helpless.
Naturally though, due to this alienation of readers from narrative, Murakami has also alienated the characters in his story and they all seem a bit too perfect to be true. We have no idea of what’s going inside their heads. Everything we know of these people, we know from what we see and hear. And some speculation. The narrating voice speculates.
It’s like you’re wearing an invisibility cloak being forced to watch this turn of events that just roll on forward regardless of you being there.
It’s kind of terrifying once you think about it.
It’s a good book and after the almost mundane plot direction of Norwegian Wood and South of Border West of the Sun, this is a welcome change. But to those that read books for pure entertainment, to those who want to see good clash with evil and see a victor. To those who want to see human conflict and resolution and drama, this is not your read.