"In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day."
This was not the epigram for this wonderful Haruki Murakami book I just read, but it could have been.
"After Dark" is a hypnotic blend of Sleeping Beauty and The Twilight Zone in the precise, beautiful prose full of pop culture references and subtle musicality that only Murakami can write. The book tells the story of two Japanese sisters, 19 year old Mari, who is pulling an all-nighter alone with her book in the local Denny's (where she meets the other main character of the novel, jazz trombonist Takahashi), and Eri, her model-beautiful sister, who a few months ago told her family she needed to sleep, and has been in her room ever since, occasionally eating and showering and changing clothes, but most of the time, sleeping. The more she sleeps, the more her sister finds herself unable to do so.
The action of this slim novel, such as it is, all takes place between a few minutes to midnight, and a few minutes after dawn, and each chapter starts with a heading that is a line illustration of a clock face ticking off our progress through the night.
But this is more of a metaphysical narrative than a plot driven book. Mari gets drawn away from the clean, well-lit sanctuary of the Denny's and into helping a Chinese prostitute who has been the victim of a brutal attack at the nearby Hotel Alphaville (one of many nods to Godard, noir, Sonny Rollins, Walt Disney, j-horror, and independent cinema peppered throughout the book), and in conversations with Takahashi, and with Korogi, the woman who runs the "love ho'" as the rent-for-sex rooms at the Alphaville are known, we learn the secret dreams and desires and nightmares that fuel these night creatures.
We also follow the business man who was the attacker, as he returns to his all-night shift at the office where he works, calmly compiling the computer coding he is working overtime to complete, while nursing his bruised hand and riffling through the bloody possessions he took off the girl; and the gangsters who run the smuggling operation that brings a steady flow of young Chinese girls into the country to service their Japanese customers hover repeatedly and menacingly in the background on their motorcycles, issuing threats on their cellphones.
Interspersed with these events and arias of fun dialogue, are scenes in which Murakami takes the role of omniscient cameraman to observe without judgment the slumber of Eri. These are eerie passages in which her room becomes the portal to another room, an exact replica of her own, where for a time she is transported and awakes, trapped, to find herself in a literal nightmare from which there is no escape.
The book ends in a Kiss, of course, and for all of his keen insight into the mechanics of the night and the sonambulists and fabulists and victims and perpetrators that inhabit it, the book has a touching tenderness, and is finally more focussed on the soul than the darkness.
I'm grateful to my friend Martin Asher at Random House books for recommending it, and happy to pass on the recommendation to you. If you are familiar with Murakami's wildly inventive and elaborate narratives like The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, this is much more spare and elegant and boiled down.
Yet essential nonetheless.