By Bill Marx
In his critically acclaimed novels and stories, Japanese writer Haruki Murakami sings of the subterranean connections between software and the supernatural.
(Knopf, 191 pp, $22.95)
Haruki Murakami is a hip cultural diagnostician who would like to be viewed as a melancholic poet of the postmodern condition, a writer who has one foot in fairy tale spells, the other in technological detritus. His fiction’s amalgamation of the antique and the latest thing is what makes him such an attractive but frustrating figure, a with-it wizard who promises to connect, in his latest book, Dreamweaver, Sleeping Beauty, and the Twilight Zone.
Murakami’s fables ask fascinating questions about how runaway technology and rampant consumerism mold humanity: Will traditional conceptions of human identity survive? If not, what will take their place? The problem, at least in the novella length After Dark, is that the author’s characters come into the world so hollowed out they have very little ego to lose. Since the “ever after” archetypes are just as attenuated, the predominant effect is alienation round-the-clock, the story’s bedeviled characters drifting through a neon-lit netherworld, unconscious of how out of touch they are with their real selves and desires.
In After Dark, Murakami’s characters are so somnambulistic they are in danger of snoring off into nothingness. Those not busy trying to stay awake are busy dreaming their lives away. The story’s ultimate snoozer, the young and beautiful fashion model Eri, went to sleep one night two months before the book begins and didn’t wake up. She exists in a weird sleepwalking daze, getting up to eat and defecate before hitting the sack again.
Murakami suggests that Eri may be trapped in a sort of electronic dream loop, presided over by an enigmatic Man with No Face. At one point, transported into her television, Eri wakes up to stare, with numbed horror, through the screen into her bedroom. Eri’s death-in-life plight lends the book some memorably creepy moments (“Eri Asai is in a deep, deliberate state of sleep as if her entire body had been enveloped in warm wax.”), but the author’s meditations-on-it-all are dipped in clammy pretension: “Our point of view draws back through the vacuum of nothingness.”
Predictably, there is no Prince Charming to rescue Eri, only her sister, Mari, who hasn’t her sibling’s looks but compensates with a nimble intellect. Traumatized by her sister’s fate, Mari doesn’t want to sleep, at least at night. Instead she stays awake, reading an unidentified book in a Denny’s restaurant in a seedy part of town, where she runs into a midnight world of prostitutes, musicians, and barkeeps. A jazz trombonist, Takahashi, who was once smitten with Eri, becomes Mari’s affectionate confidant. The other late-night types she meets are clichés, from whores with a heart of gold to gangster pimps.
Murakami uses Mari and the other characters to muse on the night’s ability to blur rational distinctions, to conflate reality and illusion. Eri, who won’t wake up, and Mari, who doesn’t want to sleep, are opposites, though there are indications that they are two sides of the same personality. Early in the book, the city is likened to “a single gigantic animal”; machines are also seen as living organisms, while people aren’t who they say they are. Software is compared to a form of dreaming. The wee hours of the morning also cast a spell on time: the name of the “love hotel,” Alphaville, is a coy nod to Jean-Luc Godard’s futuristic film. The author’s insistence on an “objective” narrative point of view, sexual exploitation, and voyeurism also recalls the novels of French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet.
If only After Dark converted the prosaic into the fabulous. But Murakami never lets his imagination go far out of bounds. Instead, the book’s prose style comes off as meager minimalism, a lazy lineup of short and banal sentences signifying the superficial. Perhaps the writing expresses the ferocious one-dimensionality of the characters, but the effect is deadening on the reader. In this passage, Mari meets Takahashi in Denny’s: “The girl senses his presence and raises her face from the book. She narrows her eyes and looks at the young man standing there. He is so tall, she seems to be looking far overhead. Their eyes meet. The young man smiles. His smile is meant to show he means no harm.” The book never tries to evoke the consciousness behind that smile.
It could be that Murakami is primarily interested in the attenuation of the inner life, the final triumph of surface over depth in the new millennium. “People’s memories are the fuel they burn to stay alive,” opines a character. “Advertising fillers in the newspaper, philosophy books, dirty pictures in a magazine, a bundle of ten-thousand-yen bills: when you feed’em to the fire, they’re all just paper.” The notion that memory exists as kindling may account for After Dark’s sinister but desiccated atmosphere. Murakami’s characters and language are twigs for the bonfire.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.