If New York is the city that never sleeps, Tokyo is the city of sleepless souls — or so it appears in the cinematic narrative of “After Dark,” among the most hauntingly detached of Haruki Murakami’s nine novels published in English, and among his shortest.
The entire story line unspools in the minutes of a single night’s pivot into daybreak, between 11:56 p.m. and 6:52 a.m., with a single act of unseen physical brutality at its center. Headings appear on alternate pages indicating the passing minutes, and each chapter begins with images of an analog clock, its hands shifting forward incrementally, as if to alert us to the meaning in each moment.
Notably absent is the first-person narrator, or the boku (I) novel, that has become one of Murakami’s signature storytelling charms, exuding a sense of warmth that can describe the dark and surreal with whimsy and affection. Its motto might be: Whatever happens, do no harm.
But here we encounter the voyeuristic chill of the movie camera in the first-person plural — nearly omniscient, but helpless to intervene.
“We take in the scene from midair,” the novel begins, soaring down from the skies of Tokyo to settle on a brightly lit 24-hour Denny’s, where “everything is anonymous and interchangeable. And almost every seat is filled.”
We meet the novel’s principal characters, the college-age Mari Asai and Tetsuya Takahashi, and join in their scattered wee-hour conversations. Yet we remain outsiders, privy only to what they say and do.
We follow the Chinese-speaking Mari as she is asked by Kaoru, a former female wrestler, to help a Chinese prostitute assaulted earlier in the evening by a client in a love hotel. Takahashi jams with his band nearby, returning as dawn approaches to talk and flirt through life’s mysteries with Mari before sunrise.
In between, we visit Eri, Mari’s beautiful sister, with whom Takahashi once had an affair, as she sleeps in a strange room. And we meet Shirakawa, the otherwise unremarkable salaryman who earlier beat the prostitute, as he works till dawn at his computer, exercises, then disposes of her bloodied clothes before purchasing a specific brand of milk for his wife.
As night wobbles on its axis into morning, lives grow increasingly unstable. Takahashi reveals that Eri is suffering from severe depression in isolation, comparing her unacknowledged pain to that of the prostitute “raising wordless screams and bleeding invisible blood.” Mari confesses that her sister has been asleep for two months, but that she herself cannot sleep at all. “I never knew my sister very well,” she says. “Even though we were living in the same house, we’ve been living very different lives for a long time.”
Night is typically a time of revelation. But Murakami seems intent to explore that which cannot be known, will not be revealed or communicated — or to which we are simply not paying attention.
Otherworldly realms, another Murakami signature, appear through a television set in Eri’s room showing a dust-covered man in a suit. We can’t see the man’s face, and while we pass into the television’s world with Eri, we return with neither insight nor understanding. The “love hotel,” a world of romantic fantasy, is host to an act of hatred — and the salaryman who perpetuated the act is utterly unaffected by it.
The hotel is called “Alphaville,” the title of the classic Jean-Luc Godard film in which, as Mari explains: “You’re not allowed to have deep feelings. Nothing like love. No contradictions, no irony.”
The residents of “After Dark’s” anonymous and interchangeable city fill every available seat — but they can barely see or feel anything.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese pop culture has invaded the U.S.,” published by Palgrave Macmillan.