Tuesday, November 17, 2009

After Dark by Haruki Murakami (unabridged audio book read by Janet Song)

My reading of choice these days is genre fiction; I want something easy to follow when I read for relaxation. But occasionally I reach for something more challenging, most often by a familiar author I feel is doing something new with the form or its execution.

Ever since I read a handful of stories by author Haruki Murakami in the The New Yorker (starting with "The Ice Man" in 2003), I've wanted to try a novel of his. Audiobooks are how I do most of my experimentation, so coming across a copy of After Dark gave me the opportunity I sought.

All the action in After Dark takes place from midnight until dawn on a single night. Mari Asai, reading by herself in a Denny's in lieu of going home, encounters a handful of interesting characters.

First is Takahashi, a jazz trombonist who once met her at a party. He leads her to Kaoru, manager of a "love ho" (a hotel primarily used for trysts) and her staff, "Wheat" and "Cricket." Mari speaks Chinese and is needed to translate for them what happened to a Chinese prostitute brutally beaten at the love ho.

A touch of the eerie is added with an alternate subplot concerning Mari's sister Eri. While Eri sleeps, a man watches her, while wearing a mask that makes him look like he has no face, practically motionlessly, through her TV. I like how Murakami makes this whole setup voyeuristic. The man watches Eri, and we, through cinematographic description involving "POV camera," watch him watching her.

All of After Dark is equally visual, with descriptions so rich as to make the mind's eye unable to resist picturing the images, but I'm surprised that these Eri scenes have not already been filmed by some aspiring J-horror director: you could shoot the text as is. The set design, costuming, and camera movements are all there; Murakami has taken care of everything.

After Dark also showcases a different approach to its villain: we know what Shirikawa has done, but we didn't see if happen. Murakami only treats us to the mundane events of his life, but our knowledge casts a pall over those events, and we continually expect something else to happen, though the actual text never implies that at all.

Narrator Janet Song is invisible throughout her reading of After Dark, and that is the highest compliment I can pay an audiobook reader. She is merely a conduit for Murakami's magical-realist, post-modern narration (many questions are left unanswered) and richly drawn characters.

I'm always fascinated by authors who can make a series of seeming normal events absolutely enthralling. Half the credit must go, I suppose, to translator Jay Rubin since I can't read Japanese. The seemingly mundane appears, in reflection, to be quite profound. But Murakami shows us that, depending on the filters through which you look at life, even Love Story can appear to have a happy ending.

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