Rootless Detachment: A Review of After Dark by Haruki Murakami

May 15, 2007 | 13 books mentioned 10 4 min read

coverWhether or not you like Haruki Murakami’s newest novel, After Dark, will probably depend on how many of his previous books you have read. If you’ve read two or less, you may enjoy it. If you’ve read three or four, you will almost certainly find it tedious. If you’ve read five or more you’re incorrigible and nothing I say here will deter you.

For my part, I’ve read so much Murakami, it has ceased to be fun. I’ve read all of his books in translation, less Kafka on the Shore and South of the Border, West of the Sun, and several of his yet to be translated books in the original Japanese. My first journey into the curious land of his prose was Norwegian Wood, and liking it, I found myself drawn to his other novels, the best of which, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Windup Bird Chronicle, and Dance Dance Dance, more than made up for the tepid performances of books like Sputnik Sweetheart.

As in all Murakami novels, After Dark’s plot is irrelevant. Nothing happens for a long time, then something creepy and inexplicable happens, then the book ends for no apparent reason, leaving any semblance of story unresolved. In the past, the pleasure in the majority of these books (with the notable exception of Dance Dance Dance, which adopted the form of a supernatural thriller) came from Murakami’s almost uncanny ability to create atmosphere and capture physical longing – whether for a piece of cucumber wrapped in seaweed or for a lover’s touch – with palpable virtuosity.

The problem confronting Murakami’s readers has always been that, despite his otherworldly talents, he has nothing to say. Nothing of any real interest or significance, at least. Although his stories often hint at a metaphysics of unreality, the books are mostly surface and, unlike one of his professed influences, Raymond Carver, seem to lack any insight into the human condition (or any other condition, really). Instead, they content themselves with cataloging the discontents of the modern age, particularly the alarmingly numerous forms of ennui, all of which, after three or four volumes, begin to bear a striking resemblance to one another.

While this was all well and good when Murakami started his career, with After Dark it seems he has become so enamored of his own abilities that he has ceased to care whether what he has chosen to show us actually matters. Or is even interesting. The more I read Murakami, the less his work resembles genius, and the more it comes to resemble a symptom of autism or obsessive compulsion. As Murakami translator Jay Rubin notes in his biography Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, around the time Murakami finished A Wild Sheep Chase, he began to obsess over his writing, fearing that he might die before finishing the book, a thought he apparently found untenable. His anxiety led to a major overhaul of his life. He quit smoking, began to exercise regularly, changed his diet. Over time, his books have come to reflect this obsession with writing and not necessarily in a positive way. As Rubin explains it, Murakami works not because he has an idea for a book, but because he feels compelled to write. It’s suggested that he often sits at his desk, writing whatever comes to mind, until the glimmerings of a story appear. Those who are familiar with Murakami’s novels can see this process at work. Often, the first fifty to one hundred pages of his books feature characters loafing around, looking for something to do, a reflection, perhaps, of Murakami’s own mental state. The result is a presumably faithful depiction of his inner life with an ironic lack of self-awareness.

After Dark is no exception: characters loaf, they engage in small talk, and something weird happens on TV (but not nearly as weird as “Flavor of Love.”) The one major departure from previous novels is the style, which is somewhat reminiscent of a screenplay. The story is told in first person plural, complete with metafictional references to points of view and what seem to be camera directions. The end result could be pitched as Eraserhead (IMDb) meets Before Sunrise (IMDb), minus the good parts. If it weren’t for Murakami’s oath to never allow his works to be filmed (which I see has been broken, with the release of Tony Takatani (IMDb)), I would wonder if the book wasn’t an attempt to salvage a failed screenplay.

Until recently, a few short stories and Kafka on the Shore represented the totality of Murakami’s efforts to separate himself from the first person novel, the protagonists of which were all thinly veiled versions of Murakami himself, a cosmopolitan pasta aficionado with a love of jazz, Stendhal, and Dostoyevsky, and a cool, rootless detachment from all things Japanese. While Murakami should be applauded for his attempts to expand his range, they have, so far, only brought attention to the areas in which his work is most deficient: dialogue and his brittle attempts at symbolism, a personal mythology consisting of, among other things, cats and mirrors that does not fare well when set loose from the idiosyncratic workings of his first person narrators’ minds. The dialogue in After Dark is particularly bad, with one character addressing a girl with the line “What’s a girl like you doing hanging out all night in a place like this?” (The line is delivered in a bar and with a complete lack of irony.) Granted, the translation might be at fault, but Jay Rubin has done an admirable job with Murakami in the past, leaving us to assume the source material didn’t leave much to work with. The story’s alternations between the dully inscrutable and the ploddingly mundane seem to confirm this.

All of which begs the question, where does Murakami go from here? With the combination of his enormous popularity in Japan and critical acclaim in the United States and abroad, he could never write another word and still be guaranteed a roof over his head and a place in the literary pantheon of the 20th-ish century (at least for the foreseeable future). And writing one, or even a handful, of good books puts a novelist under no obligation to produce another. Yet, if the Murakami Rubin has shown us is the real one, we can expect he will continue to release novels until the day he dies (and if one takes into account his considerable back catalog of yet to be translated works, much longer). Will he insist on sticking with what he knows or will he find some way to transfer his preoccupations and considerable skills into a broader fictional universe? When you find out, let me know.

is a Washington correspondent for the Japanese news service Kyodo News. He writes on US-Japan relations, reporting from the White House and the Pentagon. In his spare time, he works as a translator. He is currently writing a police noir set in Japan. Follow him on Twitter @benjamindooley.

10 comments:

  1. Wonderful review. Your review serves as my introduction to Haruki Murakami. I saw something about After Dark recently but didn't think too much about it. I think I will pick up one of his other novels, something like The Windup Bird Chronicle after your mentioning it was one of his best.

  2. Excellent on Murakami. Nailed it.

    The question becomes, if one believes the world is all surface and wants to write a novel on that theme, is there a honest alternative to writing a novel that is all surface?

  3. I don't like Murakami, and people always bite my head off when I say that. (I know, I know, people, I need to read Wind Up Bird Chronicle before I make a final decision…) Your review articulated what about his work I don't find appealing. And great joke about "The Flavor of Love"!

  4. I read Norwegian Wood first, just like Ben, and I loved it and couldn't wait to read more Murakami. Nothing I've read since then has lived up to that first book, and I've resigned myself to "saving" Wind Up Bird Chronicle to read at some point since I've heard it's good from so many people. Also, I think Murakami's stories can achieve greatness, but the New Yorker has done Murakami (and us) a disservice by publishing so many of his duds as well.

  5. "His performance is not bad, marked less by technique than by his almost conversational phrasing. Perhaps it is a reflection of his personality"
    After Dark, page 163

  6. I read Norwegian Wood a couple of years ago, and I loved it . I've read most of the short works of Murakami. I have translated some of his works and his master's. Raymond Carver I mean.Your weblog is full of good information as well.

  7. It is refreshing to read a book like "After Dark". It is simple, it is sparce, it is carefully constructed. Perhaps what Murakami acheives is hard to recognize in a modern society filled with technologically crazed destractions. His story is a meditation on loneliness. His characters are lonely, the language is lonely, the setting is lonely. His philisophical endeavors are rational and isolated. His characters are outsiders. Very few modern novelists can capture the calm, raw, disturbing simplicity of emotions like Murakami. Anybody else see the influence of John Dos Passos' "Manhattan Transfer?"

  8. Other than the silly reliance on the word 'enigmatic,' I thought the story worked wonderfully and could translate into a beautiful film.

    I've always felt Murakami is at his best with his short fiction, and have found his longer novels (Wind up Bird, Kafka) to ultimatley fail… so the novella length was perfect.

    Enigmatic.

    Gah.

  9. I recently finished Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and posted about my experience of reading him.Despite your criticism, you have noted that one is bound to like his books till he reads more than two. Maybe that's the reason why, having read only one, he seems to excite me.

    However, from my Wind-Up Bird experiece, I do not agree that he is 'on the surface'. Refusal to philosophize in the novel form cannot be held against the author as long as he has successfully made the reader think. And i think Murakami achieves that.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *