After Dark by Haruki Murakami reminds me of Travels in the Scriptorium by Paul Auster.
Both books are about enigmas carefully annotated and never explicated. Something has gone wrong and the author is there not to put things right but to delineate the wrongness.
In After Dark Murakami traces the actions of a cast of characters who interact in a distant way, shielded from understanding by the absence of light in Tokyo from midnight to six in the morning. This, at least, is a larger canvas than the one Auster affords himself, but the net result is the same: the world we live in is peopled by shallow individuals who can barely hear one another speak and and wouldn’t understand if they could.
The charm of Murakami’s book is its casual use of cultural argot: late-teens talking, the manager of a “love hotel” philosophizing, the general sense that televisions watch us, we don’t watch televisions. But then there is some violence, irrational, hurtful, and without warrant. This, of course, is not charming; it’s sinister and disturbing.
I might not have read this book if I hadn’t had a call from Tokyo recently. A friend asked me what I thought of the possibility that Murakami might be awarded the Nobel prize for literature. To the head this off, the friend asked, did it make sense to write an opinion piece pointing out that Murakami is a more-or-less westernized creation of New York agents and the New Yorker, not a profound figure within the Japanese literary world?
I said I didn’t know. I’d read one book of Murakami’s short stories--which reads just like After Dark--and I thought they were exercises in minimalist frenzy and nihilism with humanizing snippets woven into the text. What’s “cool” about Murakami’s characters is how little they need to keep surviving, how little they have by way of expectation, and how remote they are from their monumental surroundings: the vastness of Tokyo or other cities in modern Japan.
I certainly didn’t think, from that book, or now from this one, that Murakami should be awarded the Nobel prize, but then I’ve never had a high opinion of the Nobel prize. As far as I know, no one in the academy that awards the prize reads Japanese--one strike against it--but then, since the prize went to a Chinese writer this year--and no one in the academy reads Chinese, either--it’s hard to take the Nobel prize seriously. Somehow James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges didn’t win the Nobel prize, and I could mention a host of other writers of stature in excess of the Nobel laureates. It’s a prize, there’s a lot of money involved, and Doris Lessing, bless her, regarded it as a nuisance.
To return to After Dark itself, this is an episodic narrative in which chance encounters between denizens of the darkness cause them to reveal themselves briefly to one another and occasionally cross wires. Some are kind and curious, others distant and indifferent. A point being made here seems to be that narrative can have moments of interconnected plot, but please, not too much.
Murakami did win a prize that bears Franz Kafka’s name. The problem I have with this is that Kafka’s parables are dense, coherent, and oppressive without succumbing to riffs of randomness. “We,” which is a narrative summons in Murakami that’s hard to respond to, share an ironic perspective on deep moral and emotional issues in Kafka. There’s humor, but it’s not cheap and flat; there’s pain, but it’s connected to a substratum of psychic tension that is unrelenting, not simply an accident of modernity. So I don’t see Murakami in Kafka’s league although I understand why he may be associated with him.
I think I’d recommend reading After Dark or some other book by Murakami for those who enjoy finding in literature the kind of flat, evasive experience they find in life. This is fashionable writing, I suppose, like wearing nothing but black. It reveals little, but then there may be little to reveal.
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