Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A trick of the night

"'Time moves in its own special way in the middle of the night'", one character tells another in Haruki Murakami's After Dark, and the whole novel seems to exist to bear that out.

As the novel's focus flickers from mundane conversations in late-night diners and bars that call to mind Hopper's 'Nighthawks' to a darkened bedroom and then back again, each section is prefaced by a clockface as if to count out the regular tick-tock of the minutes - but time seems to pass slower in the bedroom episodes, becoming sluggish and almost coming to a complete standstill. Even when morning does finally arrive, at the end, the book's final line can be taken as a reminder that the night has only beaten a temporary retreat: "There will be time until the next darkness arrives".

The unremarkable settings and mundane dialogue only serve to heighten by contrast the sense of shadowy mystery that cloaks the characters and events. Why is student Mari so reserved, and what is she staying up through the night to avoid? What inspired the violent assault on the Chinese prostitute at the "love hotel" whom she's called upon to translate for? And, most significantly, why is her sister Eri Asai unable to wake up?

What's particularly unsettling (and interesting) about After Dark is the way the narrator openly positions us relative to what is described and dictates what we see as readers, underlining the fact that we are in effect voyeuristically spying on Eri Asai: "We allow ourselves to become a single point of view, and we observe her for a time. Perhaps it should be said we are peeping in on her". In this respect, we are, like the sinister masked figure who is described as sitting and watching her, "anonymous intruders". When the narrator reminds us of our own role, it seems almost a warning or even a threat: "We look. We listen. We note odours. But we are not physically present in the place, and we leave behind no traces. We follow the same rules, so to speak, as orthodox time travellers. We observe but we do not intervene".

Equally disturbing is the fact that our perspective is initially reified in cinematic terms as "a midair camera that can move freely about the room", but that camera comes to have a will of its own independent of us, directing its mechanical, forensic, CCTV glare around beyond our control: "Once it has finished examining individual details, our viewpoint camera draws back momentarily and surveys the room once again. Then, as if unable to make up its mind, it maintains its broadened field of vision, its line of sight fixed in place for the time being. A pregnant silence reigns. At length, however, as if struck by a thought, it turns towards - and begins to approach - a television set in a corner of the room".

With viewpoint shifting freely to take in the sleeping figure of Eri Asai, the masked figure and the TV on which images occasionally emerge through the static, the bedroom sections become like hallucinatory interludes in which the reader is never quite sure what's happening - or indeed if it's happening at all. "But is this actually true?", the narrator - or is it the author? - asks at one point, provocatively.

After Dark probably won't appeal to people averse to a side-order of meta with their fiction, but I found that finishing it was, appropriately enough, rather like waking up from a deep dream: it's hard to quite put your finger on the reason or reasons why, but it stays with you long into the day and you just can't shake it off.

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