A search for connection and meaning 'After Dark' in Tokyo

Through a series of chance encounters, a Japanese novelist captures the loneliness of modern life.

There's a dreamlike quality to Haruki Murakami's mesmerizing new novel, After Dark, set during the wee hours of a Tokyo night, "slack time in the city," when the trains stop running but the karaoke bars bustle. As in last year's story collection, "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman," and his longer novels, including "Kafka on the Shore," Murakami captures the palpable loneliness and essential unfathomability at the heart of modern life.

Murakami's cultural references are almost exclusively Western and often musical. His new novel's strongest evocations are of two American visual artists: Edward Hopper's desolately lonely paintings and the slow-motion video installations of contemporary artist Bill Viola.

Murakami seems, magically, to have translated the essence of these artists' two-dimensional works into quietly luminous prose, adding the humanity that is his signature. In classic Murakami form, amid the alienation are flickers of hopefulness springing from seemingly random, serendipitous human interactions and connections.

At the center of "After Dark" is 19-year-old university student Mari Asai, who is loath to go home to where her more beautiful older sister, a fashion model named Eri, has been in a deep, self-induced sleep for months, essentially avoiding her fast-paced life.

When we meet her, Mari is hanging out in a Denny's restaurant, reading. Her solitude is soon interrupted by an intruder, a long-haired jazz trombonist named Takahashi, who once had a crush on Mari's older sister. He is as loquacious as Mari is reserved.

Our perspective on this encounter is cinematic but remote, as if from an overhead camera that zooms in on the pulsing city from on high. This voyeuristic "single point of view" shifts throughout the novel between Mari, the people she encounters during her long night's journey toward human connection, and her sleeping sister, Eri.

Unlike a more traditional omniscient narrator, Murakami's "imaginary camera" is an impassive observer, like a scientist set to record empirical evidence but incapable of interpretation.

"We are invisible, anonymous intruders," Murakami writes. "We look. We listen. We note odors. 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 travelers. We observe but we do not intervene."

Shortly after her encounter with the trombonist, Mari is joined again at her table at Denny's. This time, the interloper is a large woman with spiky, bleached hair. Kaoru manages a nearby "love hotel" where rooms are rented to couples by the hour. "I've got this Chinese girl in a mess," she tells Mari. She hopes that Mari, who Takahashi has told her is studying Chinese, might be able to translate for her.

Because Murakami's characters are open, trusting souls with no set agenda, Mari follows the affable female, former wrestler to the Hotel Alphaville. She wonders if it's named after Jean-Luc Godard's movie, "Alphaville," about an imaginary city in the near future where you're not allowed to have deep feelings.

Mari feels an uncommon rapport with the beautiful but brutally beaten young Chinese prostitute. She talks to her quietly while Kaoru efficiently cleans her up, gives her some clothes, and calls her pimp to come get her on the same black Honda motorcycle on which he delivered her, "hot n' fresh, like pizza."

With the exception of the pimp, a member of a vicious Chinese gang, Murakami's characters are almost all sympathetic. Murakami tends to withhold moral judgement, even from the emotionally detached businessman who pummeled the prostitute. His impassive narrative lens tracks Shirakawa as he methodically completes his night's work at his office, bothered by "a pain with memories" in his right fist.

Mari's night is part odyssey, part therapy, part love story. Conversations are simultaneously banal and profound, vague and gripping, quotidian and philosophical. Mari and Takahashi "wonder how it turns out that [people] lead such different lives," and they slowly open up to each other.

Others open up to Mari, too. An Alphaville chambermaid encourages her to reconnect with her sister and find the right balance between solitude and community.

Interwoven with Mari's encounters are willfully enigmatic dreamscapes of Eri asleep in her bed, some in her actual room and some inside a television set.

Like a latter-day Walker Percy or Albert Camus, Murakami raises questions about perception and existence, though he feels no compunction to propose answers. For him, the intrigue is in the engaging situations and conversations even alienated individuals encounter as they wend their hapless way through their often bewildering lives.

Heller McAlpin is a freelance writer in New York.

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