Seated alone in a Denny's booth, a teenage student intently pores over books. Her older sister sleeps in a darkened bedroom, several miles distant, across from a sinister television set that may or may not secretly be a window into/portal to another realm. A masked, middle-aged man lurks expectantly in a furniture-free office space. A lanky jazz trombonist wanders abandoned city streets hours before quitting his band. A Chinese prostitute is discovered robbed and beaten bloody in a love-hotel room. Flitting back and forth between these scenes in flagrant violation of temporal laws are a conditionally omniscient narrator and, well, you: "Our point of view, as an imaginary camera, picks up and lingers over things like this in the room. We are invisible, anonymous intruders. 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." These aren't the raw ingredients for a David Lynch screenplay, though they probably could be; they're starting points for Haruki Murakami's After Dark, which tracks mundane and otherworldly goings-on between 11:56 p.m. and 6:52 a.m. on a chilly Tokyo night.
In addition to his ongoing fascinations with cats, spaghetti, and jazz vinyl, Murakami enjoys immersing his short and novel-length fictions in a gentle surrealism that is thoroughly weird without being truly surprising. These shocks aren't Kafkaesque; after all, if his characters can hang unruffled with supernatural phenomena, bizarre coincidences, talking felines, and unannounced visits from smartly dressed imps bearing gigantic TVs, our ability to roll with the left-field punches shouldn't be at issue.
After Dark revolves around bookish loner Mari Asai--a reticent wallflower stuck in the shadow of Eri, her pill-popping, fashion-model sister--who routinely whiles away the twilight hours reading at the diner for reasons she won't immediately disclose. Enter law school-bound Tetsuya, and Mari is slowly drawn out of her shell, outdoors, and into philosophical discussions, heartfelt disclosures, and a web of events involving the Chinese mafia, a duplicitous computer programmer, and more besides. Meanwhile, events concerning Eri--the book's focal point and awake for only a few pages that number among the book's tensest--take a bizarre, somewhat Videodrome turn. Murakami's ear for the conversational rhythms between virtual strangers and people who know each other too well remains finely tuned, but while Mari and Tetsuya tentatively forge what might be the beginning of a relationship, the author is quietly working to give flesh to the things we think we hear going bump in the night. The notion of After Dark's action being relayed by an opaque, vaporous sentience pervades every evocative passage; ultimately, you're left less with the impression that something momentous has just happened, but that Murakami's noncorporeal eye may now be invisibly following you.