Music plays on After Dark
In a recent essay that appeared in the New York Times, novelist Haruki Murakami chronicled the relationship between music and writing in his life. As a 29-year-old aspiring writer who studied theatre arts in college, Murakami thought to himself “how wonderful it would be if I could write like playing an instrument.” He goes on to say: “Practically everything I know about writing, then, I learned from music. It may sound paradoxical to say so, but if I had not been so obsessed with music, I might not have become a novelist.”
Murakami’s novels have always involved music one way or another, whether it’s in the title such as Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun; or the appearance of music in his novels, where Murakami’s web site tracks all of the songs and musicians that have been mentioned in his books; or the influence of his writing on music and vice versa, for example, in an interview Thom Yorke mentioned that “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” influenced the recording of Kid A, while the album is referred to in Murakami’s last novel “Kafka on the Shore.”
But in the actual fabric of the narrative, Murakami’s books often have underlying musical qualities, as if the books themselves where based on a musical structure, whether it’s an extended concerto such as “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” or a shorter pop-song piece like “Sputnik Sweetheart.” Murakami’s latest novel, “After Dark,” follows this tradition of music.
The short novel beings minutes before midnight, in a Denny’s located somewhere in Tokyo, where Mari Asai, hidden underneath a Boston Red Sox cap, sits sipping on coffee and concentrating on a book. Tetsuya Takahashi, an amateur trombonist about ready to quit playing music, walks past Mari and, recognizing her from years before, sits down at her table. Though at first Mari is standoffish, the two begin a revealing conversation that carries on through the night, past Tetsuya’s late night practice with his band and Mari’s brief encounter with a love hotel night operator who has asked her to help communicate with a Chinese prostitute who’s been beaten by a customer.
Also, there is Eri, Mari’s beautiful older sister, who is caught in a slumber so deep that nothing can wake her. Eri sleeps alone in a room where the only illumination comes from a television set, where a mysterious man appears on screen, leering at Eri. As the night progresses and gets darker, Eri finds herself transported into the television screen, awake but unable to escape from her imprisonment.
The two stories never fully come together, they only revolve around each other like a double-helix until the end, when Mari comes home to see her sister. In this way, Murakami twins his narratives, another theme found in the majority of his work, to in order to explore but never answer the metaphysical questions that plague Murakami’s characters.
After Dark is beautiful in how the musical elements of Murakami’s narrative come together and synchronize. There’s the unsettling tension throughout the novel, analogous to something like Brian Eno’s ambient treatments that sound at once foreign and familiar; the doubled-narratives of Mari and Eri, like dueling saxophonists bouncing riffs off each other, exploring the meaning of sounds as they fill space; and then there’s the conductor himself, Murakami, making sense of the rhythm and the melody, the harmony and the free improvisation, and all the euphonic noise and discordant sounds that fill his head.