After Dark by Haruki Murakami reminded me of carefully-shuffled cards. Two decks representing two separate (yet ultimately and intimately related) stories are slowly merged, chapter by chapter, until they make one cohesive whole that is far more beautiful and evocative than either story would be if taken alone. Murakami is a master of this technique, and he is in fine form here.
Story one: It is midnight in downtown Tokyo. An introverted, bookish, somewhat cynical young woman drinks coffee and reads in an all-night diner, escaping into her book, retreating from the world, hiding from phantoms. She encounters several quirky and unexpected other late-night souls and has conversations and adventures, forming serendipitous attachments and revealing more about herself as the story progresses.
Story two: A beautiful young woman sleeps…and sleeps…and sleeps, still as stone in her bed. A quiet (David) Lynchian drama unfolds which may be literal or metaphor, dream, hallucination or reality, or a bit of each. Any details I could give might spoil the story for potential readers, so I’ll simply say it is subtly surreal, atmospheric and rich in symbolism.
I mentioned David Lynch, and although he is a bit more in-your-face than Murakami, I feel the points of comparison are strong. There is a magical realist air all through the book, where the mundane takes stranger and less expected turns as the story progresses. This is not a work of horror fiction, yet there are several instances of imagery that would be right at home in one of the finer, more understated Japanese horror films. This book felt very cinematic to me, and I can very much see it being adapted for the screen by one of Japan’s avant-garde and visionary auteurs. (I’d suggest Katsuhito Ishii, or perhaps Takashi Miike in one of his thoughtful, introspective phases.)
Murakami has created a lovely, unusual book full of surprises, wry humor, gorgeous prose, artful dialogue, poetic metaphor and cinema-worthy scene-building. Read this if you love the author or Japanese literature in general, multi-layered meaning that will keep you thinking and re-evaluating long after you have finished reading, deftness of language, colorful and theater-quality casts of characters, or plots that coil labyrinth-like back and around and onto and into themselves. Read this if you are looking for the perfect book to escape into over coffee, in an all-night diner, after dark.