"People's memories are the fuel they burn to stay alive," says a character in Haruki Murakami's After Dark. "Advertising fillers in the newspaper, philosophy books, dirty pictures in a magazine, a bundle of ten-thousand-yen bills: when you feed 'em to the fire, they're all just paper."
Murakami's internationally popular novels use elements such as these as their building blocks. His characters inhabit worlds crammed full with the detritus of consumer capitalism: a starting point for novels characterised by the bar-room philosophising of his characters and a beguiling narrative style that skips between realism and the supernatural. For readers, it is a kind of comfort food; an easy way into the work.
In After Dark, a short novel that takes place over the course of a single night, we are shown a world made almost entirely from clichés: somewhere at the heart of a neon-lit city a girl in an all-night diner (Mari) is approached by a young man (Takahashi). The city is Japanese, but from all we know it could just as easily be London or Beijing or New York. Mari is reluctant to talk at first, but Takahashi perseveres. He is a musician on his way to band practice; she is running away from something, but won't say what. The action moves from the diner to a seedy hotel where we encounter a beaten-up prostitute and her Chinese gangster pimps. Naturally, the gangsters are out for revenge.
It is almost as if Murakami doesn't want the physical details of plot, character and location to trouble the reader's attention too much. They appear almost incidental to the novel's aim of evoking the sense of altered perception that comes to us during the hours when we should be sleeping. From the book's opening passage, where we swoop down on the city through the eyes of a bird, Murakami seeks to detach us from the action.
The effect is otherworldly, but it's also creepy. Mari has a sister, the stunningly beautiful Eri, who went to sleep one day a few months ago and hasn't woken up since. In chapters interspersed with the main narrative, Murakami takes us into her bedroom, where a dream-like sequence involving a flickering TV screen unfolds. A third-person narrator conspires with us as we spy on the sleeping woman: "The room is dark, but our eyes gradually adjust to the darkness," he tells us. Most of the women in this novel are there to be used or abused - be it Mari as she is pursued by Takahashi, or the hotel worker who has fled a violent past, or indeed the Chinese prostitute - and in the character of Eri, Murakami has placed a good-looking woman in suspended animation, seemingly for our viewing pleasure. It's a device more normally associated with cinema, and there is a knowing nod to Jean-Luc Godard in the name of the hotel: Alphaville.
This is a strange approach to fiction. While films necessarily alienate us to some extent from the people on screen, novels are often seen as a way of exploring the inner worlds of their characters. In previous novels, Murakami has done just that. But here, the psychology has been stripped away so that the endlessly repeated banalities of modern city life can float freely.
In the novel's opening and its conclusion, cities are described as machine-like, where every inhabitant is forced to live both as an individual and as "a nameless part of the collective entity". But even here, the author doesn't appear to be making an explicit point.
The narrator of Murakami's 1994 novel Dance Dance Dance, a journalist who makes a living writing PR puff-pieces and fillers for glossy magazines, likens his vocation to shovelling "cultural snow". Throughout his career, Murakami has been engaged in a similar pursuit, only he doesn't shovel; he sculpts. After Dark, in its brevity, is less a sculpture than an intricately formed snowflake. It's pretty, for sure, but look at it for too long and it's liable to melt into nothingness.