After Dark

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      By Haruki Murakami. Doubleday Canada, 191 pp, $27.95, hardcover

      The city is a different place after midnight. Shops close, crowds thin, time slows. A separate vibe settles in as the night owls ramble the streets, drift through silent rooms.

      Haruki Murakami, Tokyo's peerless novelist and short-story writer, maps those lonely streets in his latest work, After Dark. Nineteen-year-old Mari Asai can't sleep, which is what leads her on a nightlong wander that ends at a Denny's, across the table from an acquaintance named Tetsuya Takahashi. Murakami, who revels in the intimacy that chance encounters can lead to, fills their scenes with a dreamy fatalism: it's as though two sleepless, troubled young people can't escape each other, even in a city as large as Tokyo.

      After Dark questions to what degree people can and should be separate. Dualities flow through the brief book. Tetsuya, an amateur jazz player, tells Mari that he once watched a courtroom full of criminals; after, he realized "there really was no such thing as a wall separating their world from mine. Or if there was such a wall, it was probably a flimsy one made of papier-maché." Another character tells Mari, "The ground we stand on looks solid enough, but if something happens it can drop right out from under you. And once that happens, you've had it: things'll never be the same. All you can do is go on living alone down there in the darkness."

      Murakami's fiction is full of characters who cross exactly such boundaries, through walls or down wells or in elevators and into parallel worlds from which they're in danger of never escaping. As much as his characters can be called heroic, his heroes fight to free themselves and others from darkness and despair. Such is the case with After Dark, in which Mari's sister rests in a mysterious coma and Mari herself fears she has nothing inside to repel the darkness.

      Ever the humanist, Murakami suggests that although despair and hopelessness can seem terribly nearby, the tools to combat them are just as close. The love and security of other people are at hand–just across that thin but terrible divide that separates us all.