Sunday, June 03, 2007

After After Dark

I am a Murakami virgin. (Gasp!) Or, was, until a couple weeks ago. Oh — apart from a story in the New Yorker I liked (years ago), after which reading I made the mental note to pick me up some Murakami. Which I did, finally.

"Time moves in its own special way in the middle of the night."

Reading After Dark, by Haruki Marukami, time did move in its own special way in the middle of the night.

I'm at a loss, really, to tell you much of anything about this book. I loved it while I was in it, but I can't say much of any of it has stayed with me. It felt, somehow, very real, while surreal and hyperreal. The way time moves.

After a quick survey of the interior, our eyes come to rest on a girl sitting by the front window. Why her? Why not someone else? Hard to say. But, for some reason, she attracts our attention — very naturally. She sits at a four-person table, reading a book. Hooded gray parka, blue jeans, yellow sneakers faded from repeated washing. On the back of the chair next to her hangs a varsity jacket. This, too, is far from new. She is probably college freshman age, though an air of high school still clings to her. Hair black, short, and straight. Little makeup, no jewelry. Small, slender face. Black-rimmed glasses. Every now and then, an earnest wrinkle forms between her brows.

She reads with great concentration. Her eyes rarely move from the pages of her book — a thick hardback. A bookstore wrapper hides the title from us. Judging from her intent expression, the book might contain challenging subject matter. Far from skimming, she seems to be biting off and chewing it one line at a time.

On her table is a coffee cup. And an ashtray. Next to the ashtray, a navy blue baseball cap with a Boston Red Sox "B." It might be a little too large for her head. A brown leather shoulder bag rests on the seat next to her. It bulges as if its contents had been thrown in on the spur of the moment. She reaches out at regular intervals and brings the coffee cup to her mouth, but she doesn’t appear to be enjoying the flavor. She drinks because she has a cup of coffee in front of her: that is her role as a customer. At odd moments, she puts a cigarette between her lips and lights it with a plastic lighter. She narrows her eyes, releases an easy puff of smoke into the air, puts the cigarette into the ashtray, and then, as if to soothe an approaching headache, she strokes her temples with her fingertips.

The music playing at low volume is "Go Away Little Girl" by Percy Faith and His Orchestra. No one is listening, of course. Many different kinds of people are taking meals and drinking coffee in this late-night Denny’s, but she is the only female there alone. She raises her face from her book now and then to glance at her watch, but she seems dissatisfied with the slow passage of time. Not that she appears to be waiting for anyone: she doesn’t look around the restaurant or train her eyes on the front door. She just keeps reading her book, lighting an occasional cigarette, mechanically tipping back her coffee cup, and hoping for the time to pass a little faster. Needless to say, dawn will not be here for hours.

She breaks off her reading and looks outside. From this second-story window she can look down on the busy street. Even at a time like this, the street is bright enough and filled with people coming and going—people with places to go and people with no place to go; people with a purpose and people with no purpose; people trying to hold time back and people trying to urge it forward. After a long, steady look at this jumbled street scene, she holds her breath for a moment and turns her eyes once again toward her book. She reaches for her coffee cup. Puffed no more than two or three times, her cigarette turns into a perfectly formed column of ash in the ashtray.


There was nothing grand in the story, but the mood of it was exquisite — like jazz after midnight. And that, sometimes, this time, is enough.

Perhaps because weird but not weird — real — things are happening in my life.

The ending was weak, but the more it goes, the more I recognize that the resolutions to the surreal or hyperreal situations life puts before me are equally generally anticlimactic and vaguely dissatisfying. You process certain moments, certain meetings, certain conversations, within a context of intensity (for some reason; why some moments and not others?) — everything is deep and meaningful; connections and significances abound. And then they dissolve.

I'd asked around a little before embarking on this book whether it was a good starting point into Murakami's work. First thoughts were that it was as good as any, but time is dulling people's initial impressions — apparently it pales in comparison to his other books. While After Dark didn't blow my mind, it's a good enough starting point in that it I'm looking forward to exploring more Murakami.

Excerpt.
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