In this issue:
In After Dark, Haruki Murakami’s virtuosity draws you in even as it puzzles and dazzles
Jhumpa Lahiri's writing in Unaccustomed Earth has a resonance that is rare in so young an author: every layer of it is full of rich intention
The Alzheimer's Action Plan is rich in medical and practical advice; run, don't walk to your bookstore for a copy
by Haruki Murakami, © 2007
Published by Vintage Books (div. Random House); paperback, 244 pp
Years (oh, many years) ago, when I was recently out of college, a friend of a friend recommended that I apply for a job at 20 th Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles. For some unfathomable reason, the personnel department there granted me an interview for a non-specific job. They then ran me through a series of temporary positions, first to the typing pool (typing new pages for the on-site script changes of Cleopatra, then being shot in Rome); then a brief stint as secretary to a well-known but hardly busy writer; and then, script reader in the Story Department.
The latter was an interesting slot, and one right up my alley because I had been a drama major with an interest in writing. My first assignment was to read a synopsis of a new novel, and offer comments on its possibilities as a Fox film.
Alas, I hated it. The story line was a comedic take on the family dynamics of a young, California girl who went East to college. I considered myself an expert on the subject, since I also was a California girl who picked up and went East to college, but there was absolutely no parallel between the experience of anyone I knew and the boneheaded girl in the book. I was outraged and insulted; I found the book patronizing and trivial and full of cheap laughs. My recommendation to my new employers: They would be crazy even to consider making a film from such trivia.
Come to find out, the “trivia” was already in the works to become a major Fox film, starring Sandra Dee and Jimmy Stewart, entitled Take Her She’s Mine. The reading assignment had been a test of my suitability for a job in their Story Department.
For some unknown reason, I got the job despite my obtuseness about the kind of thing the public would pay to see. Apparently the hiring people forgave me because they were impressed by my ability to express myself, even if I had the wrong idea. For the record, I still think it was a god-awful movie.
All of which is relevant to a review of After Dark only by way of demonstrating my familiarity with the form of film scripts, which this book resembles to a marked degree, albeit printed on the page in regular narrative form.
Murakami’s opening is:
"Eyes mark the shape of the city.
"Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from midair.”
Rather quickly, however, he abandons the night bird and moves to the camera as metaphor. As in a film script, we are given directions for the composition of each scene, with little or no narrative interpretation. The symbols must speak for themselves. We are forever outside the frame as the action ensues, being told what we are seeing, but nothing of the meaning. That meaning, we must discover or interpret for ourselves.
The story involves happenings in Tokyo between midnight and dawn of one day. Murakami gives us glimpses into the lives of assorted characters, including a young woman who is defiantly spending a night away from home, sitting in a Denny’s restaurant, reading a book. Her encounter with a young man who knows her older sister leads to a visit to a "love hotel,” not for sex, but because the girl speaks Chinese and is needed as an interpreter for a Chinese prostitute who has been badly beaten by a Japanese business man. One encounter leads to another, all eventually interconnected, but it takes a while to sort them out.
Woven in with this is an unsettling description of the older sister, a great beauty, who, when our “camera” visits her, lies immobile on her bed, apparently asleep; or, on other “visits,” is on the inside of a television screen, trying desperately and silently to get out. I kept trying to pin down the metaphors in this strange tale, but there were so many possibilities that I finally gave up and just went with the flow. Sometimes one must allow the poetry to sing its own song.
I wish that I could read Japanese, so that I could determine how much of this book is as the author wrote it. I expect that the translation is quite literal, which could explain the odd (to the western ear) grammar — incomplete sentences, odd phrases, lack of connective tissue, if you will, quite like the form followed in those film scripts that I read so long ago. Movie writing leaves interpretation open for the director and actor, with no time wasted on fleshing out the story for the reader because the images and angles will take the place of lots of the exposition.
This odd presentation does not make the book any less of a triumph. The mingling of mundanity with eerie symbolism would be ludicrous in the hands of a lesser writer, but it works here. Murakami’s virtuosity draws you in even as it puzzles and dazzles, and while the puzzling continues to haunt once you finish the book, so does dazzle.