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'After Dark' is a gripping dream

Haruki Murakami writes with precision and demonstrates compassion for his small cast of characters. Haruki Murakami writes with precision and demonstrates compassion for his small cast of characters.

After Dark
By Haruki Murakami
Knopf, 191 pp., $22.95

Considering that no observable action beyond walking and talking and eating tuna sandwiches transpires in Haruki Murakami's "After Dark," it is a remarkably gripping book. With a small cast of characters and a story line spanning six hours between midnight and dawn, the novel's tension is fueled by both its brevity and structure. But as always, it's the dreamlike precision of Murakami's prose and his compassion for his characters that makes it so compelling.

The story opens in an amusement district of an unnamed Japanese city -- specifically, in a Denny's restaurant, where 19-year-old Mari smokes, drinks coffee, and reads, her Boston Red Sox cap on the table next to her ashtray. In that flat, yellowing light, with the strains of the Percy Faith Orchestra playing in the background, a young man with a music case joins her, uninvited. He is Takahashi, and recognizes her from a summer afternoon two years earlier when the two of them joined his friend and her sister Eri on a double date. She said practically nothing then, and is almost as taciturn now. Still, we learn a little -- that Eri is a fashion model, a beautiful and unreachable mannequin; that Mari speaks Chinese and is troubled by something at home.

Then we see what might be troubling her. Murakami takes us into a featureless room where Eri has been in a deep, unconscious sleep for weeks on end and the digital clock displays "0:00." In this room is an unplugged television on which an image of a man gradually takes shape. He is sometimes observing Eri from inside the screen; in other moments Eri's still sleeping form dwells inside the screen. There are no acts of violence, no acts at all, but the chapter is deeply disturbing.

Meanwhile, back in Denny's (where strains of a Burt Bacharach tune now waft through the air), Kaoru, manager of a "love hotel" and friend of Takahashi's, has come to solicit Mari's help in speaking to a Chinese prostitute who has been badly beaten. She obliges, and follows Kaoru to the Hotel Al phaville, where she elicits stories not just from the illegal Chinese immigrant, but from Korogi, a housekeeper there who is in perpetual flight from her past.

Their histories and that of Takahashi unfold over the course of the book, but these are interspersed with scenes of the still-sleeping Eri and of Sharakawa, a middle-aged businessman who we come to realize is both the man who has beaten the prostitute and the face on the television screen observing Eri's slumber. He is terrifying in his discipline, his colorlessness, his attempt as he soothes his injured fist ". . . to make everything look like a neutral still life."

While each succeeding chapter feels like it's building toward an earthquake, when it comes, the book's climax is as gentle as a warm, sleeping sigh. In the Denny's, the Hotel Alphaville, the all-night convenience stores , and basement rehearsal spaces -- in all of these institutionally lit, culturally barren settings -- Murakami reveals the darkness in which his characters' amorphous fears flourish. But so too does their poignant and brave willingness to rebirth themselves every day. In lesser hands, the confluence of dawn and possibility at the book's end would be cliche d, but in Murakami's, hope is nothing more nor less than a deep, cleansing breath.

Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.