by MARTY DEMAREST & r & After Dark

by Haruki Murakami

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & aruki Murakami is the world's greatest living novelist. That's my opinion, but I get the impression that other critics think the same thing. The back of his latest novel After Dark uses praises such as "incredible," "genius" and "at the top of his form" to describe the writer. Unfortunately, that will probably lead those same critics to use kind words like "slender" and "evanescent" to describe After Dark. What the book really is, is too short.

Murakami's characters, even in his short stories, are often meticulously described enigmas. His best characters stand out like stones in a river, with the world rippling and eddying around them. By watching the patterns and anomalies, we come to sense the characters' metaphysical definitions.

After Dark is full of Murakami trademark characters -- the strange young girl, the salaryman with a dark side, talkative extra characters who seem oblivious to the author's hushed tone. But they are presented here at such warp speed that they don't get many chances to interact with the nocturnal world Murakami has fashioned around them. The characters spend a great deal of time talking -- the sort of talk that might occur in late-night coffee shops and motel rooms. As a result, instead of seeing Murakami's characters living their strange lives, we hear them talking about their strange lives.

Fortunately, since his book Underground, Murakami has been a master at capturing people's voices as they tell stories. For Underground, Murakami interviewed dozens of individuals who were caught in the gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. Their narratives, each a slight variation of the same event, were beautiful character transcriptions in which each person identified themselves by the way in which they told their story.

In After Dark, this skill is used to allow the characters to emerge in the minimum number of pages. But once those pages are past, there's very little left. The story is a noirish abstraction involving crime, and Murakami's fluctuations between banality and symbolism -- which often makes his novels read like David Lynch films -- is underused. Perhaps After Dark was supposed to be read in one night. It certainly could be. Otherwise, it's not nearly enough Murakami for me.

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