My rating: 5 of 5 stars
[Note to readers unfamiliar with Tokyo: There are a couple of facts about the city that one must understand for this book to make sense. First, while Tokyo is a city that’s always moving, the trains don’t run between roughly midnight and five am (your results may vary by station.) Second, because many people live far out in the suburbs and the cost of living is high, taxis aren’t an option for much of the population. These two facts add up to a slew of business for those industries that cater to the population caught out “after dark” (i.e. after the trains stop running–not after sundown) including: all-night diners, love hotels, c-stores, bars, pachinko parlors, bowling alleys, and manga bookstores.]
This novel takes place in Tokyo during the wee hours of a single night. Murakami satisfies a form of voyeuristic impulse by giving us a peek into the lives of a few of the people out and about while the masses are home slumbering, or—at least–whiling away insomnia-ridden hours in the privacy of their own homes.
The protagonist is a young college student named Mari. As she sits in a 24-hour Denny’s reading, Mari immediately triggers curiosity. She isn’t typical of the disheveled, boozy, or garish crowd out “after dark.” In a post-witching hour world of drunken salaryman, micro-miniskirted hostesses, tattooed yakuza gangsters, and nightlife-savvy travelers, the bookish young woman stands out. We soon learn that Mari didn’t miss the last train on accident, but rather is staying out all night on purpose to be out of the house. This further raises the level of intrigue.
In the Denny’s, Mari is approached by a gregarious young man named Takahashi who is grabbing a quick snack before going back to his nighttime hobby of jamming in a jazz band. Takahashi introduces himself as someone who already knows Mari from a party. He’s a couple years older than the young woman, and was a classmate of Mari’s sister, Eri. The party at which he met Mari was mostly attended by kids the age of Eri and himself, and Mari was just along for the ride with her more popular sister.
Eri is another major character in the book, although her mysterious presence is mostly in a sleeping state. Eri, unlike the plain Mari, is drop dead gorgeous, and has been doing modeling jobs since she was a child. Takahashi is but one of the young men infatuated with Eri—though we get the feeling that Takahashi realizes that Eri isn’t in his league. He’s a pragmatist—if begrudgingly so. The rest of the book hinges on this chance encounter between Mari and Takahashi.
Suspicions that the grim hours of circadian disruption are the domain of crime and vice are confirmed when a bulky former female wrestler turned love hotel manager, named Kaoru, rushes into the Denny’s seeking Mari. Kaoru is an acquaintance of Takahashi (who has since left the diner to play jazz) and she is seeking Mari because Takahashi told her that Mari spoke fluent Chinese. A Chinese prostitute was beaten up at the love hotel, the Alphaville, and Kaoru needs to talk to the foreign woman to get to the bottom of the matter. Kaoru’s investigation is in part driven by the fact that the Chinese hooker’s John dashed on the hotel bill, but the former wrestler also has a soft spot for the beaten girl and wants to do the right thing by her—though Kaoru knows the police can’t be involved because the Chinese working girl will, at a minimum, be deported by the authorities, or, worse, be punished by the Chinese mafia who pimp her.
As with a few of Murakami’s other books, this book might be labeled “slipstream.” Slipstream is a genre that blends mainstream literary fiction with supernatural elements / speculative fiction. However, the scenes that aren’t realist generally involve the sleeping Eri in her room by herself. So, it may be that Murakami is just conveying the hazy and illusory world of sleep and life at the edge of sleep. I’ll leave it to the reader to make their own interpretations of this. There are also coincidences that could strain credulity, but this may just be an attempt to convey that the world of Tokyo “after dark” is a small pond.
I’d highly recommend this novel. Murakami gives us likable characters and one can see why said characters are draw to each other despite their very different existences. Then he puts them into situations that demand resolution. It’s a short, readable, and interesting novel.