It's nearly impossible to name another contemporary author whose books are as hypnotic and disorienting as those of Haruki Murakami. His metaphysically skewed universes of mysterious Japanese women, disappearing housecats, and the occasional psychotic apparition of Colonel Sanders turn most readers into thirsty evangelicals: Once they've gotten a taste of the good word, they demand more, and frequently end up reading most of his back catalog in one stretch.
But this is where it gets tricky. By the time one gets to their third or fourth Murakami book, it's impossible to ignore recurrent stylistic and thematic trends that run through his work strongly enough to prompt the question, "Didn't I just read this book, only with different character names?" Compounding the problem is that for every devastating novel of ambition Murakami writes (Kafka on the Shore), there's a far less consequential shelf companion that reads at best like Murakami Lite (Sputnik Sweetheart).
Unfortunately, After Dark, his latest novel to be translated into English, falls into the latter category. That's not to say After Dark isn't without merit, but if you haven't heard a lot of fuss about the usually major news of a new Murakami novel, it's for a good reason.
Reading like the Ethan Hawke movie Before Sunrise given the Murakami treatment, After Darkunfolds over the course of one night in Tokyo. Mari, a teenager sulking at a Denny's, gets wrapped into the darkness' underbelly when a mysterious jazz student and retired female wrestler need her help in assisting a Chinese prostitute who just got beat up in a local motel. The girl is fine, but Mari and her two new friends philosophize until the sun comes up, making Murakami-esque pronouncements like, "Let me tell you something, Mari. The ground we stand on looks solid enough, but if something happens it can drop right out from under you. And once that happens, you've had it: Things'll never be the same. All you can do is go on living alone down there in the darkness."
As far as After Dark's token female beauty of preternatural enigma? That would be Mari's sister, a beauty queen whose coma-like slumber is the subject of a mysterious video surveillance.
Some contend that Murakami on his worst day is better than most authors on their best, but it's always disappointing to read sub-par work from a major author. And try as I might, I can't think of any other way to classify After Dark.