After Dark – Haruki Murakami

 

After Dark (novel) by Haruki Murakami

English Publication History: After Dark (Alfred K. Knopf, 2007; Vintage, 2007; Bond Street, 2007; Harvill Secker, 2007; Thorndike, 2007; Anchor, 2013)

Original: Japanese (2004, アフターダーク)

Translated by Jay Rubin, 2004

Synopsis: Alone but not outwardly lonely, a girl sits in a restaurant reading a book. Though the time nears midnight, she seems unhurried to catch the last train home as with so many others in the city of millions. Outwardly, again, she’s just face in a restaurant; she’s one of a million of women in one of a score of Denny’s in one of the world’s largest cites: Tokyo. Here, nothing in unique. Only when a male passerby identifies her does she earn attention… and a name and a relationship: Mari, the sister of the Eri, who the passerby knows as an acquaintance. With identities established, the two go their separate ways.

Soon, Mari is approached by another unfamiliar face who is an acquaintance of the prior man. Considering Mari to be fluent in Chinese, she woman elicits help in order to deal with a situation stemming from an injured Chinese prostitute at a love hotel. Mari then descends into the seedier side of city complete with mafia, johns, and those who find employment on the operations side of such establishments. Regardless of the chasm between their current lives and backgrounds, Mari finds a familiar air of association with the prostitute, the hotel’s manageress, and the assistant; however, there are those amid the night’s secretive pervasiveness who elude Mari’s scope of relevance: the mafia figure who picks up the prostitute and the unnamed john who assaulted the same prostitute.

As the night deepens, Mari experiences the depth of those with whom she comes into contact. Like effervescence, life emerges to the surface, popping in Mari’s mind with chromatic intrigue, compelling her to disclose her own history, albeit slowly and sparsely. Divulging mostly to Takahashi, the man who recognized her in the Denny’s, Mari opens up her familial history regarding Eri, a beautiful but elusive sister, one who has led her own life both in limelight and recent hermitage. Though Mari tells her story, she resists baring her soul, which seems caged by the non-existence of her relationship with Eri.

Meanwhile…

…Eri sleeps peacefully, a static body of beauty and dreamstate. Her unplugged TV stirs to life portraying a translucently masked man who silently observes as he sits in the middle of a wide open floorspace. Soon, he disappears while Eri is ethereally transported to the same space, where she wakens to a self-induced panic; exhausted though, she settles once again into  slumber.

…the john who attacked the prostitute hammers out computer code in his open office. Shirakawa’s meaningless work reflects his errant way of life, one transfixed on remorseless debauchery and emotionless family life. His so-called follows through its motions as a pendulum swings: predictable yet ripe with gravitational potential.

Analysis: During our waking hours, we live in the realm of civilization; if not working with, commuting with, or co-inhabiting with our fellow humans, we’re at least exposed to the product of the same civilization in the forms of television, music, literature, furniture or even the city’s sound pollution. When dusk gives way to starlight, when humans return to the safety of home, our body clocks wind down to an obverse alarm, one which incites a return to slumber. With eyes closed, our minds recede inward–further, further–into the depths of our selves, wholly leaving behind civilization. Asleep, we are alone–alone, finally–with only our histories and unconscious associative thoughts.

Rather than a placid lake of reflection, our dreamstate selves wonder amid the unforgiving terrain of thought, complete with streams of thought, quagmires of lost love, oceans of personal history, and other such analogous geography (you get the point). Lost amid the geography of the mind, we are actually confronted by our selves. Subjective truth lies near here in his topography, a trove of which is entirely absent during the day’s tumult. On rare occasions, epiphanies way well forth, suddenly exposing a truth like rare ore that glimmers in the long-hidden sun.

As for Mari, she ignores the truth that dreams ensure. Stalwart to such truth, she stays awake through the night immersed in her outward solitude while shunning the inward solitude of sleep. The night, however, can be just as illuminating as a dream because the city, too, sleeps. While Tokyo recovers from its daily organization of chaos averted, its nocturnal cells replenish its character, a city that seeks its own truths just as humans do. One of these truths is one of its citizens: Mari. With each person she meets, Mari is able to see the shifting facets of herself, which brings her closer to the kernel of her sororal dilemma with Eri.

Eri, in her months-long catatonia, finds herself dreaming, and in that dream, experiences herself as she acted in her real life: self-obsessed. Serene she may lie, but her mind stirs with roiling realization. Others view her as physical perfection, attention which she considers to be of primary importance, thus creating an self-obsession bent on a steady state of the same perfection; however, this perfection is unhappiness. Her life is empty, a shell.

So, too, does Shirakawa experience his own shell. Perhaps a sociopath even though married, he lives his life under the burning lamps of the city rather than that of the sun. In his nocturnal hermitage, any errant to his routine is an infraction on his sense of steady perfection, something which his work demands in one sense. His one brush with humanity in the depths of night paints a demented picture, yet the fallout doesn’t stop him from returning to his mindless bliss at work, at the mini-mart, in the cab, and at home in front of the TV. Having escaped subjective truth for another night, Shirakawa only hides from the predator that is his history; he, a ripe prey for change.

Unimpeded by other schemes, this hint of things to come takes time to expand in the new morning light, and we attempt to watch it unobtrusively, with deep concentration. The night has begun to open up at last. There will be time until the next darkness arrives. (201)

Review: So very atmospheric, it’s a story that demands association just as dreams compel us to look inward. The story won’t do the work for you, so many may be disappointed that everything isn’t tidily strung together in the conclusion, but the open ending, again, compels us to look again, not only at the details of the story, but inward to our selves. The association lies deep. The novel is a great moment of reflection.

Likewise, the novel really captures the intangible essence of the city after dark, something which I’ve experienced in both Tokyo and Osaka, until 1am at least. Though tapering in vitality, the city retains its pulse, much like our own slumber maintains our heartbeat. The novel oozes authenticity and atmosphere.

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Edge – Koji Suzuki

Edge (novel) by Koji Suzuki

English Publication History: Edge (Vertical, 2012)

Original: Japanese (2008, エッジ)

Translated by Camellia Nieh and Jonathan Lloyd-Davies, 2012

Synopsis: Eighteen years ago, Saeko lost her father, thus leaving her without parent yet with ample funding due to her father’s translations, publishing, and writing. His disappearance spurred her to deeply investigate his life and to understand the those methods of investigation, which helped her to become an excellent journalist. A recent spat of human disappearances is investigated by Saeko, an investigation which gains her fame within media circles, but the disappearances themselves in the public sphere overshadow her minor fame. Hashiba, a television executive, takes a liking to thirty-something Saeko, a relationship that treads softly with neither party discussing their private lives. Her involvement with the man causes her to look again into her father’s disappearance, which may have involved a woman, a facet of truth that she garnered from her father’s journal found at the site of a family’s vanishing. Soon, with some inventive research, it’s found that a combination of tectonic forces, sunspots, and magnetic neutrality is causing people to vanish one way or another.  Fearing reprisals of quackery, the team keeps their discoveries to themselves… only later to learn of more than 100 missing from a botanical garden. The US president has gathered a team, and Saeko and Hashiba–ever with frisson between them–gather their own scientists to better understand the intangible threat.

Analysis: In regards to fear, “out of sight, out of mind” takes on a curious form in Edge. In our real world, “out of sight, out of mind” plays a psychological element to our everyday lives. When guns are hidden, we don’t consciously fear a shooting, murder, or hold-up. When the elderly are hidden in nursery homes, we don’t fear our own decay or death. When nature’s predators are killed, we no longer worry about attacks as prey. So, we hide the guns and pretend there aren’t any, we keep the elderly hidden to believe in immortality, and we kill the beasts to crown ourselves the fittest to survive. Meanwhile, while these material fears lessen, immaterial fears–intangible yet forceful–still prey upon us: bankruptcy, cancer, climate change, etc. These fears are man-made, products of success as a species.

Few are the intangible fears that are natural (i.e., an asteroid impact, to name one). In Edge, however, the characters are met by two immaterial fears of death stemming from psychological reflection of their reality: sudden human disappearances (the primary element to the plot) and the alteration of the universe’s physical laws (the much lauded plot according to the book’s summary, but more of a framing device). It’s this intangible fear that Suzuki seems to do so well in his Ring trilogy, which I haven’t had the privilege to read yet.

Call me one who relishes a mystery, one who thrives in uncertainty, one who wallows in “directionlessness”, one who… you get the idea. The mind needs to fill in its own gaps of understanding to make fear more visceral, more relevant. When intangible fears are named, probed, necropsied, diagrammed, and cataloged, the intangible fear begins to feel very tangible with almost book-like familiarity. In Edge, everything point of fear has some logical underpinning. The human disappearances begin to feel like segments from 1980s-1990s Unsolved Mysteries. The paranormal begins to feel very normal, like how sensationalized news makes our normal yet remarkable lives feel otherwise dull.

Review: When I said that “In Edge, everything point of fear has some logical underpinning”, it wasn’t a compliment. In modern SF novels, some authors like to add an bibliography in the back that backs the science used in the novel. I suppose this either 1) makes the book better based on reality rather than fits of fancy or 2) as a resource for others to discovery more of the book’s science in depth. These bibliographies are often peer-reviewed articles from professional journals. In Edge, however, the bibliography can be immediately disregarded (in terms of “based on real science”) when Graham Hancock is seen, who “specialises in pseudoscientific theories involving ancient civilisations, stone monuments or megaliths, altered states of consciousness, ancient myths, and astronomical or astrological data from the past” (Wiki).

In addition to pi being made from irrational to rational (one of the the book’s opening premises), the novel delves into ancient civilizations, some correlation between sunspots and earthquakes, clairvoyance, and other pseudoscience. It tries hard to incorporate some far-flung theoretical science into this mishmash, but the end result is a disorganized array of half-hearted attempts of injecting interesting slants to the story. It’s a mish-mash that could have used some more time distilling before bottling, leaving the reader hungover from its dregs.

They Had to Move – Shimon Adaf

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“They Had to Move” (short story) by Shimon Adaf

English Publication History: Zion’s Fiction (Mandel Vilar Press, 2018)

Original: Hebrew (2008, unknown)

Translated by Emanuel Lottem, 2018

Synopsis: Aviva and her young brother No’am were living their debilitated mother when their long-lost Aunt  Tehila comes to take them under her wing. Aunt Tehila seems to be younger, more beautiful, more graceful than what their memory had imposed, but she does offer haven and, to boot, a library. Aviva’s aunt’s initial library holds little for either herself or No’am until she’s led through a small door into a chamber nestling a collection of old Fantasia 2000 magazines and other oddities, each of which used to belong to her Aunt’s exes. Grasping her locket, Aviva chooses one edition for her brother, who is eager to read more; however, rather than selecting them for himself, No’am insists that Aviva choose for me, by which he is always satisfied. Compounding this with No’am recent troubles with the local boys–not as the victim, but as the culprit of the fights–Aviva decides to follow her brother into the woods, where she discovers something inexplicable, all surrounding her brother’s ghostly assistance.

Analysis: Inspiration isn’t bipolar–it can’t be switched on or off; rather, inspiration is often the timely convergence of place, situation, and mindset.

I was a late-bloomer in terms of reading science fiction. It seems many readers discovered it at a young age and now attach nostalgic feelings to the habit. I, however, picked up reading when I was 25.

Time: April 2006

Place: Gecko Books, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Situation: for want of a long-holiday book

Mindset: reflecting on my similarities to my father

I’ve known since I was a child that my dad reads science fiction. He used to read to me in bed, the cover of one book I strikingly remember but have never been able to find (green, orange, black, and green colors featuring a moonscape and astronaut). He tried to encourage me to read when I was a teenager (Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer), but I was never inspired to pick it up. I had even bought my dad a few SF books from a secondhand bookstore for his birthday, titles of which I read, found interesting, and bought for him while knowing his favorite authors.

Prior to 2006, I had been reading non-fiction: crime, Buddhism, and philosophy. It wasn’t until 2006 that I found myself in front of similar shelves with similar books wanting something to relax to, but with a need for myself rather than for my dad. I immediately went to Greg Bear–another of my dad’s old favorites from the 1980s–and chose The Forge of God. Boom. Hooked.

Similarly, this short story hold two parallelisms to inspiration. The first: No’am is in the right time, place, and situation to experience his inspiration or sorts. Lonesome and bullied, No’am turns to his stories to find escapism, only to find something more potent and useful. The second: The source of the SF magazines (an actual series of SF magazines produced in Israel’s native language, including original stories and translations of classics). Tehila says it used to belong to one of her ex-lovers (Shi’mon [metafiction: same as the story’s author?]), but the truth of the magazines’ origin is muddied between lovers and magazines, which she loves, keeps, then kills before objectifying the lover/story. This line of parallelism is oddly reflective to what the author probably experienced while growing up, reading SF, and “helped him consolidate his identity as a reader” (285) when he was young. It’s unclear to me who the author is exactly reflected in, but there’s a distinct sense that this is important to the story’s plot.

Review: The familiar yet odd parallelism as mentioned above adds a distinctive feeling to the short story that imbues it with more than a standard plot of a “boy with powers” story, something semi-young-adult-fiction-ish. I wouldn’t take the story at face value; rather, consider what the story would mean to the author. I’ve read a lengthy interview with the author after reading this story, and my impression of the author fit very well with the interview. Thus, if it was the author’s intention to convey his inspiration through science fiction through this very story, it was successful and provided a mental puzzle that intrigues.

 

My Crappy Autumn – Nitay Peretz

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“My Crappy Autumn” (novelette) by Nitay Peretz

English Publication History: Zion’s Fiction (Mandel Vilar Press, 2018)

Original: Hebrew (2005, unknown)

Translated by Emanuel Lottem, 2018

Synopsis: Ido’s autumn went from shitty to surreal very quickly. This portion of his life started with the unexpected break-up with his long-time girlfriend; thus, having lost the only thing he truly loved, Ido begins a downward spiral marked by sloth, gluttony, and utter disregard for others–in other words, his misery keeps him afloat in addition to the thoughts of a quick exit with a gun purchase. His depression is unfazed by the sudden conversion of his roommate to a popular prophet, one apostle of which is a talking donkey who becomes popular on TV. Further, aliens, who seem to be linked to the new prophet, also leave Ido unfazed. His rock is his mother, a typical overbearing mother stubborn to the ebb of time. Though the relationship is a strained one, Ido can sense some timelessness in otherwise turbid times.

Analysis: Many forms of entertainment are sensationalized. It garners our attention; we seek its roiling affairs of the heart. Daytime drama used to epitomize this, but it seems much of our news media has taken its cue from the former, thus dissolving the fine line between information and entertainment, between relevance and decadence. Sordid affairs are brandished over the news to captivate the social element of out brain rather than the intellectual or curious kernels. As a result, we now have the tendency to focus on our own personal drama, which distracts from the more important things around us.

Regardless of our drama, however, for the most part, the turbulence eventually tapers off and our lives return to a sense of normality; the deeper the drama, the greater sense of normality is felt upon that return. For Ido, though his drama is deep, so are the peripheral circumstances of his roommate-cum-prophet, a talking donkey, and aliens. Just as his life had once been one of routine and complacency, it’s almost assured that his life will snap back into normality in due time. With this mother as anchor, through the tumultuous seas of drama may rock his boat, there’s a reaffirming sense of permanence in the deep.

Review: Not only is the story of zany fun, but it also offers a fair amount of food for thought (e.g. the relevance of the talking donkey) and sympathy (e.g. for Ido’s troubles). It’s artistic merits are well veiled by the otherwise fast and interesting pace, which may compel the reader forward through the story rather than stopping to smell the roses while on the journey,