First off, I should say that Murakami is the first Japanese author I remember truly interacting with on a scholastic level - and it's his short stories in a book called The Elephant Vanishes that have made the greatest mark on me. Most recently I'd finished his book Kafka on the Shore (it was the one that he wrote just prior to After Dark). In some ways they're both definitely Murakami books, but I think ultimately Kafka is successful while, for me, After Dark is not. When I think of Murakami's writing style (both in Japanese and in translation), there are certain markers - he tends to write in shorter sentences than most Japanese authors, and his word choice is quite modern and often without true markers of "japanese-ness" that one has come to expect from other translated Japanese authors (those markers are an attention to aesthetics, a focus on the ineffable Japanese-zen-type feelings and/or emotions, or people, places, objects and themes that are culturally specific and either associated with a modern Japan or a traditional one). Some think part of the reason why Murakami is the most translated Japanese author is because his writings lack these markers. Also, most of his books are part of a genre that's come to be called magic realism, and I find it interesting that this genre is cross cultural and most often associated with the Latin American writers like .
-- as a side note, sometimes I wonder why there is a designation like "magic realism" when so much Science Fiction and/or Fantasy fits into the genre definitions. Emotionally I actually do find myself distinguishing between, say, movies like " " and movies like " " (LWfC is definitely magic realism, and is unequivocally fantasy, and yet from an outsider's perspective , someone who's not acquainted with the nuances of each genre, the two kinda look similar). Especially since magic realism is a respected literary genre while SF and fantasy still ARE NOT. (why yes, I am frustrated by that!) --
One of the other thing about the Murakami protagonist is generally they're men in their 20s-30s, often not named, who are in some way in search of an identity or meaning in their lives. The principle scholastic writer on Murakami, Matthew Strechter, suggests that this is in part due to Murakami's age - he's part of the generation that grew up after the deprivations of and so is not concerned so much with survival, or being part of the youth movements in the aftermath of the war that were convinced the world was changing before their very eyes (and thus they had a moral obligation to be a part of or drive that change), but is instead concerned with a very individual ennui that comes from not having to worry about where your next meal is going to come from. Something about being given too much and not having to worry about basic needs. Strechter's also convinced this is why Murakami is so popular with the 20s and 30s set - they all feel this same drive to define themselves in a world that basically doesn't lack for much.
I think where After Dark tries and fails is in the sleeping sister Eri's portion of the narrative - it's all red herrings and too much meaning infused in the transfer from television and back, and doesn't actually provide enough of a challenge (or explanation) to resonate. Sure, Eri's pretty and misunderstood and so she goes to sleep (and becomes more beautiful as a consequence). But who is the guy who sits watching her? What relation does he have to the sadistic computer guy, and why do we care that when Eri's transported into the television she finds the guy's pencil and it's obviously his office cleared of furniture? It's as if Murakami wanted to play with horror film tropes that involve the television as a point of infection and fear, and yet it never actually goes anywhere. There are too many questions left unresolved for it to be interesting to even begin to try to answer them.
I don't know if you're familiar with "hikikomori", but it's epidemic in Japan (documented and recognized by their Ministry of Heath) where young people isolate themselves in their homes for months or years at a time and refuse human contact. From the Wikipedia article: "While many people feel the pressure of the outside world, and may feel uncomfortable in public (or "social anxiety"), a hikikomori reacts by complete social withdrawal to avoid all outside pressure. In some cases, they may lock themselves into their bedroom or another room of their parent's house for prolonged periods of time, sometimes measured in years. They usually have few, or no friends. A hikikomori's days are characterized by long spells of sleeping, while their nighttime hours are often spent watching TV, extensively playing computer games, surfing the Internet, reading, trading the stock, forex, derivatives markets (i.e. stock future indices) or other non-social activities." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori). If Murakami is positioning Eri as a hikikomori, he doesn't even begin to deal with her plight in an interesting way.
At the same time, the Mari portion of the narrative is simply too pat for me. Mari's relationship to Eri (what with the great divide because one is lovely and the other is smart) is the stuff of fairy tales, not the stuff of interesting modern literature. Even though Eri is the sleeping beauty, it was too obvious that Mari, once she started reflecting on her relationship with her sister with other people, was going to be the one to cross that divide and be the "prince" to wake her sister up with her tears.
More than that, though, Mari and Takahashi (the trombone playing boy) are so obviously going to be doing the adorable romantic thing at the end that I felt as if I could have told you what was going to happen as soon as he walked up to the table. Of course Takahashi finds a way to involve Mari further in his life and keep up enough contact that he gets her address in the end. Of course he's changing enough in his life that he comes to value her quieter beauty instead of being impressed with her sister. It's a pat validation that the smart girl is eventually going to get the boy.
The truly interesting character, for me, was the former wrestler - she has a personally defined morality and seemed to be the only fully formed personality of the book. Her decision to pass along the businessman's picture to the gang/pimp raises questions of moral responsibility, and indigenous economies of crime and punishment. Besides, I actually liked her.
That being said, I found the more formal aspects of the novel - the narrative style and the time markers at the beginning of each chapter - really interesting. Especially since Murakami transforms the reader into film camera (very reminiscent of KW Jeter's The Glass Hammer). I'd actually love to look at the Japanese version someday and find out if Murakami is using volitional form (in Japanese using this suggests an invitation on the part of the speaker... an informal "let's do this"). I love direct address anyway - it's one of my favorite postmodern literary conventions.
Unfortunately I'm not quite sure what to do with the time markers. On the one hand they're very straightforward, ensuring the reader knows exactly what is going on when. On the other they're incredibly self-conscious, and the kind of thing that has lead other people to consider Murakami a sci-fi writer (and no, I'm not exactly clear how that makes him a sci-fi writer, unless it's that he's making the familiar passage of time strange in a way that other genres don't but scifi does). There are a number of reviews that suggest this book has an ethereal quality that is only enhanced by its taking place in the dead of night.
Finally I was a little bummed by the supposed dangers and uses of technology/flat screens - the evils of the television are too poltergeist/"The Ring" for me, and yet I wasn't emotionally invested enough in the characters, particularly Eri, to worry/be uncomfortable/feel as if she was in jeopardy because of her entrapment. The screen the computer programmer faces, and the security cameras he's betrayed by are sinister in an all together too generic way, and the people who leave themselves behind in the mirror are kind of interesting, but it doesn't go anywhere. Who are the people who are left behind - I think it's Mari and the computer programmer, and so is it supposed to suggest they are leaving pieces of themselves behind in all of these flat surfaces, or that they are more than even they see in the mirror?
Those same reviews suggest that one ought not take this not as a meaty narrative, but instead as a kind of mood piece, like the jazz song played on the phonograph in the middle of the night. Although I love the idea of that, there is too much going on in the narrative for me to feel comfortable with that as a reading - and because both the Mari/Takahashi narrative and the Mari/Eri narrative end positively (and yes, I'm taking that twitch Eri does at the end as the sign of her eventual return to life), there is more of a sense of things wrapped up as the morning comes than a "this is what happens in the city at night" kind of thing.
I should probably stop now, because if you've gotten this far you're probably a little tired of reading my brain chatter.