“All the stories you’ve been telling tonight,” a character says to an unidentified speaker or speakers in Haruki Murakami’s most recent collection of short fictions, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2006), “seem to fall into two categories”: “There’s the type where you have the world of the living on one side, the world of death on the other, and some force that allows a crossing-over from one side to the other…. The second type involves paranormal phenomena or abilities, premonitions, the ability to predict the future. All of your stories belong to one of these two groups.” Not our narrator’s story, though, or rather not the story of his life so far. Until recently he had never seen a ghost or had a premonition, but the tale he now tells involves the sight of a second self that hates the first (“It was me, of course, but another me…. The one thing I did understand was that this other figure loathed me”), glimpsed in a mirror that turns out not to have existed in ordinary space-time. An implied prediction in an alternative world: He has stumbled into both categories at once.

Murakami is mocking and simplifying his own signature fictional devices, which often involve crossings between apparently incompatible worlds. In his remarkable novel Dance Dance Dance (1988), several characters slip through a crack in time into an older, hidden territory whose inhabitants cry the tears that are not cried in everyday life. “We shed tears for all the things you never let yourself shed tears,” they say, “we weep for all the things you did not weep.” In Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985), a character’s unconscious life is extrapolated and simulated on a computer and then reinserted surgically, in the form of a virtual movie, into the man’s brain. He lives half his life (and half the novel) inside this simulation. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997), the novel that catapulted Murakami from cult status to stardom–Christian Caryl tells us in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books that there is a cafe in Taipei named after Murakami as well as a bar in Moscow, and that his work has been translated into thirty-six languages–is littered with modes of transportation between worlds. And here perhaps the problem begins. It is the litter that Murakami is mocking in his story, but what is he to do about it? Is there an escape from gimmicks in doubling or twisting the gimmick? Yes, but you can’t do that forever, and the mockery suggests something of an impasse as well as an alert faculty of self-criticism.

After Dark, Murakami’s ninth novel, doesn’t start well. “Eyes mark the shape of the city. Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from midair.” No, this is not a metaphor for a plane arriving in Tokyo; it is a figure for narrative point of view, later identified as that of “an imaginary camera.” Murakami’s “we” is that semi-retired functionary, the omniscient narrator, and we are more than a little hampered by our self-consciousness. As befits our job description, we do know everything (“This is the continuation of their earlier conversation,” “This is the man who was photographed by the surveillance camera,” “We are probably the only ones who know that”), but we are not allowed to interfere (“We know. But we are not qualified to become involved”; “We observe but we do not intervene”).

The diligent awkwardness of the technique is obviously intentional, but does that help us? In the end I think the answer is yes, but there are still a few more doubts to overcome. About the writing, for example. Does Murakami’s own prose actually contain lamentable sentences like “A pregnant silence reigned” or “You can feel her pain”? Or: “Shirakawa is lying on the floor, doing sit-ups”? Does the Japanese language allow sitting and lying at the same time? I can only ask, but I have to ask. The novel also has weary and obvious images of the city as an immense creature (“Countless arteries stretch to the ends of its elusive body”), of the legal system as a giant octopus, that do not seem to have been found in translation. However, just when you begin to fret over the lumpy technique and the creature-city imagery, a new tone emerges and the project that defines the book begins to take shape:

We are inside a Denny’s…. Unremarkable but adequate lighting: expressionless decor and chinaware; floor plan designed to the last detail by management engineers; innocuous background music at low volume; staff meticulously trained to deal with customers by the book…. After a quick survey of the interior, our eyes come to rest on a girl sitting by the front window…. She sits at a four-person table, reading a book. Hooded gray parka, blue jeans, yellow sneakers faded from repeated washing…. Her eyes rarely move from the pages of her book–a thick hardback. A bookstore wrapper hides the title from us.

This wouldn’t be a Murakami novel if we didn’t get to know exactly what that background music is. “The music playing at low volume is ‘Go Away Little Girl’ by Percy Faith and His Orchestra”–right sound, wrong song, possibly something of a slip-up by the management engineers. Later their scheme provides Burt Bacharach’s “The April Fools,” no doubt another piece of unintended commentary–unintended by the engineers, that is. However, “no one is listening,” least of all the girl reading a book. And the narrator, we now realize, is not entirely omniscient, at this moment only omnivident, and maybe not even that, since he or we can’t see through a book wrapper. In fact, the novel contains a whole series of discreet lapses from knowledge into vision, and from vision into guesswork: “His smile is meant to show he means no harm”; “Hovering around him there seems to be a drawn-out sense of resignation”; “Mari looks bored, but she is clearly listening.” And we start to see what Murakami is doing, and how he is working his way out of his impasse. The more we see the less we know–or we find we know only that anomie is lurking everywhere.

Omniscience, Murakami suggests, is a fiction, not only a technique but a fantasy; it is just what we don’t have, and what we probably couldn’t bear. We wouldn’t know what to do with the information, either in its quantity or in its reach of nasty surprises. Omniscience in this novel ironically launches the lesson that we cannot cross from world to world except by accident or miracle or breakdown, even when, or especially when, those worlds themselves are each of them real. “I started seeing it like this,” a young jazz musician says in the most explicit statement of this theme, comparing his own relatively innocent life with that of clearly guilty and convicted criminals. “That there really was no such thing as a wall separating their world from mine. Or if there was such a wall, it was probably a flimsy one…. The second I leaned on it, I’d probably fall right through and end up on the other side. Or maybe it’s that the other side has already managed to sneak its way inside of us, and we just haven’t noticed.” Similarly, the girl reading a book identifies closely with a battered Chinese prostitute she has helped: “We hardly talked at all, but I feel as if she’s living inside me now. Like she’s part of me.” These sympathies are generous; but sympathies don’t alter the world, and flimsy walls are still walls. The Chinese prostitute living inside the nice Japanese girl still has her hard, broken life to live in the actual world. “There was not,” the uncertain hero says in Conrad’s Lord Jim, a novel Murakami vividly evokes in Hard-Boiled Wonderland, “the thickness of a sheet of paper between the right and wrong of this affair.” Marlow, the novel’s narrator, usually kinder to Jim than this, asks, “How much more did you want?”

After Dark is full of magical means of transition and/or doubling: a television set that functions as a window onto a virtual neighboring space; two mirrors that hold images after the person who had been standing in front of them has left; a pencil that drops from a table in one room to the floor in another. A man is physically transported into a different life, the dust of traversed walls still clinging to him. Even our narrator, suddenly worried about our otherwise disregarded material limitations, does a bit of teleporting. “It’s not that difficult once we make up our mind. All we have to do is separate from the flesh, leave all substance behind, and allow ourselves to become a conceptual point of view devoid of mass. With that accomplished, we can pass through any wall, leap over any abyss.” You can get there from here, all these gestures are saying to us, but only in the mind or in fiction.

And where is here, and where is there? After Dark, as we have seen, starts in a large city, later named as Tokyo, which is also a version of the abstract global metropolis, any place where you can find Denny’s, 7-Eleven and organized crime. (Murakami’s characters always live in some such zone.) The time is 11:56 pm. The novel takes us through the night, ending at 6:52 am, each chapter a spot-check on a different, meticulously identified moment. The girl in the restaurant, Mari, is greeted by the jazz musician, Takahashi, who’s on his way to practice. He says he knows her older sister, the beautiful Eri, and apparently he does. Eri, in another part of the city, is trying to sleep her life away and has been doing so for two months, waking only to go to the toilet and to eat what’s necessary to keep herself alive. Later, Mari meets the Chinese prostitute who has been beaten, and later still we meet Shirakawa, the man who beat her in a fury after discovering she was having her period. We meet a member of the Chinese gang who employs the prostitute, and then we see Shirakawa back at his computer, restlessly attacking a stubborn business problem, avoiding his wife and family till the morning, when he can sleep while they wake. “He does not look like the kind of man who would buy a Chinese prostitute,” our narrator tells us, “and certainly not one who would administer an unmerciful pounding to such a woman.” But then what does such a man look like? This man doesn’t seem even to have, or to be able to acknowledge, a memory of his behavior. His only memory, it seems, is in his hurting hand.

Where the novel becomes deeply mysterious is in the implied connection between Shirakawa and Eri, who at one point is transported in her sleep, bed and all, into a different reality. There is a pencil from his office lying in the room but no other sign of him now, although we have glimpsed what is perhaps a masked version of him here before. “This is reality,” Eri thinks with careful logic. “For some reason, a different kind of reality has taken the place of my normal reality.” Then she is beamed back to her own room. Is the other room the place where lost desires go, where a disoriented girl and a volatile man might almost meet despite themselves? What do her sleep and his violence have to do with the night and the rest of the characters in the book? They are images, I would suggest, of separation from the self, and they are the novel’s strongest representations of the city’s secrets: refusal and breakage. Their counter-images are Mari’s concern for her sister, her feelings for the Chinese girl, Takahashi’s thoughts about criminals and the wall, but they are just that: more images, not an argument or an action.

Our narrator has a theory of the night. It is “a place resembling a deep, inaccessible fissure.” It opens “secret entries into darkness in the interval between midnight and the time the sky grows light.” It is elsewhere, wherever elsewhere is: “someplace different: someplace outside your usual territory.” This is all rather didactic, and fails to do justice to the edgy, dubious atmosphere the novel creates. Mari and Eri, Takahashi, Shirakawa, the flophouse manager and staff, the Chinese prostitute, the Chinese gangster, do not form a pattern of difference or a representative menagerie of the dark hours. They are just versions of ordinariness and its discontents, and they will not fade in the morning light, whatever Murakami’s narrator wants to think. Their coexistence in the city suggests not a continuity between innocence and crime, or between middle-class loneliness and immigrant despair, but the radical separation of people linked by nothing more than a slender fictional plot. There is a fine figure for this separation in the multiple appearances of the Chinese gangster on his motorbike. He arrives at the flophouse to take the beaten girl away. Later he passes Mari and Takahashi on the street; and later still he stops at the same traffic light as the taxi Shirakawa is taking on his way home. No recognition occurs in either case. Why should it? None of these people have read the novel, and there is no other way for them, or anyone, to learn of their connection.