After Dark by Haruki Murakami
I found this one really compelling--I find Murakami generally fascinating. His odd slant on contemporary culture--both Japanese and American, or maybe really world culture--is fascinating, unsettling and strangely satisfying.
It begins with an encounter in Denny’s (Murakami is fascinated with American pop culture) between two college students, a girl who’s quietly reading in order to avoid going home and a guy who’s off to practice with the band where he plans trombone—in a old warehouse they can use only at night. They begin talking about chicken salad—his favorite at Denny’s. She’s skeptical—chickens are abused and full of hormones; he’s surprised at her health concerns since she’s smoking. These two—Mari and Takahashi--are the focus of the narrator’s commentary at different times during the night, basically between midnight and dawn in
We learn that Mari is studying Chinese, has a scholarship to study in China, and that her beautiful sister—with whom she’s been compared unfavorably all her life—has been sleeping for weeks, apparently healthy but avoiding the world. Takahashi loves music, but has decided to concentrate seriously on his law studies so that he can get a pretty good job at a pretty good company and live in a pretty good house with a pretty good family in a—well you get the idea. They encounter each other and talk several times during the night, getting to know one another and relating to each other with increasing authenticity.
In the meantime we encounter a Chinese prostitute who’s been raped and beaten in the Alphaville “love hotel”, and the seemingly respectable computer expert (who lives in a pretty good neighborhood with a pretty good family) who’s responsible, and we meet those who work at Alphaville at night.
It’s a simple story really—increasingly real people navigating an increasingly unreal world.