Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
Vintage Books International, 1991, ISBN 0-679-74346-4

After reading my first Haruki Murakami novel (A Wild Sheep Chase – see my review), I was curious to see if reading a second book of his would prove to be any less perplexing and just as entertaining.  The answer after reading Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World?  More perplexing AND more entertaining.  I’ve also decided that Murakami is a crazy freaky genius that has nothing to do with his skill at writing a great story.

I wasn’t sure of anything at the beginning – what the story was about, where Murakami was going with it, even who the main character was going to be.  And I don’t mean I was confused after the first few sentences or even after the first few paragraphs… I mean I was completely lost after the first few chapters.  The first chapter was strange enough, but then the second chapter seemed to have nothing to do with the first and was just plain bizarre.  To be truthful, I actually entertained the idea with putting the book aside for a while if it didn’t start making more sense.  However, while it did continue to build slowly, I’m really glad I kept at it because it did turn out to be a very engaging read – and after the initial “huh?” factor, it made sense.  A very strange, convoluted sense, but sense nonetheless.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is similar to A Wild Sheep Chase in many ways.  Again, Murakami spins a fairly simple tale with a very complicated structure.  Again, the complicated structure is verrrrry complicated, but again, if you don’t happen to understand all of the explicatives given, you can still understand the weight of the complexity and how it impacts the characters in the story – or doesn’t.

Again, the story is indeed easy to sum up quickly.  A rather unassuming computer tech with the ability to crunch data in a very specialized way takes a side job and finds himself caught between corporate espionage and a rouge scientist, where it turns out that he has been a pawn for longer than he realizes – and the outcome of this knowledge could trigger the end of the world as he knows it.  But that simple summary doesn’t do justice to what’s really going on.  It doesn’t mention the Town behind the Wall, the INKlings, the unicorn skulls or the chubby girl in pink.  Or the significance of paper clips.  Or the laboratory in the colon of the earth.  Not to mention how long a shadow can survive on its own. 

The confusion at the start of the book is mitigated when the reader realizes that there are two stories in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World; one that occurs in the here and now, and one that takes place in some strange other, dreamlike world.  At first the two seem very separate, but as each progresses, we see glimpses of one in the other.   We do not doubt that Murakami will weave them together, but how he does it is understated, graceful, and complete.

Understatement and grace are hallmarks of Murakami.  Once again, characters in this story have no names – not even the main character.  Some have titles – the Gatekeeper, the Librarian – but no proper names.  Yet unlike A Wild Sheep Chase, where this lack of personalization keeps the characters at arm’s length, in this book the non-naming convention actually feels comfortable, as if names would make the action too precious, too sensationalized.  And despite all the weird, complicated, extreme things that happen in this book, none of it is delivered in a sensationalized or dramatic fashion – everything comes at face value, with believable responses and lots of stream-of-consciousness musings that make the actions that occur seem plausible.

Don’t get me wrong – despite the grace in which it is written, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is not an easy book to read.   Although I found it a more engaging read than A Wild Sheep Chase, I did struggle with it.  Some of the basic concepts in the book, such as “laundering” and “shuffling” data, were very difficult for me to comprehend – in fact, I don’t think I truly understood what Murakami was explaining even now.  I was able to follow the concepts, however, if not the nuts and bolts, and so I felt comfortable enough – and confident enough – in what I did understand to be able to follow and appreciate the actions that came from the explanations.  Yes, it those concepts do get pretty darned esoteric, but after the workaday world’s 2-second sound bytes, 2-minute downloads and People magazine snippets that seem to be constantly bombarding us in the guise of news and information nowadays, I appreciated being forced to grapple with complex and dense ideas and motivations.  I enjoyed the challenge because Murakami didn’t throw it at me; he unfurled it, without fanfare, confident that I would “get it” enough to stay engaged with the story, and I did.

But not all the perplexing concepts are technical and complex.  Some take a real poetic turn, such as the dreamlike world of the Town Behind the Wall that takes up half the book.  It is the antithesis of technical – a watercolor wash, as simple yet indistinct as the “real” world is sharp and complicated.  And yet, this world is perhaps the most sinister, for the very reason that it refuses to elicit answers or explanations, and simply resigns itself to that which is.

This dichotomy of concrete actions and ethereal float can be (and I believe is meant to be) somewhat unsettling.  But as he did with A Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami gives us a wealth of detail that doesn’t overwhelm but completely establishes the environment in which the story unfolds, keeping us involved.  In Hard-Boiled Wonderland, he delves more into the pop culture – heck, let’s say just “culture”, instead – than he did in A Wild Sheep Chase, and it’s a wonderful grounding for what might have otherwise felt like an out of control premise.  Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan, John Ford alongside Turgenev and Russian folksongs and fine Italian dining give us “ordinary” people a touchstone amongst all the technical theory and esoteric musings.  And then there are the slimy frog-like people who live below the Tokyo subway….

If you like your fiction to be challenging and ultimately extremely rewarding, pick up a copy of Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.  Then clear a few nights off your calendar so you can completely engross yourself in it.  You’ll need that isolation to start off, and you’ll want it the further you get into the story.  And when you’re finally done, you’ll actually feel more connected to not only what is, but what might be, in this world and in the one that might just exist in your head by you’re not fully aware of.  And that’s a good thing.  You owe it to yourself to experience this story, and the accomplishment it is to follow it to its unsettling but somehow just conclusion.

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~ by arcticwren on March 19, 2010.

3 Responses to “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami”

  1. I recently finished reading the book and I’m glad I finally read it. Having read A Wild Sheep Chase before this I completely agree with what you’ve said. This one is more perplexing and entertaining, along with that I feel like I’ve gained some insight into my own “mind”. The way Murakami makes his protagonists so indifferent conforms a tad bit to the fact that each of us, no matter however much on the surface we care, inside there’s that small part of us that feels we’re not much significant in this vast universe and what does it matter anyways. Among all the authors I’ve read, Murakami is the only one to have portrayed this side of the human nature so elegantly.
    Apart from that, the two stories told in the book remind me about the story of the Phoenix. How it’s life and death go around in circles, it’s reborn from its ashes. Similarly where Hard-Boiled ends, End of the World begins but we’re show a clear picture from the very start. Though I feel a bit tricked. Nevertheless, the protagonist in End of the World and his shadow lead me to think that they are nothing but the heart (emotional) and intellect/mind (rationale). When the Calcutel is at the End of the World he is asked to give up his shadow – the more rational part of himself. But the duality of the world needs both heart and mind to survive. Hence ensues the Calcutecs task if trying to find himself in the end of the world. However he concludes by sending his mind back (to return to his body and unfreeze himself) and locking up his heart in the Town, which has me wondering – if ever we were to unveil our own unconscious minds would we too find something similar?

    • What insightful comments, RN! By chance, have you read 1Q84? I would be interested to hear your comments on that, as well (even though I have not provided a review, here).

  2. Hello, i just read The spanish (im from Mexico) version of this book. But while almost all the book leaved me with such nice sensations, the ending was kind of strange.

    I was looking for a place where i could find the point of view of someone about the End of the World conclusion and then i came up to your blog.
    I don’t know if you still update this but it would be nice to get you point of view.

    By the way i roamed in your blog and i like it.

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