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

” ‘Not even I know all the rules’, says the old officer under his breath. ‘There are things that cannot and should not be explained. But there is no cause for concern. The Town is fair in its own way. The things you need, the things you need to know, one by one the Town will set these before you. Hear me now: this Town is perfect. And by perfect, I mean complete. It has everything. If you cannot see that, then it has nothing. A perfect nothing. Remember this well. That is as much as anyone can tell you; the rest you must learn for yourself. Open your eyes, train your ears, use your head. If a mind you have, then use it while you can’.”

One of the best parts of discovering a new novelist with prodigious literary history is the opportunity this affords to work through their back-catalogue of publications. Although you may still find yourself waiting around for that next highly anticipated release, having a full library of novels with which to preoccupy yourself is as close to euphoria as many of us get. For new fans of Haruki Murakami, there is understandable excitement around the sheer number of books that the author has produced. Since Murakami also writes in a genre peculiarly unique to himself, there are few novels external to the author’s own that provide a sufficient ‘bridge’ over from Murakami’s works. The challenge with this, however, is Murakami’s repetitive themes. Although something of a tongue-in-cheek joke, the idea of playing ‘Murakami bingo’ as an accompaniment to reading his works is not without foundation. With the release of Killing Commendatore last year, I found myself becoming increasingly bored by the repetitions that can make Murakami’s novel blend together with a lack of real distinction. Yet, the opinions of the author’s biggest fans tend towards recommending his earlier novels as those with the greatest merit. With that in mind, I decided to add Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, his fourth novel, to my reading list.

The novel takes the form of a split narrative, with chapters alternating between those following the narrator’s life in Tokyo and those exploring a mysterious, lugubrious Town. The unnamed Tokyo narrator is a well-paid worker for the System, a strange organisation seeking ownership of data and employing ‘Calcutecs’ as human data processors. The narrator works as a Calcutec, ‘laundering’ and ‘shuffling’ data by converting it in his mind using code that is effectively unrecognisable to anyone else. The narrator is employed by an old scientist who has been conducting research and is being threatened by both Semiotecs (opponents of the System who are also looking to seize data for themselves) and INKlings (kappa-like beings that live underground and are working in collaboration with the Semiotecs). The scientist hires the narrator to launder and shuffle his research data but, in the process of completing this assignment, the narrator finds himself pulled into events that advance the End of the World. Parallel to this narrative, we are also introduced to the Town and another unnamed narrator who has arrived there unexpectedly. The Town is a place steeped in enigma – unicorns wander its streets and the Town’s occupants are apparently devoid of ‘Mind’ as a result of the death of their shadows. The narrator becomes employed as the Town’s ‘Dreamreader’, in which position he is made to unravel old dreams by touching skulls. As he becomes entrenched in the life of the Town, the narrator begins to uncover the secrets of his existence and must work agains the clock as the death of his own shadow, and the loss of his Mind, looms.

“Several rings of stone and brick buildings fan out from the North Plaza. No edifice has any outstanding features, no decorations or plaques. All doors are sealed tight; no one is seen entering or leaving. Here, is this a post office for dead letters? This, a mining firm that engages no miners? This, a crematorium without corpses to burn? The resounding stillness gives the structures an impression of abandonment. Yet each time I turn down these streets, I can sense strangers behind the facades, holding their breath as they continue pursuits I will never know.”

Hard-Boiled Wonderland is a confounding read. As one of Murakami’s earliest novels (it was published in 1985), I was expecting it to abound with all of the elements that make Murakami an author of such unique insight. Murakami’s strength is undoubtedly where he operates in the day-to-day, positioning mundanity alongside the fantastical. This magical realist approach, juxtaposed with the author’s attention to contemporary Japan, has provided the sombre resonance that accompanies Murakami’s strongest works. It is this unique combination of genres and perspectives that also makes Murakami so accessible, whilst ensuring that his work loses none of the profundity that has led to speculation that the author is in line to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Where works like Kafka on the Shore and 1Q84 thrive in these intersections and the space that they afford for exploration of the ‘everyday’, however, Hard-Boiled Wonderland affords almost no time to this. Instead, the novel is driven largely by a plot that is, at times, convoluted and confusing.

The novel’s plot is replete with elements of science fiction and these parts are undoubtedly Hard-Boiled Wonderland‘s least successful components. The passages given over to the old scientist’s explication of his research and the narrator’s explanation of his own work are clunky and obscure. Were these chapters better complemented with the balance of the everyday typically provided by Murakami’s work – meals, music, cats – they would have been far easier to digest, whilst certainly remaining inadequately explained. Although given some time on the page, these traditional components (also the constituent part of ‘Murakami bingo’) were almost entirely absent. While Killing Commendatore left me feeling somewhat exhausted with the self-referential nature of Murakami’s favourite tropes, reading Hard-Boiled Wonderland exposed just how fundamental these elements are to Murakami’s success. The brief moments in which the narrator was permitted to relish in his own existence or the novel gave over to exploration of the daily life and operations of the Town were a clear reminder of what the rest of the novel was missing. The friction created by these absences was palpable and unsatisfying throughout.

This said, the moments in which the novel took a breath were interesting and engaging. The chapters exploring the nature of the Town resounded with the existential melancholy that characterises Murakami’s work, and the mystery behind the narrator and his shadow was incredibly readable. However, there was no real jeopardy to any of the mysteries explored by the book. Although the quests undertaken by both narratives were interesting in premise, they were executed with a failure to generate any profound sense of fear or concern. Even when the Tokyo narrator is underground, encountering the INKlings and a host of body-consuming leeches, the narrative never builds to a place of tension. This absence is confusing, given that Murakami has skilfully executed similar dynamics in his later works. Even Killing Commendatore, a novel that lacked depth in a few different respects, was able to build a feeling of genuine tension and a desire to witness the novel’s revolution. Hard-Boiled Wonderland misses the mark in this respect.

“He spreads my right eye with his fingers and pushes the knife into my eyeball. Yet as the Gatekeeper said, it does not hurt, nor am I afraid. The knife sinks into my eyeball soft and silent, as if dipping into jelly. He does the same with my left eye. ‘When you are no longer a Dreamreader, the scars will vanish’, says the Gatekeeper, putting away the tray and knife. ‘These scars are the sign of the Dreamreader. But as long as you bear this sign, you must beware of light. Hear me now, your eyes cannot see the light of day’.”

It cannot be said, however, that the novel is not eminently readable. Murakami’s prose flows with an easy confidence that provides a level of accessibility rarely accomplished by authors of such literary reputation. That he is able to explore complex themes without overindulging in obscure imagery and lengthy descriptions is one of Murakami’s most authoritative skills. He employs his usual pared-down style to great effect in Hard-Boiled Wonderland where, excepting the heavily science-fiction-inspired passages, the reader is carried along by the prose. True engagement is, however, hard to come by in this novel. In addition to the plot’s fundamentals, as discussed above, the characters are left a little wanting. The narrators operate along the lines of Murakami’s traditional main characters – single males, elements of dissatisfaction with life but otherwise comfortable, and some kind of internal quest that manifests itself in the external world. In this space, Murakami typically excels and the witty, sardonic narration of Hard-Boiled Wonderland proves this point. In the female characters, however, there is a superficiality that has always been problematic in Murakami’s work. The females serve exclusively as props for the plot and its narrators, and the novel reeks of unnecessary objectification from the outset. The initial pages repeat thoughts about the sexual merits of the old-scientist’s “chubby” seventeen year-old granddaughter. It is uncomfortable reading but is a theme that rears its head throughout Murakami’s novels. The way that women are utilised and discussed in his novels remains, for me, one of the most troubling aspects of his work.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland is certainly not Murakami’s best novel. Its science-fiction elements have not aged well, particularly in the face of masters of the genre who examine similar themes to much greater effect. Although the novel contains traces of the components that make Murakami such an effective and deservedly celebrated author, they are not exploited or explored to best effect here. Instead, the author’s thematic signatures are traded in for a plot that feels lacking in both substance and emotional resonance.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

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