Sunday, October 30, 2011

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 International, 1991.  400 pp.  978-0-679-74346-0.

... in which there are some unicorns and some men with strange minds.

This book has two seemingly unrelated stories happening simultaneously.  In one story arc (the hard-boiled wonderland), a man in his thirties is working as a Calcutec.  His job basically involves him working as a human computer; his consciousness has been split so that one part of his mind can process and encrypt data, while leaving the main part of his mind to function as a normal human's mind.  He goes to work for a professor whose laboratory is hidden in an underground cavern infested with man-eating monsters.  He soon finds that this job has pulled him into some kind of larger conflict.  The second story arc (the end of the world) involves a man arriving in a town surrounded by a wall.  The townsfolk never leave their town, as they understand themselves to be at the end of the world.  The town harbors a herd of unicorns, and all people coming into the town must agree to be separated from their shadows.  The man is sent to work as the Dreamreader at the Library, while he puzzles out the purpose of the town and the significance of the shadows and the unicorns.  Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that the two stories are actually part of one larger narrative.

This is a very strange book, and one that is difficult to describe and categorize.  Originally written by Haruki Murakami in Japanese, I suspect that something was lost in translation.  Although I enjoyed reading the book, I didn't really connect with any of the characters and I basically had no idea what was happening for the majority of the book.  Murakami clearly prefers the strategy of letting the reader figure out what's happening, rather than explaining things in clear detailed exposition.  While this can be a really entertaining way to read a book, sometimes it does get a little frustrating.  The hard-boiled wonderland part of the story was probably the more interesting part for me, as it was part hard-boiled detective story and part cyberpunk.  It also had a larger cast of characters and a faster moving plot.  I also had an easier time following the events.  The end of the world story was slower-paced, and a little bit more of a fantasy, as it seemed to be set in a different world. 

The writing style of this book is very different.  I know a lot of this is partially due to the choices of the translator, but from doing a little internet research, it sounds like the original Japanese text was also somewhat unusual.  For one thing, not a single character in the entire novel is given a name.  Both story arcs are told from the first person perspective, but we never learn the name of our protagonist(s).  Supporting cast members are identified mostly as the chubby girl, the librarian (and the Librarian), the Colonel, the professor, the gatekeeper, and the shadow.  I think this sort of led to some of the disconnect I felt with the characters, but it was obviously a very deliberate choice.  As the biggest theme of the book is the nature of consciousness and sense of self, I guess this was a good choice since it kept the reader firmly in the protagonist(s)' head while keeping all other characters somewhat external to the main story.  The second biggest quirk in the writing style is that the tense changes between story arcs.  The hard-boiled wonderland part of the book is told in past tense, while the end of the world part is told in the present tense.  I read online that the original Japanese text used different forms of address instead, keeping the hard-boiled wonderland part more formal and the end of the world part more informal.  Since English does not have clear distinctions between formal and informal speech, the past tense was chosen to represent the formal (giving the story distance) and the present tense represented the more informal speech.  Based on the ending of the book, I think there was an even bigger reason for the translator's choice of past vs present tense, but that can't be discussed without revealing major spoilers.

In terms of pure creativity and originality of ideas, this book is excellent.  The concept of the brain operations that led to the Calcutecs was really interesting, especially since this advanced technology seemed to exist in an otherwise unchanged Japan of the late 1980s or early 1990s.  The professor also has some other interesting technologies at his disposal, like noise-elimination technology that he uses to surround his lab with a bubble of silence, somehow protecting him from the monstrous creatures who roam the caverns.  The way in which the two storylines converge was both unexpected and interesting, but also slightly confusing.  Unfortunately, I suspect that a lot of the symbolism and deeper meaning was lost on me throughout the book, since for most of the time I was scrambling just to keep up with the main events.  I got the big picture (the mind is complicated and multi-layered, etc etc), but the minutia of the themes and symbolism eluded me.

In the end, I think I would recommend this book, but not to just anyone.  As I said earlier, it's a really enjoyable and interesting read, but it's also confusing and perplexing.  So, if you enjoy books that are off the beaten path with just a hint of the sci-fi/fantasy genres to them, this is probably the book for you.  If you enjoy clear, clean, straight-forward, conventional stories, then this is definitely not the book for you.

4/5 stars

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