Book Review: Hard-Boiled Wonderland And End of the World

“It is no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” – Mark Twain

Haruki Murakami has often had his way with basing largely realistic stories on a profoundly alien premise and yet managing to fit it all together into a neat box where ultimately it is the state of mind that matters. In the process he unravels some mysteries that never manifest themselves – well, not directly. The sense of hollowness and bafflement that he brings to the fore usually needs some focus on the subtler aspects of one’s own past, present and the future in order to be acknowledged.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland And End of the World is a 1985 novel, and perhaps among Murakami’s most accessible works till date chiefly because of the extent to which it borrows most of its setting from popular culture. This is a style not uncommon to Murakami’s works as he brushes past contemporary music and film references a number of times be it is in his dramatic and nostalgia filled Norwegian Wood or the dark, existential journey in Kafka on the Shore.

Hardboiled WonderlandThe Title

It is rare to see such literal significance of every word in the title of a book. As it suggests, the book has two stories – one happening in a Hard Boiled Wonderland, a modern tokyo with raging information warfare and sinister labyrinths, and the other happening in End of the World, a surrealist Town surrounded by a high wall that traps all its inhabitants. This mysterious Town houses unicorns, and monotonous, duty-conscious people who go about their daily life despite the absolute lack of meaning in them.

The story in each world takes place in alternate chapters, and can be pursued independent of the other. But soon enough, you will find the subtlest of hints connecting both worlds and making you recall the last time you came across something in the other world, be appearance of a particular object in similar situation, or simply different characters in the seemingly disjoint worlds saying the same thing – almost a literary reinvention of the deja vu. In that sense, the ‘And’ is paramount to the title as it hints at the intertwining of both worlds, each being realistic and yet alien in its own way.

Reality – Within and Without

No character in the book has a name and most of them are referred to by the job they do or their appearance – The woman the unnamed protagonist meets in the library(in both worlds) is called the Librarian for the entirety of the book. Other characters include the Professor, to whom the protagonist visits to carry out a covert operation to do with ‘laundering’ and ‘shuffling’ information by using the human subconscious as the key to cipher, and his plump granddaughter, referred to as the Chubby Girl. Soon things go wrong in the hard-boiled wonderland and the protagonist is caught in the midst of organizations fighting for information and the anarchist INKlings trying to grab hold of anything that belongs to this carefully planned system of information transfer.

Meanwhile, the protagonist steps into the Town after satisfying the one excruciating condition that it holds – to lose his shadow. The Gatekeeper cuts them apart and lets him into the Town from where he shall never move out. A large part of this storyline fills itself with exposition of the environment that is alien despite its perfectly natural forests and rivers. But End of the World also acts as a symbol of everything perceived by human brain, drawing beautiful analogies between the harsh winters and recurring moments of dilemma, frustration and hopelessness while the warmer springs symbolize a bright future and inspire the inquisitiveness to understand the Town that is but strange after all.

library

The initial chapters will have you find The Town strikingly alien while modern Tokyo comes across as regular. That’s when Murakami puts in his dash of contradictions in both worlds, leaving you questioning which is real. While pop-culture references come to the rescue in the hard boiled cyberpunk-inspired wonderland of Tokyo, the simplest of human behaviour and eternal frustrations of the real world take you by the the feet in End of The World.

After establishing the nuances of both worlds, the author moves on to what he does best: dissecting the human thought process and offering a ride through it. Signs of this surface when the protagonist is surprisingly apathetic to his entire life being thrown upside down in a matter of few minutes, an event that he articulates brilliantly at a later point in the story.

“My world foreshortened, flattening into a credit card. Seen head on, things seemed merely skewed, but from the side the view was virtually meaningless–a one-dimensional wafer. Everything about me may have been crammed in there, but it was only plastic. Indecipherable except to some machine.”

The Narrative

As the parallel odysseys progress, the book begins drawing lines, not in the nature of the worlds, but in the ways in which its people behave. One is a part progressive thriller with its characters racing with a deadline over their heads, not once looking back and seldom visiting the same place twice, and the other has its people stranded in space and time, as its protagonist finds himself at a point of perpetual reality very reminiscent of the world created by Franz Kafka in The Castle.

Holding good to the traditional structure of thriller that works in its favour, the story culminates to the point where each of them has you looking for a link to the other. However, unlike in Murakami’s other works, this connection between the tales is abstract and is largely based on the working of one of them, making it a difficult task to fully understand how both the worlds coexist not very far from each other.

Criticism

Hard-Boiled Wonderland And End of the World, through its course, juggles with a number of things, and one of them – the sense of passage of time – brings a sense of inconsistency. Yet, ironically, its biggest strength is that it has stood the test of time.

Other than the occasional mention of cassettes and absence of mobile phones from the picture (which I did not realize until I finished reading), there is almost no trace that would give away the fact the book was written nearly thirty years ago, making its relevance even in a vastly changed world of day and age a notable achievement.

That said, after reading the book and seeing both the stories through, there is still a lack of conclusion, which is more to do with a number of important characters instantly losing their importance as the end draws near. While it is a laudable recreation of the real world and reiterates the fact that one has to move on with their life alone, it does come off as a bit rushed and is short of any emotion to associate with.

Also, in terms of length, a lot of the content pertains to describing the End of the World and its localities, whose purpose I could not understand since the book had provided a map of the Town.

Conclusion

Hard-Boiled Wonderland And End of the World may be a great start to anyone who wants to read his works but certainly not his best work. This is chiefly due to a sense of frivolity attached to one of its driving story lines, resulting in an apathetic tale that sure is engaging, but doesn’t strike a chord at a deeper level.

With that said, the book does offer great insight into unseen mysteries of the world and human mind through the course of its story, hence packing the necessary philosophy to back a thriller.

Score: 3.5/5

– Sumanth

Image courtesy: ZombiesAteMySandvich

 

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3 Comments

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  1. Good review,man.

    I think your some of your criticisms was exactly the reason why I liked this so much. It is so detached from the emotion and doesn’t try pandering any because in the realm of consciousness any hint of emotion only stirs confusion (as it does to the protagonist in End of the World when he stays more and more with the librarian). The difference in how profound different layers of mind (Hard Boiled Wonderland is the conscious while EotW is the sub-conscious, is the most common theory) is accurately described by Murakami.

    I also wouldn’t call it the most accessible of his works. Sure, those who love mindfucks might like this but I think I’d peg Norwegian Wood (because of its relatable themes) or A Wild Sheep Chase (because of its oddball humor and relatively simplistic structure) as the most accessible Murakami books.

  2. Now that I think about it, I agree with you on the possible distraction that emotions could have brought to the plot. It was probably an experiment by the author to repeatedly alienate his characters as and when they picked up on dialogue exchanges that might stir emotions – often during the protagonist’s exchanges with the professor.

    Norwegian Wood is his most accessible work, no argument about that. Although, I think it’s hardly representative of his style of writing, with almost nothing bizarre happening 😛

    I’m yet to read A Wild Sheep Chase, but want to read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle first. The narrative structure of the latter seemed pretty interesting.

  3. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle would be my likely choice for my all-time favourite fiction let alone my favourite from Murakami. It is generally considered to be his most definitive work as it covers all the themes that he touches in most of its novels and also works on many different levels.

    A lot of fans I know tend to have it as their favourite, so you should definitely read that up next. 🙂

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