Book Review: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami
Posted on March 30, 2013
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
So here’s the thing about Haruki Murakami that turns my brain into fairy floss: how is it that this 60ish Japanese guy writes in such a way that I feel he is exploring not only his own psychic underworld but also mine? (I should mention here that I am not likewise a 60ish Japanese guy.) Given his rampant popularity across cultures, I am assuming I am not the only one who has this experience. His fans seem to return to him like … Well, like whatever the 2013 version of a crack whore returning to the den is … No, more like an opium den, isn’t it? Okay, how about an opium den that sometimes alternates as a meth lab? Yes, that feels about right.
The drugs, of course, are only a metaphor. You don’t need to use drugs to read Murakami because the reading creates a similar effect all on its own. I sound as if I am joking, but that is only partly true. In fact, after finishing his books (and I’ve read the majority of them now), I often feel a sense of distorted perception, and of being only half-bound to the earth. It does pass over time – minutes or hours, depending on what I am doing.
What is this Murakami effect and how many of us are susceptible to it? I have this feeling when reading his books that I am watching someone clear out the closet of our Collective Unconscious: all hunkered down there in mounds of trash and treasure, occasionally tossing an old boot or shabby undergarment over his shoulder while yelling, “Hey, Tina, isn’t this one yours?” (“Uh, yeah, actually, I was wondering where that had got off to …”)
I should apologise, at this point, to people who thought this might actually be a proper review. I don’t think I can rightly call it a review, as it’s not focused on the book’s literary merits (or otherwise) but wholly on my emotional experience of reading it, which evokes my responses to his other works, too. All his prodigious talent aside, I read Murakami because I feel as if he touches on something deep and elusive in the world, and in me as part of the world, that I can only barely begin to grasp at myself, like chasing butterflies: something I sense is there, but that is ephemeral as a shadow in my peripheral vision. The fact that he works his magic through characters who are themselves often difficult to connect with (and yet, we do connect); with characters who are usually damaged in an somewhat vague but significant way; with characters who love to have “nice, long talks” but who often cannot say what they most need and want to say; and with plot twists that challenge our suspension of disbelief, even within the madness of Murakami World, makes him all the more fascinating to me.
The book is composed of two different but symbolically-related narratives which are unfolding for the protagonist simultaneously: one in which he is an actively conscious human data processor fleeing from those who want his brain; and one in which he is a wanderer at the End of the World, who has been cleaved from his shadow (which holds his memories), who is falling in love, and who is trapped in the fortress of his subconscious “core.” (Please note: I am using the phrase “End of the World” to refer to an actual place in the book, as well as to one of the narrative streams in the book. When referring to the place, I will not italicize the name.)
Specifically, what has got to me about Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is the austere and chilling beauty of the End of the World tableaux. I finished the book before bed and dreamt of a walled town frozen by winter and of golden, perishing unicorns. I have not dreamt of unicorns since I was about 12 years old. Usually, writers do not have that kind of power over me. My brain might incorporate some element of a story I’ve just completed into my sleeping life, but I cannot remember a writer’s images ever appearing so strikingly and specifically in my dreams, just as they did when I was conscious and reading the words.
Murakami’s use of archetype and symbol is powerful, and surely one of his greatest attributes as a writer (a bone for the review). Sometimes, these symbols are universal, or else paying homage to a writer he admires himself; but more often, they are his own inventions. For instance, surrounding the town at the End of the World, there is a walled fortress representing the impenetrable isolation of the individual mind, which is a likely allusion to Kafka et al., but it’s used in a fresh way that works beautifully in the given context. Within that wall, there are symbols that I’ve not encountered elsewhere, such as unicorn skulls that hold the residue of human memories. These skulls must be “read” by a dreamreader to cleanse them, thereby removing the stultifying poison of personal identity (called “mind”) from the townsfolk, in order to preserve their sublime tranquility. This becomes, then, both the cost and the benefit of eternal repose: losing one’s mind. I won’t go on about this because I don’t want to spoil it for others.
The Hard-Boiled part of the book is a circus of crazy fun and mad peril, providing a good antidote to the somberness at the End of the World. Be warned, though, that there are some tense and distressing scenes, such as one involving a mild version of torture (if one can imagine torture on a scale of light to murderous). Having said how much I’ve enjoyed the the entire book, now I feel obliged to point out that some readers will hate the way Murakami writes about the female characters in this portion of the novel. Our protagonist is nameless (unless I missed his name somewhere), as are the other characters, so they are given nicknames according to their work role or their most conspicuous physical feature. So, the brilliant 17-year-old sidekick in the Hard-Boiled narrative is referred to throughout the book as “the chubby girl,” although never in a contemptuous manner; in fact, the protagonist clearly admires the girl and finds her attractive in many ways, while stopping short of sleeping with her when she asks. (This is interesting in itself, though, since Murakami’s men rarely turn down sex, and since a female’s age – very young or very old – has not served as a barrier to sex in any of his other books that I’ve read.) Nevertheless, one feels that the plumpness of this vibrant young woman takes precedent over everything else about her and that continually referring to her being overweight serves to diminish her as a person, whether or not it is intended maliciously.
This focus on the female body continues with the woman who becomes our protagonist’s love interest. She is called The Librarian, but she is depicted almost entirely in terms of her physicality: how she looks, how she moves, and what and how much she eats. There are plenty of men who are hyper-focused on the physicality of whatever gender they are attracted to, so it’s not difficult to imagine that there are some in the world who categorise women in a similar way ( i.e. “chubby,” “great legs,” etc.) at least privately, even while admiring them. Of course, we have all known women who speak of men in the same objectifying terms; but it’s supposedly funny when women do it, right? Uh-huh. So, yes, part of me is aware that I should be offended on behalf of my gender (probably), and the feminist in me judges me for it; but you know, for whatever reason, this did not put me off loving the book. Partly, this is due to the mitigating effect of the other narrative stream: the End of the World story. There is only one woman in this part of the book, and we are given reason to believe that she is a kind of phantom version of The Librarian in the Hard-Boiled narrative. While the Hard-Boiled narrative has much to say about bodies and how they live, love, and die, all of the scenes in the End of the World narrative are concerned with human minds. The themes here are philosophical and existential, and the gentle love that grows between the protagonist and his Librarian seems to have little to do with their bodies.
I recommend Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World unreservedly while knowing that Murakami is not everyone’s cup of jasmine tea. It may be a good one to start with for people who are not used to reading him because it’s more fun and action-packed, and less dense and difficult, than some of his others. (Still, though, I find myself pondering the symbolism.) I can no longer decide which is my favourite of this writer’s books, but I can say for sure that this is the first one that has entered my dreams. The End of the World is going to haunt me for a while.