I enjoy speculative fiction, magic-realism, stories that straddle the edge between reality and imagination. I’ve previously read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami based on a recommendation by a Japanese coworker. I was interested in learning more about Japanese fiction and she said it was one of her favorite books. After finishing it I could understand why.
So earlier this week I picked up a copy of Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. The book was originally published in the 1980s and was apparently a hit in his homeland. I went into it blind. Or mostly blind. I had an idea of what to expect based on the previous novel of his I’d read but I didn’t know anything about this story. And while his writing style and speculative elements were somewhat familiar, I wasn’t prepared for the strange trip it took me on.
One of the things about the book I found incredibly interesting was that none of the characters had names. There’s our unnamed protagonist, a thirty-five year old man with a split brain. He works for a shadowy company that parses and encrypts data for people and companies. His split brain allows him to process, sort, and encrypt data much like a computer.
Then there’s the Professor, and his niece, the Chubby Girl. We also meet two Librarians, a Hippie Cab Driver, some goons, the Colonel, and the Gatekeeper. I honestly didn’t notice the lack of proper names until I was nearly half-way through the book. In a way, I think it may make the characters a bit more relatable. I mean, we get physical descriptions, we hear them talk, see their actions, but names have a certain connotation, a certain power. When you hear a strangers name you instantly conjure an image in your head based on other people you’ve met with that name. Weird, isn’t it?
The story follows two narratives. The first is closer to science fiction and follows our protagonist as he meets the Professor and his niece and does some data work for them. This then spirals into a world of technological espionage, medical experimentation, and deadly revelations. The other narrative is more surreal – a place called The Town where no one has memories and everyone lives forever. No one can leave, no one remembers how they got there, and no one has a shadow.
Of course, the two narratives converge over the course of the story. I’m not sure if it wasn’t paying attention but it wan’t until later in the story that I realized there are certain clues peppered throughout that, once you get closer to the end, begin to sew the loose ends together in a mostly satisfying way. No endings are perfect.
Murakami is adept at drawing the reader in, making his characters feel like real, ordinary people. Because the story is based in Tokyo, there are references to culture, locations, and even food that I’m not familiar with, but it didn’t detract from the story. For someone like me, who is fascinated with Japanese culture and wants to learn more, it was fun. But even then, it was interesting to see how much Western culture was included…Bob Dylan, American jazz music, and believe it or not, Miller High-Life beer is considered a fancy import. Wonders never cease
As for the title, it’s a reference to the two story lines. Hard-Boiled Wonderland is the real world, while the End of the World refers to The Town.
Murakami is becoming one of my favorite authors. I love the way he weaves reality and the surreal, how he explores consciousness and identity. In a way, Murakami themes are reminiscent of Philip K. Dick, although their writing styles very different. Murakami is more subtle, gently leading the reader along in a way that one doesn’t even notice when the narrative slips into strangeness.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World may be one of the best books I read this year…although there’s still a stack of unread ones next to my bed. It’s a book for readers who like speculative fiction, who like stories that take them into unknown realms, and who enjoy a little weirdness.