Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World // review

I was recently lamenting to a friend about how often I see lazy writing. With fantasy and science fiction, it can be much more obvious that the author lost some steam halfway through the book.  Haphazard writing is never good (I’ve read my fair share of bad Harry Potter fanfiction…), but with fantasy or science fiction, the author is the creator of an entire universe. This is understandably no easy task, and I acknowledge the difficulty. However, if there are holes in the constructed world of the creator, it becomes glaringly obvious, whereas with other genres, authors still are able to fall back on or rely on presuppositions that come with writing within the real world. This is why I seem to have extraordinarily high standards when it comes to fantasy and science fiction. A story cannot just be compelling; the author has to immerse me so deeply into their universe that I begin to believe it is real.

This was the case when I read Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami. For me, this was one of those books I had to read twice before I even began to truly understand its beauty. Even the second time around, certain parts of the narrative seemed inscrutable, not due to the complexity of the language but because my brain was finding it difficult to piece together the puzzle pieces to see the big picture or theme. As a fairly recent graduate, rereading this was also a little sentimental for me as I was first introduced to Murakami in my World Literature class, a class I took my very last semester at Cedarville. My professor had previously taught in Japan before, and because of his background had a huge soft spot for Japanese Literature.

I do not go into explicit detail about the book, but here’s a cautionary ***SPOILER ALERT***

If you are a fan of surrealism and dystopian novels, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is like literary gold. Equal parts Kafka and Orwell without losing his distinctively Japanese voice, this book starts off a little confusingly and remains trippy throughout. Yes, trippy is really the best word I have to describe the feeling this book evokes; it wades between two states of consciousness and blurs the line between the dreamlike and reality.

What constitutes reality? This is the main question that Murakami explores, closely followed by “what constitutes a mind?” Murakami’s works are heavily influenced by the Western world, and Hard Boiled Wonderland was no exception. The narrator even references some of Murakami’s influences such as Vonnegut and Dostoevsky. Discussing the narrator brings up an important point: none of the characters have names. If they did, they were not at all mentioned. Instead, we just know the characters as “the grandfather” or “the librarian”, etc.

The unnamed narrator is the one who is switching between worlds, the first world where he is essentially an agent, part of the governmental system, the Calcutecs.  He “shuffles” or “launders” data. He knows nothing about the purpose or end goal, besides that the password is the “End of the World” and there is an information war between the Semiotics, who attempt to steal data from the Calcutecs. The gritty, grungy first world is a little reminiscent of The Blade Runner, with a post-apocalyptic vibe, whereas the second world is more like the world of The Giver (always a favorite as it was my first introduction to dystopian novels as a child), an unknown small town in a dreamlike state with its inhabitants closed in by a wall. The villagers have been cut off from their shadows, and therefore, do not have a mind. Now, what do these two worlds have to do with each other? That, my friends, I do not want to give away as it is rather critical to the work and actually takes a good amount of buildup before the reader begins to even get an inkling of what is going on.

What I will say is that, having read other books by Murakami, I think this one is a great introduction to his style. In my World Literature class, we did background studies of all the authors whose literature we read and studied. I did a little bit of my own research too because I found Murakami’s personal story fascinating. According to the trusty Wikipedia, Murakami began to write fiction when he was 29. I always thought I was a late bloomer to writing, so his story inspires me.  “Before that”, he said, “I didn’t write anything. I was just one of those ordinary people. I was running a jazz club, and I didn’t create anything at all.” I think Hardboiled Wonderland actually disproves the author’s own point. Sure, before 29 he had not put into words the incredible universe constructed within the novel, but I fail to believe that in some way, that world did not already exist, somewhere deep in his mind and his soul. His exploration of consciousness and metaphysics in the book could not have begun at 29, but probably came to fruition at that critical point.

This exploration of consciousness and the sheer complexity of the human mind is what will draw readers to Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. As with most books, your mileage may vary as everyone’s literary tastes are different. Upon browsing the internet, I saw that many found Hardboiled Wonderland overly absurd without enough explanation of some of the mechanisms described in the book. However, others appreciated the switch between the two parallel worlds, however bizarre. To me, Hardboiled Wonderland was many things: absurd, bizarre, lucid, but somehow also poetic. Somehow, Murakami succeeded in making the characters in his cyberpunk, sci-fi universe as relatable as someone I would meet in our real world. Was this an ambitious piece? Absolutely, and there are certain parts where Murakami slightly misses the mark linguistically (but that may be the result of the translation and not the author himself…grrr, why do I not speak Japanese?) but those parts are (to me) few and far between. I think any of you who are lovers of fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian literature, philosophy, or any mixture thereof will thoroughly enjoy this book, even if it means you do have to read it two or even three times – but it will be so worth it.

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