Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami (1985, tr. 1991)
This review went cyberpunk again, but with a Japanese twist. If a random person were asked to name a famous Japanese writer alive today, they’d most likely name Haruki Murakami. His popularity defies conventional thinking in the publishing world. Although his books were written originally in Japanese, they have been translated in more than fifty languages. Although he is considered one of the best writers within the literary establishment, he has a devoted commercial following called Harukists. Although it cannot be confirmed right now, there are rumors that he has been top contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature for the past few years. How did he reach the top?
It really goes back to his most famous and most accessible novel Norwegian Wood, published in 1987. Unlike the majority of his work, this story followed the Japanese tradition of realistic semi-autobiographical fiction. It was a commercial success in Japan, and met similar acclaim internationally when translated for the second time in 2000. It’s a fine work, but a number of Harukists declaim that it’s not the real Murakami. Why? Its realistic narrative doesn’t have the surreal postmodern vibe of his other fiction. Norwegian Wood is the most Japanese-like of his writings, but it’s the least Murakami-like. However, his characteristic strangeness is on display in his preceding novel, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, published in Japanese in 1985 and translated into English in 1991.
It is actually two narratives, with the Hard-Boiled Wonderland section represented by the odd-numbered chapters and The End of the World section represented by the even-numbered chapters, but as the reader moves forward to the conclusion, the narratives begin to converge, and what was once illusory begins to make sense. To tell more would give away too much of the plot, but it does have a somewhat satisfying, if sad ending. Strangely, although the plot pushes you to be invested in the circumstances of the characters, all characters are unnamed in the novel. There is principally the narrator of each section, who is also the main character (Hope I didn’t give away too much information!), but the other characters are referred to by either their profession or their body type. Thus, you have in an Old Man Scientist and The Chubby Girl, his teenage granddaughter, in the Hard-Boiled Wonderland sections, and The Colonel and The Gatekeeper in The End of the World sections. And the characters mentioned here are the least weird aspects of the book.
The 35-year old narrator of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland has a job as a Calcutec working for the System—a possibly government, possibly private organization, which basically involves using his subconscious to manage and encrypt often-sensitive data. Later, we find out how he has come to possess such an ability. But in the meantime, he has to avoid the Semiotecs, who work for the Factory, a company that exists for the purpose of stealing data form the System. Later, he finds out that there are underground ravenous creatures called Inklings, and they are in cahoots with the Semiotecs. And this drama follows after he is recruited by the Old Man Scientist, a man involved in strange experiments such as sound removal, because mankind must evolve as he says. Oh yes, there is also a possibility of unicorns existing (For some reason, I think Blade Runner was on Murakami’s mind when he wrote the novel). Throughout the narrative, the reader joins the main character on what could be likened to as a sci-fi mystery (hence the Hard-Boiled name), as he learns that the world and himself are stranger than he knew.
The narrator of The End of the World finds himself in no less of a stranger environment though the setting departs from the cyberpunk/urban element. Instead we’re treated to pastoral, almost-fantasy world, where the narrator doesn’t know why he is there, and the other characters really only know a little more. The unicorn plotline becomes even more fleshed-out as it’s revealed that as a newcomer to the mysterious town, he must become a dream-reader of the skulls of dead beasts. He complies even though he does not know why at first. But really he has no choice as the town has separated the narrator from his shadow, for all residents of the town must leave their shadows behind. Oh, and it is winter, and it doesn’t look like that is a good sign for the unicorns, the narrator, or his forlorn shadow. Can the narrator escape from the mad reality, but more importantly, does he want to, especially after coming to know the alluring Librarian of the town, who has secrets of her own? As you come to the end of both narratives, you’ll slap yourself and say I should’ve seen it coming, but most likely you won’t have.
According to Murakami, this novel was his most enjoyable to write. Even his most noted translator, Jay Rubin, said that it was his favorite novel. One can see why? Even the preceding success, A Wild Sheep Chase, and many of his later acclaimed works, such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore still exist somewhat in the realm of reality, despite elements resembling magic realism. What we get with Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is an experience similar for those who first picked up Neuromancer and Snow Crash (1992) when computing was still unfamiliar to the much of the public. These individuals likely had questions of how far technology would take us, and more importantly, how far humanity would take technology. As humankind further explores scientific advancements, such as interfacing with the brain through implants and other tech, one wonders if the narrative of Murakami’s work is really strange after all.