Sunday, September 19, 2010

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Murakami has narrative magic I can’t resist. He once quoted John Irving as saying that reading a good book is a mainline. Once your readers are addicted, they’re always waiting. The analogy with drugs is a cold one but it makes sense. His novels open up the strange spaces in the world and I fall right in. Having said that, I was worried at the start of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World that this novel might be just a bit too (can I say it?) weird. I love The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore best of the Murkami novels I’ve read, but their strangeness is always rooted in a world I recognise. While superficially ordinary narrators cook elaborate meals, go to the dry cleaners or the gym and look after cats pretty well, I’m ready to accept dry-well portals and magic flutes made of animal souls. But Hard Boiled Wonderland gives the reader no home ground.

The story takes place in two different worlds. Odd chapters tell a sci-fi espionage story of a man figuring out a data-encryption experiment in the sewers below a Tokyo-like city, and within his own consciousness. Even chapters take us to the End of the World, a walled, perfectly ordered city where (another?) narrator finds himself severed from his shadow and set to work reading old dreams in a library full of skulls. There’s a reason why the book cover has no plot description – it’s pretty tricky to sum up. I took a while to find my feet but as the two stories began to draw closer together and I began to understand a little bit better what was at stake the novel became not just pacy but also poignant and thoughtful.

There’s a great summary of Murakami’s stories by John Wray, interviewing the author for The Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER: Few novelists have written and rewritten their obsession so compulsively, I think, as you have. Hard-Boiled Wonderland, Dance Dance Dance, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Sputnik Sweetheart almost demand to be read as variations on a theme: a man has been abandoned by, or has otherwise lost, the object of his desire, and is drawn by his inability to forget her into a parallel world that seems to offer the possibility of regaining what he has lost, a possibility that life as he (and the reader) knows it can never offer. Would you agree with this characterization?


That deadpan response to Wray’s analysis makes me smile. Among his other virtues is that Murakami is a funny man, and he combines this with an obsessive, deadly serious narrative search that Wray describes just right. It’s hard for me to love Hard-Boiled Wonderland in the way I do The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It’s so cerebral. But I’m definitely still fascinated, and waiting for the next shot.

(I read this novel as part of the Japanese Literature Challenge.)

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