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

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Haruki Murakami is one of my favourite authors, though Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of The World is the perhaps the most sci-fi-like of his novels that I’ve yet encountered. 1Q84 could be a contender, but I never found it so overt.  Perhaps that’s why Hard Boiled Wonderland seemed slow to start – because at first it was jarringly un-Murakami. It took me a while to get into this book, is what I’m saying.

So I was delightfully surprised when it did start to grab me, even more so when it really started being hard to put down toward the end. The last few chapters felt as though they dragged slightly, again, moving toward and ending that was wholly unsatisfactory, though I believe intentionally so.

At times this seems like a classic Murakami story with some sort of bizarre fantasy novel wedged in between chapters. The chapters alternate, one then the other, between tales set in the “real” world – Murakami’s recognizable if slightly skewed depiction of early 1990’s Japan – and in an isolated village with no modern technology at all, where unicorns roam, people’s shadows are sentient beings and dream-reading is an occupation. Yet they are two halves of the same coin, as is slowly revealed when the stories begin to converge. This is one of the best justifications I’ve seen for chapters that flip perspective, and the way the separate viewpoints slowly reveal themselves to be the same is subtle and brilliant, with enough clues in each version for the reader to draw mounting parallels.

Murakami, as usual, tends to fixate in an oddly clinical fashion on sex and other bodily functions. His descriptions of food and alcohol are sumptuous, and a moment where the main character’s collection of whiskey is destroyed was one of the most heartrending things I’ve read in some time.

Women in this universe unfortunately tend to be objects of desire for the main protagonist. We never meet one without getting a detailed description of an imagined sexual encounter, and those that are more than momentary passersby never quite seem to escape the protagonist’s vague fascination. The “main” female character, who we know only as the chubby girl, falls dangerously close to manic-pixie territory, though she seems to be saved by her unaided toughness in the face of adversity where our hero balks and cowers.

What at first seems to be the central storyline, the protagonist’s mysterious, government-operative occupation, is never really explored in more detail than that. He performs a job which involves complex encryptions and decryptions carried out by a part of his subconscious while his waking mind disassociates. The revelation that his abilities are the result of modifications made to his brain, and that he is the only survivor in a series of human experiments, should smack of campy 80’s action movie science, though when it is revealed it seems almost mystical. It’s very much a psychological thriller, though the divide between reality and the imagined world is clearly delineated and unambiguous.

For all his faults, we care about the main character, if only because he tends toward being a blank slate onto whom we project our social insecurity. In line with a large percentage of Murakami’s male characters, he’s in his mid-thirties, apathetic and minimally employed, though somehow with a fair chunk of disposable income. He’s divorced and this fact is treated as more an inevitability of life than a personal tragedy. As far as I know Murakami himself has been married for the duration of his writing career so I sometimes wonder about his fascination with divorced men – though perhaps it is his way of confronting the possibility of failure, creating numerous alter-egos to assess different possible reactions and outcomes.

At any rate, Murakami’s male characters always seem to have an autobiographical possession, whereas his women are more distinct. Despite what I said earlier about the female characters in this book, I do believe that this author is more than capable of writing interesting and realistic women. I’ve seen it in later works – Sputnik Sweetheart, 1Q84 and After Dark all feature women in main roles and when Murakami places them in the spotlight it’s real and effortless. Fittingly, when he treats them as afterthoughts and sexual objects it seems a bit contrived. So perhaps the treatment of women in this novel is a necessary aspect of the protagonist’s characterization. That’s an optimistic way of looking at it, anyhow.

For a novel that has the self-awareness to admit, through reference, its reverence of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, it does have its own internal logic that never falters, even when the plot doesn’t seem certain. All in all it was a worthwhile read, even inspiring at points. The ending, while abrupt, is divisive. Some, I’m sure, will see it as the most logical conclusion, while others, like me, will read the final page in slight disbelief, certain that another outcome was within reach.

A percentage of Amazon sales go toward keeping the blog running, so buy the book here: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

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Plastic Beach: Snarkitechture at the National Building Museum

THE BEACH by Snarkitechture

The National Building Museum in Washington, DC, is hosting THE BEACH, from now until September 7th. A pity I live nowhere near there – but maybe this will inspire other installation artists to explore this kind of extreme interactivity in future works. THE BEACH is oddly commercialized and sleek, sort of an upper-middle-class, art hipster, yuppie paradise.  It’s also vaguely humorous (how can you not be, when you place a giant ball pit in the middle of a museum) and really seems like the sort of thing that you’d find in some sort of future dome-city where the real beaches have all been nuked off the planet and humanity splashes around in oceans of plastic balls. Maybe that’s what Snarkitechture was going for – a fun, lighthearted installation with a little bit of dystopic background static.

So about that ball pit. It IS huge, at 10,000 square feet, composed of almost one million recyclable plastic balls in a uniform translucent white. At the end of this ball “ocean” is a wall of mirrors   that play the role of a distant horizon, providing the illusion that the ocean goes on forever. The foggy, milky color of the ball pit as a whole is dripping with ultra-modern minimalist sensibility but it’s also the colour of so many plastic shopping bags – a fun parallel, considering what those do to the real ocean.

Brooklyn-based creators Daniel Ashram and Alex Mustonen have made THE BEACH in keeping with Snarkitechture’s usual style. They frequently do the stark black and white thing, playing with the aesthetic of a consumerist and design-oriented society. It’s not without humour – in installations like their ultra-sleek marble run for Art Basel at Miami Beach, and The White Room, made for a Chromeo album release and focusing on a series of “all white matte objects,” they really sell the idea that the future won’t be chrome, but stark white. They never lose their sense of humour but there is a palpable “evil megacorporation” undertone in many of their works. I dig it.

THE BEACH top view

It’s not all play – the National Building Museum (which I’ll admit I had never heard of before reading about this artwork) has boasted that its summer admissions sales have nearly tripled since last year with the installation of the work this summer. That’s just savvy business. So what about THE BEACH is attracting so many people? Obviously a ball pit that’s big enough for adults is a draw whether we want to admit it or not. But that’s a gimmick. Behind that, there’s an actual subversion of what people understand the museum space to be. When the general air of the museum is “look, don’t touch” – THE BEACH begs you to get all up in it,  sit on it, swim through it, throw bits of it at your friends.

It encourages guests to sit in chairs and idle on its shores, eat organic, fair-trade snacks from the Union Kitchen snack bar (acting as mock concession stand) – to just treat it like a real beach. All these activities seem to exist in a place of passive opposition to the traditions of a museum, where food is forbidden, guests glance at paintings and sculptures for a few seconds before moving on, and where touching any artwork is, obviously, strictly forbidden.

So you tell me: are Ashram and Mustonen building the synthetic beach in preparation for a future in which we can’t visit the real thing? Are they setting up a novelty in the here-and-now to have us look at it in 200 years and see it as a pale imitation of what once was? Probably not, but I’ll be damned if that isn’t in keeping with the dark, snarky humour that is the firm’s namesake.

An interesting side effect of inviting people into a touchy-feely space like this is that the sanitation issues that you should probably expect have also come into play. It’s minor fear-mongering for the most part. One case of pink eye, one cold, both that are only circumstantially tied to ball-pit exposure. The museum assures visitors that all of the balls in the pit are molded with antimicrobial agents, as well as being sprayed with antimicrobials and cleaned nightly. Now that’s what our beaches are missing – that alcohol smell of hand sanitizer. Imagine yourself safe in each milky white bubble! Each could represent a sealed antibacterial shell for the immune-challenged. Surely a few cases of contagious illness are preferable to shark bites, jellyfish stings, sunburns and sand in the shoes.

People swimming in THE BEACH by Snarkitechture

THE BEACH, the plastic beach, a wonderful, hilarious art piece and a chilling glimpse into one possible future. If you’re lucky enough to see it, enjoy it as a temporary fun afternoon – or go home unable to shake the feeling of slight sadness, like you’ve seen a premonition that you don’t quite understand yet. The determining factor – whether this piece is the future of museums or the future of beaches.

All images from Snarkitechture.com

Read my slightly less rambling coverage of the piece on The Speaker!