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.
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