Summer Reading – Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

From Miller’s fantasy to the surreal world of Murakami.

I’m not quite sure what genre you’d slot this novel into. It crosses over several. But if you like books with layers of intricacy that take a while to make sense of, then this is one for you.

I was half-way through the story before I got the significance of the title. The Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World are, in fact, the two separate states, or worlds, that the unnamed narrator moves through. One is in the conscious and the other in the subconscious. In both states, he is an outsider; slightly apart from the rest of society. In the conscious world, this is because he’s a split-brained Calcutec, a sort of human computer, who works for a mysterious organisation called the System. His job is to cipher and encode vast amounts of confidential data in his mind. To do this he has to flip into his subconscious. This is enabled by an implant in his head.

In the subconscious world, he’s a stranger who arrives at an isolated walled town at the end of the world. To live there, he must allow his shadow to be cut away from him.  The longer he lives there, the harder it is to remember his past and the weaker his incarcerated shadow becomes.

When the Calcutec accepts an assignment from an odd scientist, his life becomes increasingly unhinged. He comes into contact with sinister underworld creatures that live in the sewers; has to fight off the advances of the scientist’s lonely granddaughter and is constantly under threat from the criminal Semiotics organisation, as well as his own employers. On top of that, he’s attacked by two thugs who seem to be linked to neither. He meets and falls for, a permanently hungry librarian who helps him try to work out the significance of a unicorn skull given to him by the scientist. The same librarian becomes a significant part in his subconscious world. As does the unicorn skull.

As if that’s not bad enough, the scientist tells the Calcutec that the implant is a time bomb. In 48 hours, his body and conscious mind will shut down. The physical world will cease to exist for him and his mind will permanently function only in his subconscious – the place at the end of the world.

It sounds complex, and it is. But it’s also funny, clever and self-deprecating. Murakami brings two separate, equally compelling worlds to life. At times, it’s the unreal world inside the narrator’s head that seems to be the more normal. It’s easy to see why he’s attracted to it more and more.

Murakami presents us with an odd collection of characters in this story. Each with their own eccentricities. In the centre is the narrator, a man who is both part of and apart from society in 1980s Tokyo. His shadow is a separate entity in itself and surely a metaphor for the conscious half of his mind. There’s an interesting dynamic going on between the two. Surprisingly, it’s the shadow that’s the proactive one. In both worlds, the narrator is nearly always reactive. The fact that his reactions are so humorous, lends charm to the story.

As to the other characters, my favourites are the women. The naïve, yet brilliant granddaughter with her blunt manner and her love of all things pink lit up the page. Also, the librarian who, in the physical world, never tires of eating. I equally loved the sadder version of her that lives in the metaphysical world. She’s the one the narrator falls in love with and, you feel sure, she’s the one that will save his mind.

This is my second Murakami book, and I’m rapidly becoming a fan. If you’ve read it to, I’d love to know what you thought of it. If not, give it a try and let me know.

Leave a Reply