INTERESTING, THOUGH SOMETIMES CONFUSING
This is a strange, strange novel. Don’t get us wrong, we very much enjoyed reading it. It’s great, but that doesn’t make it any less strange. The clash between the realistic and the otherworldly enhances the mystery the book presents and it is very good at keeping you guessing right up until the end.
The novel was written in 1985 by Haruki Murakami. It was his fourth novel and he has had quite a few more published since his breakthrough with ‘Norwegian Wood’ two years later. Literature was quite literally in his blood, as both his parents taught Japanese literature, and he later followed their example when he moved to America and taught at Princeton University.
Now, as usual, we’ll give you our basic opinion of the novel here and we’ll go further into things below.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World is a very, very interesting novel that’s well worth reading. It introduces some pretty interesting concepts, the story gives you enough to leave you guessing without becoming frustrating and you can clearly see where Hirakami’s interest in western literature and pop culture blends or clashes with his Japanese origins. It’s almost like an old-fashioned detective story, almost like one you’d find in a film noir, married to fantasy and sci-fi elements. You’d think those two wouldn’t mix, but the result is a surprisingly engaging read.
However, and this is an important however so pay attention, this novel very much isn’t for everyone. Murakami has written a good story, but also a rather confusing one. Some of the concepts, while interesting, can be tricky to wrap your mind around, the way the author obsesses over some details and leaves others out entirely can be distracting and the lack of very likeable or relatable characters can make it hard to keep reading. Furthermore, the dialogue is at times just a bit too strange to be natural and the narrator keeps name dropping parts of western pop-culture, which can get annoying and quickly seems pretentious.
While the setting appears western, the ones who’ll enjoy this novel most are probably people who are at least somewhat aware of Japanese culture. Mirakami’s roots shine through at various points in the story, which can cause a bit of culture clash. If you’re familiar with anime or manga, you’ll probably find this book quite enjoyable.
Now let’s look at some of the details, starting with the things we enjoyed about the novel.
One of the most interesting things in the book is the different factions. The narrator is a calcutec, which is a sort of human data processor and encryptor for hire, trained to use his subconscious as an encryption key. He works for the System, which is the closest thing to a government we find in the books.
Their ‘competition’, for lack of a better word, is called the Factory and employs semiotecs. Semiotecs are generally just calcutecs who defected and still do pretty much the same job. Calcutecs are more concerned with encrypting and protecting information, while semiotecs try to steal and decrypt it.
This immediately sets the world apart from our own an makes some of the stranger aspects of the story easier to swallow. We never learn much about either institution, though there is some implication that the same person is behind both of the them.
The looming threat of both of these institutions is a good way to create tension in the plot and it’s made very clear that the narrator is concerned for a very good reason.
The two separate storylines are handled very well too. Both the ‘real world’ and ‘the town’ have their own feel to them and, while it is pretty clear that the two are connected somehow, it’s not exactly obvious until very late in the plot.
The plotlines manage to run parallel without being distracting and each is interesting in their own way. As it becomes more obvious how both worlds are connected, everything gains just a bit more meaning and some of the confusion is cleared up without the plot having to spell it out for the reader.
A lot of creativity and a lot of thought went into the plot. It explores the themes of the conscious, subconscious and unconscious minds, as well as forming your own identity through the two plotlines and does this fairly well.
All of this, combined with the well-written narration makes us very happy to have read this novel, but it’s certainly not without fault.
One of the things that came to bother us very quickly is Murakami’s weird priorities when it comes to details.
For example, nobody gets a bloody name! We’re pretty sure none of the characters ever really introduce themselves or ask for someone else’s name either. Everyone is constantly referred to as ‘The Professor’ or ‘The Librarian’. This would be fine if the narrator wasn’t too interested in actually interacting with the other characters, but he actually has sex with one of them and still refers to her by a title instead of a name.
Not that you’ll grow attached to any of the characters. Sadly, none of them are very likeable or relatable. The narrator’s job already makes him hard to relate with and he doesn’t have much of a personality to counteract that. The only thing we can say with any sort of certainty about him is that he likes western pop culture…To a somewhat obsessive degree.
Other characters like ‘The granddaughter’ or ‘the librarian’ are no better. The first hardly ever leaves her grandfather’s lab and just comes across as creepy and weird, while the second’s only defining characteristic is ‘I like food’.
That’s not the only basic element of storytelling that gets left unattended at times either. It’s generally hard to tell where the characters are too or when the story takes place, because locations aren’t always given a great amount of detail and we’re fairly we never saw a year mentioned.
Instead Murakami tends to focus on what the characters are eating, what pop culture they enjoy and whether or not the women the narrator meets are overweight. In fact, the narrator’s fetish for overweight women or women who can eat a lot gets pretty annoying pretty fast. It generally leads to long, boring paragraphs you can skip entirely without missing anything important.
Furthermore, while many concepts introduced in the plot are interesting, they are generally also rather confusing. Go back to the description of what the narrator does as a calcutec. Confused? No? Okay, try this then.
As mentioned, the story is split into two plotlines. The first involves the narrator, who gets hired for a strange job for ‘The professor’. Who rewards him with the skull of a unicorn.
The second plotline also involves the narrator, but this time he’s in a strange town surrounded by a massive wall and little else. ‘The gatekeeper’ cuts off his shadow, which continues to exists as a separate entity, and the narrator is given the job of reading ‘old memories’ from the skulls of the unicorns that wander around the town.
Eventually the narrator learns that ‘The town’ is merely a construct of his own mind, as a result of experiments that made him capable of functioning as a calcutec. The skull the professor gave him was a replica of an image they got when they examined his brain.
Confused yet? If so, welcome to the party. Drinks are in the back.
Granted we’re telling you all of this without context, but trust us when we say that it’s not much less confusing with context.
All in all, we’re happy we read Hard-boiled wonderland, though we did get a bit annoyed with it at times. We can honestly recommend the novel, because it’s good to read something that makes you think now and then, even if it does leave you confused at times.