Michael's Reviews > Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami
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's review
Mar 21, 2015

it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction, magical-realism, japan, mystery, music, fantasy, science-fiction
Read in March, 2015

I’m sorry this one didn’t get on my radar sooner. It’s quintessential Murakami, blending genres in his signature weird and wonderful way—fantasy, sci fi, noir, fable, magical realism.

This novel from 1985 gives us a dystopia and a utopia for the price of one. In the former, our unnamed, thirty-something male protagonist works as a contracted Calcutec in Tokyo, a human encrypting device for the sanctioned espionage group, the System. Their main enemy in the “Infowar” are the Semiotecs, which serve the shadowy, illegal forces known as the Factory. The man takes on a job for a brilliant, maverick scientist (the “Professor”) whose recent discoveries have him hiding out from both factions in an underground redoubt far beneath the streets of Tokyo. These chapters alternate with a world where the protagonist is newly arrived with no memories in a town isolated behind a high wall (the “Town”, the “Wall”). The Gatekeeper forces him to part with his shadow (sure, why not, it doesn’t hurt), and he assumes his job as a Dreamreader, experiencing the shreds of human memories and dreams from unicorn skulls housed in the Town Library. Nice to have a job lined up, so go with the flow. He soon succumbs to the peaceful patterns of existence of this world and the kindness of people devoted to their various jobs such keeping the town running, harvesting resources, and tending to the herds of unicorn beasts.

We know we are in for a ride when we first follow our cool, unflappable hero from an austere modern office on a long journey to the underworld in the escort of the Professor’s teen grand-daughter and learn she has to use sign language to guide him because the scientist has somehow erased sound. And that the dark passages through caverns along an underground river are infested with dangerous swarms of creatures (“INKlings”) unleashed by the Factory forces. And that the man’s password for initiating the use of his brain for encoding the Professor’s top secret information is “End of the World.” Soon he learns he is part of an experiment, and that the secret everyone is after lies in new capabilities of his brain and mind and that time is running short to figure it out and take meaningful action. The Professor has given him the gift of a skull, which he figures is an important clue, and he spends a lot of time with a seductive librarian woman trying to identify it. Meanwhile, in the walled town, the man there also is working with skulls and developing a relationship with a librarian. And time is running short for him to figure out the town—should he try to escape before his shadow dies?

As a reader, I became hungry myself to understand these mysteries and the link between the two worlds. But all along the way I wanted to linger with the vitality of the warm-hearted characters experienced by the questing dual protagonists. There is much delight in simple pleasures of food and drink, affection and lust, and humor in playful conversation. In the dystopian world these pleasures are contrasted by many outside threats, while in the utopian world the promise of timelessness poses a more internal threat to their reality.

There are plenty of interludes for philosophical discussions that spin naturally out of the systems of the two worlds in the same way as Plato used his famous cave as a prop for posing fundamental questions. Some of these reflections are lighter than other. For example, our hero of the Tokyo Infowars is constantly spinning off reflections from old movies, songs, and books. He can spin a bit of aesthetic philosophy so simply:

Whiskey, like a beautiful woman, demands appreciation. You gaze first, then it’s time to drink.

He is a cool customer, so casually brave in situations of danger, but he is quite conscious sometimes of a profound emptiness at his core:

My life is nothing, I thought. Zero. Zilch. A blank. What have I done with my life? Not a damned thing. I had no home. I had no family. I had no friends. Not a door to my name. Not an erection either. Pretty soon, not even a job.

His awareness of his flaws makes him sympathetic to losers in literature, especially in Turgenev and Stendhal. For example, he identifies with Julien Sorel in “The Red and the Black”:
Sorel’s basic character flaws had all cemented by the age of fifteen, a fact which further elicited my sympathy. To have all the building blocks of your life in place by that age was, by any standards, a tragedy. It was as good as sealing yourself into a dungeon Walled in, with nowhere to go but your own doom.

Much more discussion by the characters in both worlds concern the nature of the mind and identity, their dependence on time and memory, and the reality of the unconscious. I won’t spoil the fun here, but I will tantalize you with some out-of-context nuggets:

Without the mind, nothing leads anywhere.

It’s not so strange that when your memories change, the world changes.

As you create memories, you’re creating a parallel world.

…we all carry around this great unexplored ‘elephant graveyard’ inside us. Outer space inside, this is truly humanity’s last terra incognita. … ‘Tisn’t a burial ground for collected dead memories. An ‘elephant factory’ is more like it. There’s where you sort through countless memories and bits of knowledge, arrange the sorted chips into complex lines, combine these lines into more complex bundles, and finally make up a cognitive system. A veritable production line, with you as the boss. Unfortunately, though, the factory floor is off-limits.

Of course, ever since the modern age, science has stressed the physiological spontaneity of the human organism, But as soon’s we start askin’ just what this spontaneity is, nobody can come up with a decent answer. Nobody’s got the keys t’the elephant factory inside us. Freud and Jung and all the rest of them published their theories, but all they did was t’invent a lot of jargon t’get people talkin’. Gave mental phenomena a little scholastic color.

Humans are immortal in their thought. Though strictly speakin’, not immortal, but endlessly, asymptotically close to immortal.

There’s no time to tautologies. That’s the difference between tautologies and dreams. Tautologies are instantaneous, everything is revealed at once. Eternity can actually be experienced.

I am a fan of science fiction, and this tale has enough scientific hand-waving to tickle the same pleasures I got from Stephenson’s cyberpunk tale “Snow Crash”. The fun wasn’t from the plausibility of the premise (that a computer virus that could infect human communication in the latter), but all the shenanigans that were built on it. You probably guess already that the utopian world here is an imaginary world from the perspective of the “real” world set in Tokyo. But it so brilliant to me how Murakami can us get twisted up in the prospect of such an imagined world having an epistemic reality, when both his worlds are so chock full of fantasy elements anyway. Simply delicious. It’s of the same order as the mind fracking of Mieville’s “The City and the City”, but a lot more satisfying in it’s cohesiveness and playfulness.
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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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message 1: by Lyn (new)

Lyn Another great review, Michael

Michael Lyn wrote: "Another great review, Michael"

Thanks for dropping by and leaving kind words. I wonder if Murakami's books like this tended to get shelved with sci fi or fantasy, or if he minded.

message 3: by Lyn (new)

Lyn I liked Kafka on the Shore and need to read more from him

Apatt Great review Michael! This is the only Murakami I managed to read so far. I loved it from the moment they get into an elevator with no up/down/floor indicator! To me this book is a bit like PKD with lyrical prose.

What Murakami should I read next?

message 5: by Lyn (new)

Lyn PKD with lyrical prose, I'm in

Michael Apatt wrote: "Great review Michael! This is the only Murakami I managed to read so far. ... To me this book is a bit like PKD with lyrical prose. What Murakami should I read next? ..."

Of the 2 of 5 I've read that pulled 5 stars of wonder out of me, I think you would do better with "Wind-Up Bird Chronicles" than "Kafka on the Shore". Coming from sci fi affinities like I do, I suspect you would get more pleasure from its concerns with figuring out the world than exploring the mystery of the self. But for your interest in P.K. Dick analogs, maybe "The Wild Sheep Chase" (1982) would serve better.

Apatt Michael wrote: "Apatt wrote: "Great review Michael! This is the only Murakami I managed to read so far. ... To me this book is a bit like PKD with lyrical prose. What Murakami should I read next? ..."

Of the 2 o..."

Thanks Michael! More fodder for my TBR.

message 8: by Elyse (new)

Elyse How does the scientist just happen to know sign language? lol Because he just does?

Your review is "delicious". You make a 'non-sci-girl' almost want to read this!

Michael Elyse wrote: "...Your review is "delicious". You make a 'non-sci-girl' almost want to read this!"

Thanks! That's the word I was looking for. Mind nutrition-use it or lose it. As a running fan, you should be the one to read his memoir on marathon running and report back on it for me.

message 10: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Deal! I know what I thought about when I use to run marathons....mostly I let my thoughts rise --rock & roll -with my steps ...
Trail runs with rolling hills --in the enchanting forest are the best for long runs --being with nature --the body moves better.

message 11: by Sheila (new) - added it

Sheila Fantastic review! Murakami just wouldn't be the same without a seductive woman, I am glad this one follows suit!

Stuart I read this 20 years ago as an exchange student staying in the countryside of Japan, stuck at home with a fever. So I don't know how much of the trippiness was the writing and how much was my fever.

Guess I should revisit to find out, and I really need to read more of his stuff since he is BY FAR the most popular Japanese writer outside Japan and his magic realist style appeals to me.

Michael Stuart wrote: "I read this 20 years ago as an exchange student staying in the countryside of Japan, stuck at home with a fever. So I don't know how much of the trippiness was the writing and how much was my fever..."

For someone who likes hard sci fi as much as you, I had some barriers to trying his odd branch of fantasy. I would love to hear how he is considered in Japan. In the mecca of anime he must seem tame and abstruse to many.

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