Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Reviewer: Jake Beal

Author: Haruki Murakami

Published: 1991

Reviewed: 2008-10-30

Publisher: Kodansha International

This one's not a particularly new book, but it takes some processing
to figure out what I make of it, and so I figure I'll write a review
and share my sorting out with you, dear reader. Mr. Murakami's
"Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" is clearly
Literature, with a capital L, as well as being sf-nal. But what to
make of it?

The book itself is straight-forward enough at a plot level: we have
twin storylines, one in a real world that is gradually being
infiltrated by surreality and one in a surreal world that is gradually
growing more complex and serious. As the stories march along, it
becomes clear that they are both about the same unnamed individual,
and that one is locked within his scientifically modified mind.

In the "real" world, he is an human information-laundering machine
(very Gibson-esque) who finds himself the unwitting victim of titanic
forces and unethical scientific experiments. In the "surreal" world,
he is gradually awakening from the dreamlike (and dream-connected)
role that is imposed upon him by the Town. Both worlds continually
open up new and usually unpleasant hidden features for the narrator to
discover---monsters beneath the subway, a whirlpool of id, the exiled
domain of the half-dead.

The overriding emotion of the book, however, is detachment. The
narrator confronts all of these things throughout his disintegrating
worlds with a calm, often ironic, form of coping, simply allowing
himself to be dragged along from moment to moment by what seems like
the right thing to do next. It reminded me of the mood in "Ghost in
the Shell" or "The Crying of Lot 49."

And as the narrators fall further down the rabbit-hole, what do we
learn? I'm not quite sure. If I don't think of the book as
Literature, then I'm fairly unimpressed. It's fine enough writing,
and a pleasant read, but what it has to say about mind is pedestrian,
though pleasantly metaphorical. And I suppose I tend to be more
interested not in books that seem to be confronting the meaningless-
ness and inhumanity of the world, but in those that take that for
granted and move on to ask what we should do anyway, now that we know
it's true. Post-post-modernism, as it were.

I suppose that it's a book of its era. Although the publication date
of the English translation is 1991, the novel was originally written
in 1985, and fits right in with its contemporaries, in the bleak
aftermath of the deliriously wishful embrace of universal meaning in a
lot of New Wave sci-fi of the 70s. In Mr. Murakami's work, as in
Gibson or Stirling, there is nobody minding the light at the end of
the tunnel. But as an author, I find him much kinder and more
sympathetic than Pynchon, appearing less interested in delirium than
in dream. And in the end, that's definitely worth something. I
enjoyed this book, and will certainly remember it, but I just don't
think it had anything really new to say to me.