Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Kodansha International (1985)
Tl;dr summary: Part surreal fantasy, part sci-fi detective story, all wonderfully bizarre—and masterfully constructed.
Read this if you like: Unicorns, cross-genre experiments, simulated worlds
I never reach the end of a Haruki Murakami novel feeling like I’ve figured that shit out. I typically have the first inklings of an idea, a vague picture in my mind of how all the pieces fit together, the sense that there is, in fact, some deeper mystery that was explored and revealed, the details of which I am simply not quite smart enough to have determined on my own.
And this doesn’t bother me in the least—I think, at least in part, because I feel confident that this is exactly what Murakami intended. I greatly respect that Murakami doesn’t tell his readers what conclusion they’re supposed to draw from the story. The story is; you’re to make of it what you will.
My first Murakami experience (Kafka on the Shore) was for a grad school course. I had to do a class presentation on it and I remember frantically looking up his themes and meaning on the internet, expecting that the talking cats and soldier ghosts and portal stones had to signify something. Imagine my frustration when all I could find was an interview where Murakami explicitly stated he doesn’t think about his writing that way. As he said in a 2004 interview with John Wray for The Paris Review, “When I start to write, I don’t have any plan at all. I just wait for the story to come. I don’t choose what kind of story it is or what’s going to happen.”
There are certainly aspects of Hard-Boiled Wonderland that make me think of Kafka on the Shore. The most obvious is his use of the two contrasting voices and storylines to create the complete picture. Later in that Paris Review interview, Murakami says that he set out with Kafka on the Shore to write a sequel to Hard-Boiled Wonderland. Though he ended up pursuing a completely different story (as would inevitably happen, given his approach mentioned above) there are lingering similarities between them. “The style is very similar,” Murakami says of it, “The soul is very similar. The theme is this world and the other world; how you can come and go between them.”
Of course, they’re not identical. Kafka switches between a 15-year-old narrator (first person) and a series of adult characters (third person); Hard-Boiled Wonderland keeps both storylines in first person and the voices similar, for plot reasons that may be considered spoilery and I therefore won’t drop here.
From a craft perspective, the tension established by the narrative structure is slightly different, as well. In Kafka on the Shore, the mystery is in how the many characters are ultimately connected. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland, Murakami tells you what’s happening in the very first chapter, when the narrator describes counting coins in both pockets simultaneously. Even if you don’t understand the significance of this reveal on the first read, by the mid-point of the novel even relatively inattentive readers know how the two narrators are related. The tension between the storylines for me wasn’t how they related but when they happened in relation to each other (if both could even be said to have a “when” in the conventional way, but that’s another discussion) and what, if anything, each could reveal about the other.
Murakami’s worlds are delightfully weird in the most appealing way. This is what drew me to him in Kafka on the Shore and what has kept me consistently coming back for more—and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is chock-full of this weirdness, whether it’s in the form of unicorn skulls or underground laboratories where sound doesn’t work quite right. There’s no question his stories are impeccably crafted, but whether or not you’ll find it as enjoyable to read (or as influential on your own work) truly depends on how comfortable you are existing between the genres. Hard-Boiled Wonderland is part love story, part mystery, part surreal fantasy, part near-future sci-fi—it’s a little bit of everything, but in a way that makes the parts work together instead of fighting, and this, more than anything, is the true wizarding of Haruki Murakami.