Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Haruki Murakami - Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

There are things that cannot and should not be explained. (p. 85)

As a longtime reader or two might know, this is not the first time that I've read Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. It was, actually, the first of the Murakami novels I read and, at the time, I knew that I liked it but didn't know what to make of it besides that. Since, and as a result of that first exposure, I've read, reviewed, and loved several of Murakami's novels, and yet, as time went on, it was this one that outlasted them all in my thoughts. About a year after that first read, and several months after the book's in-absentia rise to the position of one of my favorite novels, I reread the book and found it lived up to every one of my expectations. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is Murakami at his best, at his most playful and his most insightful. [A note before we begin: there are SPOILERS aplenty in the following.]

Information is key and king in Hard-Boiled Wonderland's Tokyo, and, from the beginning, the conflict over it is what dominates and threatens the world. Devoted to the preservation of knowledge and its exclusivity we have the system, and the system is the state. (p. 160) Arrayed against them are the factory, dedicated to the breaking of the system's codes and the revealing of its revelations. Our dear protagonist, a member of the system, is drawn into the conflict by a neutral, eccentric and brilliant scientist whose breakthrough discoveries, we're told, could spell the end of the world. (p. 128)

All of this is, as the narrator observes, your classic cops-and-robbers routine, (p. 33) and it's from there that the book's noir comes from for this is as much a crime novel as it is a Science Fiction one, a surreal fantasy, or a work of pure Literature (much as I hate the term applied as a genre) – which is to say, of course, that's it's somehow both not at all and the very exemplar of the form. Of course, Murakami's usual vivid colors are in full force here, as is his floating and flowing surrealism, all of which is obviously antithetical to the orthodox noir of a Hammett or a Goodis

That dismissal, though, misses the narrator's endlessly witty and even insightful observations, often, in the very purest tradition of noir, showing the bizarre nature of it all and the narrator's insignificance and even powerlessness before it, albeit always with a special Murakami twist:  I was a leftover wrapped in black plastic and shoved into the cooler. (p. 21) The writing here is a constant toying with intentional absurdity (Walls a toasted off-white, like the muffins I eat for breakfast. (p. 7)) and profundity, blurring and even obliterating the lines between them: There must be as many paths of human fat as there are ways of human death (p. 8) or: Even cast aside, clothes know a permanence that eludes their wearers. (p. 374)

But while the System/Factory conflict drives the first part of the novel, and while it's never really silent, the reader comes to realize that it's the symptom rather than the cause of the problem. Progress is pure, devoid of good or evil intent, but the pursuit of it and the actualization of its fruits are deathly dangerous: It's this pure focus, exclusive of all view to loss or gain, that's seen science achieve such uninterrupted advances. […] [But] the purity of science often hurts many people, just like pure natural phenomena do. (p. 253) Ultimately, the question of its possession by good or evil is irrelevant, for progress and knowledge hold all the potential for our misery and harm: Civilization […] faces serious crises because science is used for evil – or good. (p. 29) 

The promised end of the world does come, or at least the end of a world: Actually speaking, it isn't this world. It's the world in your mind that's going to end. (p. 270) The looming apocalypse does come, but it does so in personal form, the scientifically-caused dissolution of the narrator's mind and soul, leaving him in an inner world of his own consciousness, cut off forever from what we view as reality. 

That brings us to the second of the book's two threads, that entitled The End of the World and taking place entirely within that unreal world created by the scientist's machinations and growing in prominence as the novel progresses. This is a world made up of a single, isolated town, surrounded by a perfect wall, overlooked by a clock tower that has long forfeited its role as a timepiece. (p. 38) It's a world that's the opposite of the outside, one that remains forever unchanged (p. 14) and where absolute peace can be found in mindlessness, motionless existence, for it's our intellect that leads to all the so-beyond-natural ills of the world. As one character in this inner setting says, lay down your mind and a peace come. A peace deeper than anything you have known. (p. 318) 

Murakami does not just allude to this deeper realm and leave us to draw our own conclusions. No, he shows it to us in chapters that alternate with the jagged coolness of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland and could not be more different. As the narrator is more and more submersed into this peace the tale circles absolute stillness and absolute zero, each chapter resplendent with the fading remnants of true awareness and bursting with a languor so brilliantly evoked that the reader's thoughts, too, drift in ever smaller currents, relaxing and weakening as the heartbeat slows and wonder grows. Here, in this world, there is everything and here there is nothing, (p. 385) and it's a perfect nothing. (p. 86)

Murakami doesn't just raise questions. No, as crushing waves of melancholy and an almost agonizing beauty imbue every word of the novel's ending chapters, Murakami's brief but deep epic of thought reaches two successive peaks. The first is the justification of progress and striving, no matter its cost. For the utopia of absence that the End of the World shows us is not only devoid of loss but also of gain, not only misery but also joy: The absence of fighting or hatred or desire also means the opposites do not exist either. No joy, no communion, no love. Only where there is disillusionment and depression and sorrow does happiness arise; without the despair of loss, there is no hope. (p. 334) For, as we come to see, Love is a state of mind (p. 334) and cannot exist for those who have no mind. But then comes the so-understandable, so heartbreaking finale to it all. For the narrator, though now fully conscious of the costs, cannot leave behind the peace that he's found. He stays, immersed in the harmony and perfect nothing of that dreamed and conflict-free world.

The level of cool and grandeur, in their corresponding sections, does come at the expense of plot. As the narrator quips at one point, this isn't the kind of thing they show on TV. This drama was a lot more complex and with no discernible plot. (pp. 112-3) While "no discernible plot" really is going a bit too far, it's not far off in terms of effect. Though a lot happens here, none of it is gripping in a roller coaster, plot boiler, gotta find out what happens next kind of way. This is, rather, the kind of book where the narrator can observations and wit power on unhindered through a scene where he may be, say, stabbed in the gut with a knife. While such a distance could certainly leave many a book powerless, though, Murakami effortlessly keeps you engaged with his characters, prose, absurdity, and with the reality of his setting. What's most surprising about the last of those is how real the day to day world of the characters is, no matter how impossible the events within it become. Murakami accomplishes this through a deft weaving of the mundane into the fantastic, having his characters prepare food and live their lives all around the plot and, of course, by utilizing his characteristic barrage of references, which here include Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 2011: A Space Odyssey, Turgenev, and Borges, to name just a few.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World was written early in Haruki Murakami's career but exemplifies, nonetheless, so many of his strengths. It's true that this is the most out and out genre of the Murakami novels and stories that I've read, but my affinity for it goes deeper than that. The world here is filled with fantastically daring ideas glimpsed from the shadows and approached head on. The writing is filled with, in one section, always dancing wit and, in the other, surreal majesty. The book, throughout, is a entertaining to read, fun from first word to last, and also a work of stunning power and sorrow, a novel that's joyous, poignant, and profound.

4 comments:

  1. You have grabbed the balloons of thought that Murakami put over my head and handed them to me. All strings togethe, for me to enjoy again both happy and sad to have to enevitably let them go.
    Thank you

    Enrique.philip@teradata.com

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  2. This is the novel that I like the most too. The most beautiful, strong, and inspiring love story I've ever read. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  3. That was an excellently written review that really brings out many of the key points in the books. Thanks for posting :)

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  4. Thanks for the review. This was definitely a great Murakami book. I also really like the open-endedness of the ending: when his shadow "returns" (which I imagine means following the River through to circuit A) does the narrator "wake up" and avert death? But with a piece of himself missing? Will his shadow return to die in the Town (circuit C) and leave his "body" trapped there? Or will the "body" left in the End of the World figure out how to bridge the gap to circuit A again and reunite all pieces of his mind? Heck, will he ever eventually figure out "why" he created the End of the World to begin with, which is the main reason he gives for staying behind? (Frankly, if my mind created such a thing as my "core" I'd like to know also!) In a novel that makes you think constantly, this ending took the thinking up a whole 'nother notch. Definitely one of my favorites also.

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