Possible spoilers ahead.
I finished Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World in December last year on my trip to Japan. Murakami’s book strongly contributed to the sense of wonder and excitement I had when travelling the big cities of this beautiful country. It’s easily one of my top favourite reads.
The book, a science-fiction/surrealism novel, is as magical as the title sounds: It’s filled with glowing unicorns and talking shadows, open wounds and creatures dwelling in the sewers, all while exploring themes such as consciousness and identity, as well as the mysteries around the subconscious mind in a very… satisfying… manner.
My copy even had a map (see the header image)!
The chapters alternate between two parallel narratives. One of them – the Hard-Boiled Wonderland-part – tells about an alternative cyber-punk future where the narrator is a human data processor on his way to some sort of meeting.
The first chapter begins with the narrator taking a what seems to be an incredibly slow elevator to meet someone. The first few paragraphs are all about the narrator’s thoughts about how slow and obscure this elevator seems to be. It’s somewhat amazing how Murakami manages to drag out such a short moment of seemingly no importance to such an extent without it becoming dull.
Upon arrival on his floor, the narrator is greeted by a plump young woman dressed completely in pink from top to toe. And this is when the narrator’s thoughts begin to wander in a sexual direction, of course. A bit cringy to read at some points, because it might be a bit inapproriate at certain moments, but, hey, it’s Murakami.
The narrative parallel to the cyber-punk reality tells of a newcomer to a dream-like world. The place, simply called the Town, is isolated, completely cut off from the outside world by an impenetrable wall. Upon arrival, the narrator is expected to give up his shadow as none of the residents of the Town are allowed to keep their shadow.
Despite refusing to give up his shadow, the only connection to the life he had prior to his arrival, the narrator is forced to leave his shadow at the gates, albeit reluctantly.
I developed a slight affection to the narrator’s shadow, because he took the role of being like an old friend, whose only mission was to watch and take care of you. It was therefore a bit upsetting when the shadow was simply “cut off” from the narrator’s body. Cleaved by the Gatekeeper as if he was nothing but a worthless burden.
The narrator is then assigned a job as the Dreamreader, reading dreams from the skulls of unicorns (OMG!) with the help of the local Librarian. This process is meant to erase everything related to the mind from the Town (creepy, I know). As a result, none of the residents here have a mind of their own.
Unlike the other books I’ve read by Murakami (1Q84 and Tsukuru Tazaki), Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World was exciting with several climactic scenes. There are dramatic escapes from underground creatures, questionable mob-like activity resulting in rampaging of neat kitchens and cutting of expensive clothes – and young girls in men’s pajamases.
The alternating narratives give a fresh break from one world without it becoming confusing to keep track of the parallel storylines. As you read on, you’ll discover that the two storylines converge at one point, and that they are certainly not separate at all. The different elements in the two narratives are all connected in a somewhat logical way.
There were several parts I found intriguing that I had to bookmark. For instance, the parts about the mind. When the narrator in the End of the World is tired from reading dreams, the Librarian warns him that he must not let fatigue set in, and that he should let his body work until it is spent, but keep his mind for himself. Because she, as a native to the Town, lost hers a long time ago. But the narrator is doing nothing but removing every trace of mind when he reads the dreams from the skulls – including his own mind. Ooooh.
All the questions raised in the End of the World-storyline are answered in the storyline of Hard-Boiled Wonderland. There is a reason the enclosed map resembles a brain. (Whaaaat~)
I was a bit thrown off by the ending, to be truly honest. I expected a bit more explaining and a-ha moments near the end, but the ending was as surreal and strange as the story itself. I can’t really complain, as I understand now in hindsight that the ending was meant to be open-ended. It was definitely better than the ending of The Book of Lost Things (if those two books can even be compared).
To conclude: The best book in its genre I have ever laid my hands on. No exception. Truly. The. Best.