Review: Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Definitely Not Alice’s Wonderland

Introduction/Update

Before we begin, I would have to say that after the one year celebration, I need to focus more on my writing seeing as it has taken a side line to both college and reviews. It feels like some time since I have finished writing a chapter for one of my started projects. But personal scheduling problems aside, let’s take a look at today’s review. Fair warning, this review will have spoilers.

The subject for this review would be the critically acclaimed novel Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Let’s take a look at the history behind this novel.

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World was first published in Japan during the year 1985 under the name Sekai no owari to Hādo-Boirudo Wandārando (世界の終りとハードボイルド・ワンダーランド) and would later be translated by Alfred Birnbaum into english in 1991. From its release, it would become critically acclaimed despite its controversy, even winning the Tanizaki Prize in 1985.

No, no. Not now. I will play you later...

No, no. Not now. I will play you later…

How I came across the book was actually occurred during a trip to Barnes and Noble. I was searching through the fiction section as I sometimes do, and I saw the title ‘Hard Boiled Wonderland’ and thought that it would be either a science fiction thriller set in the future or it would be set in a post apocalyptic world where people were gun crazy and resorted to frequent ultra violence. My initial disappointment aside, I found this book to be captivating and could not keep my eyes off of the pages despite how hard I tried. But we will get to that soon, let’s first talk about the mastermind behind this, Haruki Murakami.

About the Author

I can only imagine what goes on in his head.

I can only imagine what goes on in his head.

Haruki Murakami was born on January 12th 1949 during the Post World War Two baby-boom who before his writing career ran a coffee house and jazz club. He would be influenced during his youth by western culture, particularly Russian literature and music such as the novel The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky which can be seen through the narrator’s inner monologue in this book. He states that his inspiration to become a writer came from watching a baseball game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carps after watching the American player David Hilton hit a double. Well, inspiration does come from strange places.

His most notable works would be The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994-95), Norwegian Wood (1987), and one of his most recent successes 1Q84 (2009-2010). His books have recently become some of the top books on the reading lists of hipsters seeking post modernism according to an editorial on Cracked. Hipsters aside, let’s get to the review.

The Stories

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is separated into two seemingly different stories that at first glance would be be as far apart from each other as one would think, but would later intertwine. On the odd numbered chapters of the novel would be the cyberpunk portion of the story, while the even chapters have the surrealist half of the story.

The first half of the story would follow an unnamed man living in Tokyo Japan as a ‘Calcutec’ working for the quasi governmental system who protects and encrypts information for companies and organizations through an encryption system in his subconscious in a process that has been called ‘shuffling’. Through his work, he protects private company information from a criminal element called ‘The Factory’ and their ‘Semiotecs’. While performing a job for an aging scientist who has perfected a technology that removes sound from objects and areas, he would soon become involved in a conspiracy involving the two warring organizations, a woman with an insatiable appetite and a unicorn skull.

The other half of the story would be the more surreal of the two stories. Following the unnamed narrator (See the trend here?), he finds himself in a wall surrounded rustic town called ‘The End of the World’ that is perfect where no one dies or suffers and is inhabited by horned beasts. The one catch is that everyone is separated from their shadow and over time, will lose their minds and memories. The focus of this story is about the narrator who becomes the town’s ‘Dream Reader’ tries to find a way to escape the town with his shadow.

While the two of these stories would work well on their own as either a cyberpunk piece or a surrealist story about the consciousness, both stories easily parallel each other into a cohesive story that keeps the reader actively involved. While the story about the End of the World is more cohesive in its story, Hard Boiled Wonderland delves more into the surrealist reality. The narrator of the story has to contend with unusual characters, mythological creatures and locations that he didn’t think would be found in the middle of metropolitan Tokyo. I also have to admit that I enjoyed how Murakami avoided the commonly used trope of trying to interweave these two stories at the beginning and try to keep them connected through the entire story. The connection between the two isn’t really seen until halfway through closer to the end of the story. There isn’t much I can say about the story that will not spoil its entirety, but it is something that you have to read from start to finish.

The Characters

With writing surrealist novels, character development can sometimes take a backseat to when the author tries to build their illusion-esque landscapes. Though Haruki Murakami excels in creating fully believable characters throughout both halves of the story while keeping the surreal imagery of the story.

The primary characters of Hard Boiled Wonderland would consist of the narrator, the scientist and his attractive granddaughter in pink, the librarian, and the two mismatched thugs. Each of these characters are fleshed out during their appearances in the story and you see the reasoning behind their actions despite how strange they are. An example of this is would be later in the story where the narrator’s apartment is being destroyed by one of the thugs who is described as an ex-wrestler with arms the size of a normal person’s thighs. The narrator just watches the thug destroy his apartment knowing that there is nothing he can do to stop the destruction, while the other thug (who is the polar opposite of him) sits along side him. You can emphasize with why he is just letting his belongings be destroyed and you agree with his reasoning to let the chaos go uninhibited. The reader is able to also emphasize with the chubby granddaughter of the scientist who has been sheltered since a young age and while having a higher intelligence, is naive of the world outside. She is the polar opposite of the narrator, but it creates a nice balance between them and you think that they will end up together in the end. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil the ending.

With The End of the World, the primary characters are the narrator and his shadow, the gatekeeper, the colonel and the librarian. The two characters that stand out the most during this half of the story would be the narrator and his shadow. While you do see chemistry between the narrator and the librarian, the aforementioned relationship stands out more because the narrator’s primary goal throughout a large portion of this story is to find a way to escape from a walled town with no means of escape, even to the extent of risking his life to create a map.

As mentioned before, I enjoy what the author has done in his writing to keep the two stories separated from each other. This allowed the individual characters to have their own distinctive personalities rather than just being copies of each other.

The Writing Style

René Magritte's

René Magritte’s “This is not a pipe.” Think about it.

A large portion of what makes up Surrealism is creating the imagery of items no matter how common they are and making them illogical, allowing the artist’s unconscious to be realized. Following the birth of Dada art in the 1920s, the aim of surrealist art was resolve the “previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality“. The point of it is to make the intended audience question what is reality and what isn’t. In several mediums such as art, movies, novels, video games and so on, surrealism has been used frequently as a means to express a character’s sanity or their ability to determine whether or not what they thought was reality was really their reality.

From the very beginning of Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, the reader is given surreal descriptions of the narrator’s surroundings that would seem impossible and bizarre when compared to our everyday reality. In the beginning of the book, the narrator describes how he is seemingly trapped for the longest time in an elevator that he is unsure of whether if it was even going up or down and is so spacious that it could easily double as an office with room to spare. After he is leaves the elevator to follow the mute woman in pink, he descends down into a subterranean cavern located under the city of Tokyo. While the End of the World does have surrealist moments such as shadows being their own living beings despite having a connection to their owners, it is outmatched by the surrealist endeavors of Hard Boiled Wonderland. The narrator in the aforementioned story has to contend with unicorn skulls, underground caverns filled with kappas and leeches and technology that removes sound from everything. To me, that is more surreal as it takes the traditional notions of the world around us and twists it into an unidentifiable structure.

The World Building

When it comes to world building, I would have to say that the End of the World half of the story has the better world building that Hard Boiled Wonderland. While the latter does an amazing job describing the world and landscape the narrator has to explore, the End of the World goes to tremendous efforts to describe every section of the town the narrator and the shadow are trying to escape from. You feel immersed in the story as you read about the Gatekeeper telling the narrator how impervious the wall is and you can easily imagine the freezing cold of the town’s winter.

Final Thoughts

Haruki Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is in the best of terms, an amazing read. It is simply one of those books where it doesn’t matter whether or not you like cyberpunk and/or surrealism, you just read this book. It is a staple of literature that needs to be a part of everyone’s reading list such as Catcher in the Rye and The Divine Comedy/Inferno.

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is available at most retailers such as Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

If you want to check out more of Haruki Murakami’s literature or want to know more about him, check out his website.

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