Whatever else might be said about it, "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" almost certainly has the best title of any Haruki Murakami novel. The title also is unusually descriptive of what you'll find between the covers: a sort of detective story fused with a fantastic realm and imbued with a grand sense of danger. Exciting and perplexing... though not yet the apogee of Murakami's skills, this book demonstrates someone well on his way toward creating masterpieces like Kafka on the Shore.
That "and" in the title proves to be crucial, as the novel is cleanly split into two alternating storylines. You can actually detect this before reading the first page: just take a close look at the table of contents. The chapter titles alone will give you a good indication of what you're in store for. The odd-numbered chapters each list three things, usually nouns, like (an invented example) "Eggs, Tchaikovsky, and Subway Tickets." The even-numbered chapters each have a single short subject, like "The Beasts." Already you're picking up on the schizophrenic aspect of the novel.
The odd-numbered chapters are the detective story, and were generally my favorite part of the book. The main character fulfills the "hard-boiled" promise of the title, with a dense and turgid interior monologue that comments on everything he encounters. The setting is a bit unusual and fun. The book was written in... like, 1990, maybe?... and is set slightly in the future. Information is the most crucial resource for any company or government, and the narrator belongs to an elite group that is tasked with keeping that information secure. The System is a believably Japanese institution, a quasi-private government-sponsored agency that deals with encryption, transportation, data security, and so on.
The narrator's role within the System, though, is much more that of a freelancer. The book covers what is essentially a side job for him, as he uses the tools he has acquired as a System agent in what starts as a lucrative contract and transforms into something more personal. Because of this he can complain about the System's policies and maintain that me-against-the-world attitude that is crucial to hard-boiled detective novels.
Opposing The System is an alliance between the Semiotics and the INKlings. The Semiotics are sort of an information Mafia - they seek to steal information, decrypt it, and use it to sell, blackmail, or strengthen themselves. Together the System and the Semiotics are the yin and yang of this future world, eternally opposing one another, yet oddly dependent on the other to justify their own existence. The INKlings are pure Murakami. For quite a while we don't learn exactly what they are, but the unusual name acquires more and more ominous overtones as the narrator acquires more warnings about these dangerous creatures who lurk in forgotten areas underground. We eventually learn that INK stands for Intra-Nocturnal Kappa. For those of you who aren't up on your Japanese mythology, the Kappa are a sort of mythological creature who carry a bowl on their head or something. The INKlings are pure malice. They are an ancient Lovecraftian race who for millennia burrowed underground. Eventually, people building the Tokyo subway system accidentally opened up a passage into the INKling realm, and from that moment on they entered our world. They operate in secret, grabbing maintenance workers at night and gobbling them up. They are immensely ugly and have a sort of magical attraction; anyone who sees an INKling will never be able to move again. They worship an evil prehistoric fishlike fanged creature that may or may not still be swimming around in dark underground pools.
What may be creepiest of all is that, while almost nobody has heard of INKlings, the government, media, and major corporations all know that they exist. They don't want the public to panic, and they can't get rid of them, so they cover them up and excuse the occasional tourist who goes missing. Needless to say, I find this intersection of the real world and the fantastic immensely satisfying.
Speaking of fantastic, the even-numbered chapters are explicitly fantasy. They are told in a more relaxed, curious mode than the rest of the book, and are much less about plot than about the exploration of a town called the End of the World. (Great name for a place to live, huh?) It begins with that narrator being separated from his shadow, which is cut off by a man called The Gatekeeper and thrown in a holding cell to wait until winter. The narrator here is hailed as the Dreamreader, and spends many days rubbing unicorn skulls in order to extract the dreams from them. In the rest of his time he explores the land around him. The copy of the book I read included a map of End of the World on the inside of the cover, and it was a lot of fun to occasionally refer to. It reminds me of the sort of thing I drew all the time when I was young.
Back to the main story - probably the most persistent observation/criticism of Murakami is that he writes incredibly passive protagonists. I think that there's a kernel of truth in this which has been blown out of proportion - "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles" features a young man who may be one of the most passive figures in literature, and that's a large part of the point of that book. Most of his other protagonists have a certain detachment, but aren't anywhere near as passive - for example, Crow in "Kafka" is in some ways defined by running away from his life, but as written, it takes immense resourcefulness, skill, preparation and hard work for him to do so. It may be a negative goal, but he is actively working towards it. Anyways, all that to say, I think that the protagonist of "Hard-Boiled Wonderland" may be the best argument yet against this generalization of Murakami's characters. It weakens a little in the closing chapters, but for the most part this is a guy who takes action, complains about it, thinks about things a little but not too much, and for the most part acts upon the world instead of waiting for the world to act upon him.
I was certain from about the third chapter on that we would eventually learn that the two narrators are the same person. I had thought that we would learn that one turns into the other - perhaps at the end of the detective story he would arrive at the End of the World and start that storyline, for example. The ultimate explanation was satisfying: the End of the World is the subconscious of the hard-boiled data security agent. The way they get there is really interesting. It's probably the most sci-fi of any Murakami I've read yet, and fairly convincing, although I still don't totally understand the circuit activation diagrams that are helpfully included in the Professor's explanation.
I'm sure that this book will infuriate anyone who likes their stories to end. We know what's going to happen - there doesn't seem to be any way to fix the problem with his brain - but never see it actually take place. I am curious about what relation, if any, exists between the Librarian in the "real world" and the one in the End of the World. I like to think that the narrator has created her, basically making a companion for himself through the eternity that he will spend trapped inside his fantasy. If that's the case, though, then what are we to make of their mutual discovery of her mind? This strongly suggests that she has an independent existence outside of his imagination. Who is she, and who is her mother? Does this suggest, I dunno, some sort of Jungian collective unconscious? If so, is there any chance that this is really the same librarian? I sort of doubt it - if so, it doesn't seem like she would have lost her mind in the first place. But I do like that kind of sweet idea that our fantasies are not merely solipsistic plays within our own heads, but can actually be shared spaces where we touch one another with our ideas.
Triumph! Magnificent! Deliciously frustrating! This book only increases my esteem for Murakami, as it showcases an even broader range from this talented creator. Well worth checking out for any fan or wannabe fan.