Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

by Haruki Murakami

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 706

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World tells two separate but related stories in quite different styles. The “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” chapters resemble the style of American hard-boiled detective fiction, though in a science-fiction setting. The narrator finds himself caught up in a conflict between the Calcutecs, who work for the quasi-governmental System, and the Semiotecs, criminals who work for the Factory. Calcutecs provide and protect information, while the Semiotecs, many of whom are discredited Calcutecs, steal data and sell it on the black market. The narrator works for a Calcutec scientist and becomes friends with the scientist’s assistant, his adolescent granddaughter. His job is to recode numbers by passing them from his right brain to his left brain.

The protagonist of the “End of the World” chapters finds himself in “the Town,” which is surrounded by an ominous forest. These allegorical chapters have a denser, more formal prose, offering more descriptive writing than elsewhere in Murakami’s fiction. With the help of the Librarian, whom he thinks he recognizes, he reads dreams from the skulls of unicorns and becomes the Dreamreader. His counterpart in “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” also has what seems to be a unicorn skull, as well as a relationship with the helpful reference librarian from his local library. This librarian describes libraries as paradises where information is free and no one fights over it. Murakami provides numerous other parallels between the narrators as both halves of his novel seem to be commenting on each other, exploring the same themes from different perspectives.

The scientist wants to prevent the world from falling apart, a prospect the narrator finds difficult to grasp. He considers the events he is caught up in so fantastic that he would not believe them in a novel. The librarian brings him El libro de los seres imaginarios (1967; The Book of Imaginary Beings, 1969) by Jorge Luis Borges. The Magical Realism of Latin American fiction is a major influence on Murakami, never more so than here. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is less science fiction or fantasy than reality pushed to its limits, resembling the paranoid world depicted in Franz Kafka’s fiction.

Matters for the narrator become more uneasy with a visit from two thugs he calls Junior and Big Boy. Big Boy is a quiet hulk, while the diminutive Junior is a fast talker, just like stereotyped hoodlums in American gangster films. The narrator initially sees them as jokes before taking their threats more seriously after they cut his abdomen and reveal they work for the System.

Like the hero of A Wild Sheep Chase, the Calcutec decides that his life is meaningless, that he has accomplished nothing. His dream of retreating to a mountain cabin to read, listen to music, and watch films is a mere fantasy of escape from the inevitable. His “End of the World” counterpart sees the library as a refuge, an escape from the advance of time outside.

The girl tells the Calcutec that her grandfather has been researching him for two years and that he is the only survivor among twenty-six subjects. The others died of some vague brain malfunction resulting from the scientist’s experiment. A former film editor, he has attempted to visualize and manipulate the consciousnesses of his subjects. He found the Calcutec’s consciousness to be the most satisfactory, with the coherence and logic of a novel or a film.

The narrator learns his consciousness is that displayed in the “End of the World.” The walled town is his brain. Murakami is not exploring alternative realities in a true science-fiction sense but using the narrator’s divided selves as a metaphor. In the real world, he lives an aimless, pointless existence. In the Town, he strives for meaning, even if he does not truly understand what the dreams of the skulls are all about. Reclaiming one world inside another, he longs for a more active life beyond the passive acceptance of the real-world side of himself. Murakami constantly shows options for his often lackadaisical characters without being judgmental about their choices. The narrator is not certain whether his version of eternal life is reward or punishment but wants to risk all by returning to his original world.

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