Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Haruki Murakami

Book cover

(The title of the book looks weird on Goodreads, not sure why. This is the normal “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.”)

This book took me by surprise. I had gotten it mostly out of the completist urge to read all the books by my favorite living author, but ended up loving it. I am not sure I’m quite prepared to say it’s my favorite of his books, but it’s really close if not–and definitely underrated in his catalog.

The style of the book will be quite familiar to anyone who’s read his other work. The protagonist is Murakami’s usual plain, loner, semiautobiographical character. The book alternates chapters between two stories, “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” and “The End of the World”, which seem unrelated at first but of course end up being intertwined. “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” is the more standard Murakami setting–a relatively normal modern world in which strange things start to happen. It has a strong cyberpunk influence, which I enjoyed. This also means that Murakami’s trademark mystical happenings are not left completely mysterious, but explained (eventually), at least within the context of the setting. “The End of the World” is a much different setting: a fantasy medieval town, which would not be out of place in a video game such as “Zelda”, or perhaps “Myst”. I often think about Kafka when I read Murakami, and these two settings reminded me of both his weirdo-realist settings (“The Trial”) and his more highly symbolic settings (“Josephine the Singer”).

As I often find with books that “sweep me off my feet”, I’m somewhat hard-pressed to identify what made me like this particular book more than, say, “Kafka on the Shore”. There’s at least one thing that I’ve clearly identified, though, so I’ll just talk about that here.

Like I mentioned before, the Town in “The End of the World” would feel appropriate in a video game. When I opened up the book, I was delighted to look at the hand-drawn map of the Town inside the front cover. There are many different little corners of it to explore, and like most video-game towns or idealizations of old-timey towns, it has exactly one of each sort of necessary thing: a Library, a Power Plant, a Gate, etc. I don’t know whether other people will identify with this, but there is a very satisfying sense of completeness and harmony associated with this sort of setting to me. I am curious whether this may perhaps be a typically Japanese aesthetic, since it seems common in video games and most of those are Japanese-produced. Anyway, one thing I really enjoyed in this book was the way that Murakami investigated that aesthetic judgment. He doesn’t go so far as to repudiate it, but he does take time to explore its necessary preconditions and consequences. To me, he implicitly described both why such an aesthetic is pleasing to us (or me at least), and why it essentially never exists in reality.

I am surprised that this book isn’t more popular (in America?), and even more so that it has not been made into a movie. It seems to me to be totally cinematic, and much more deserving of a film treatment than “Wind-Up Bird”, which is actually being filmed.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars