Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

1991: Hard-Boiled Wonderland (Murakami, Haruki)

Extraordinarily mundane: a treat for the observer (5/5)
From April 19, 2009

Not science fiction exactly, but straddling the precipice of fantasy and bizarro, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is just as much of a mind-trip as many science fiction books out there... if not more so. I hasn't read any Murakami before this but I had heard only great things from friends. I'm thrilled to have finally discovered the wondrous, yet sometime repetitive, talents of Murakami. Originally published in Japan in 1985, the book was translated to English in 1991 by Alfred Birnbaum.

Rear cover synopsis:
"A narrative particle-accelerator that zooms between Wild Turkey Whiskey and Bob Dylan, unicorn skulls and voracious librarians, John Coltrane and Lord Jim.

"Science fiction, detective story and post-modern manifesto all rolled into one rip-roaring novel, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is the tour de force that expanded Haruki Murakami's international following. Tracking one man's descent into the Kafkaesque underworld of contemporary Tokyo, Murakami unites East and West, tragedy and farce, compassion and detachment, slang and philosophy. The result is a wildly inventive fantasy and a meditation on the many uses of the mind."

A nameless cast in a half-fantasy Tokyo and internal cerebral realm dominate the pages of this Murakami novel. It's thoroughly rich in mundane nuances and details which give the broad plot its sheik and shiny coat. And most importantly, its Japanese-esque isn't lost through the translation, coming out foreign enough to be slightly mystical along side its fantasy and nebulousness. It feels like a combination of the movie Lost in Translation, the novel Permutation City by Greg Egan and the novel Queen of Angles by Greg Bear.

I didn't realize that the characters themselves didn't have names when I was through about 80% of the novel, which shows you two things: one, I'm terrible with names and two, I was too busy being absorbed by the on goings to be bothered with anything like a generic label for individuals. Murakami focuses the reader's attention to the scene, the plot, the casual and pointedly nebulous unfolding.

Spread across this novel are Japanese tinted cultural items, such as foods and fauna, which give it an additional novelty to match its' already speckled chapters with western culture oddities; from a detailed Italian dinner to records of once-great jazz and pop artists to the proud collection of a fine whiskey collection. Piled on this heap of anecdotal oddities comes to rich recollection of the main character's personal history in the form of reminiscing, including details about his divorce, his sex life, his jobs, his sofa appreciation and his unique childhood experiences; from jetsam to a Skyline to chubby girls to a aviator jacket. Wildly, mundanely detailed!

Even with a wider view, many of the characters are actually quite mundane themselves: the librarian, the scientist, the chubby girl, the Gatekeeper, the General, etc. It's only the Calcutec (the main character) in which we get to view personal glimpses of. They seem to be mundane to an extraordinary degree... something which Murakami seems to have honed down to an art. I think it's not the characters themselves which make them seem so extraordinarily rich, but rather the authors and translators vision to make the dull details feel so delightful.

While you pan the hemispheres of your brain as you read the parallel tracks of this Murakami masterpiece, keep in mind that these two stories aren't open for your viewing pleasure. It's written so that you must confront what's been written with what the author wants you to believe to what is the reality in the Calcultec's world. Pan between a simple/traditional/non-abbreviated fantasy world where one man holds his one job with the reality where a materialistic/vivid/linguistically-truncated world. Compare, contrast, concentrate and be ready for a cornucopia of insight and depth.


  1. The reason why Murakami comes across comparatively well in translation is that his writing already is quite Americanized (to the point where his distractors' - he is, or at least used to be, I'm not quite up to date there, a very controversial figure in Japan - claim that he is not writing proper Japanese at all).
    I have read everything by him up to after the quake and what I like best about his works are his weird and bizarre characters that he still somehow manages to keep on this side of plausible. My favourite of his is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but it has to be said that all his novels are rather similar and sometimes dangerously close to being the same book over and over again. On the plus side, this means that if you enjoyed one of his novels, you will likely enjoy the others, too. Unless you overstuff yourself, that is, which is what happened to me. I'm sure I'll return to him eventually though, and catch up with what he's written in the meantime.

  2. "dangerously close to being the same book over and over again" - Yea, I read A Wild Sheep Chase early last year. It, indeed, had a similar feel and similar themes. I guess if I space the novels about 1-2 year apart, the similarity shouldn't annoy me. I hope to read Wind-up Bird Chronicle... if my friend ever returns it to me after a 17 month absence from my shelves :(

  3. I second the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.... Although, I haven't read any of his other works so I'm not sure how it compares.