Jan 29, 2009

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

How do I even begin to tell you about this book? At first we have to seemingly separate alternating stories. In Hard-boiled Wonderland, our protagonist is a Calcutec who has been given a new mission. And what is a Calcutec, you ask? Basically a human data-encryption system. We quickly learn that in this world, there are two powerful organizations, the System and the Factory, that have constant information wars. The Calcutecs work for the System. And the protagonist’s current mission is to protect groundbreaking research data from falling into the wrong hands.

In The End of the World, a stranger arrives to a town. This town is completely surrounded by a wall, and he is told that to get in, he will have to surrender his shadow. And once in, there is no way out. The town is seemingly very peaceful, and he’s soon given an occupation as the new Dreamreader. But he gradually learns that this peace comes at a cost.

This is really just the beginning of it. Other things the stories involve include golden unicorns, an underground research lab, sound insulation, a mad scientist of sorts, and INKlings – not Tolkien and Lewis, but strange creatures who inhabit the underground and worship Lovecraftian giant fish things. And also, of course, the end of the world.

The two storylines do eventually converge. The relationship between them becomes obvious fairly early in the book, actually. But that makes things more interesting, not less. Also, there’s good news for those who aren’t too fond of Murakami’s ambiguity: this book makes sense! Mostly, anyway. The ending is still open, but open in a “I wonder what this decision will lead to?” sort of way, rather than in a “whaaaaa?” way. But answers are given, and we do learn what most things mean within the world of the story.

I very much enjoyed Hard-boiled Wonderland and The End of the World. I loved the science fiction elements, I loved all the questions that kept me turning the pages, and most of all I loved the fact that in the end this is a very human story – a story about identity and how we handle things and how we respond to the world.

One thing that bugged me, though, is that the science fiction elements are all based on the whole humans-only-use-10%-of-their-brains myth. And that’s very much not true. I think I’m actually as tolerant of impossibilities in my fiction as it gets, but this myth in particular is a pet peeve of mine. I’ll stop grumbling now, though.

I wonder about the ending. The story didn’t end like I wanted it to, but that’s okay. What I wonder about is what the ending means for the book as a whole. Because the interpretation I was going for kind of demanded the opposite ending. What was Murakami trying to say by ending it that way? I wonder if I should rethink the way I look at the story. Then again, the beauty of literature is that I'm free to take it however I want. And as you can see, there's still some of that traditional Murakami ambiguity after all.

A few notable passages:
That is a beautiful dream, and I do want your happiness. But the absence of fighting or hatred or desire also means the opposites do not exist either. No joy, no communion, no love. Only where there is disillusionment and depression and sorrow does happiness arise; without the despair of loss, there is no hope.

“Say, is that Bob Dylan you have on?”
“Right”, I said. Positively 4th Street
“I can tell Bob Dylan in an instant,” she said.
“Because his harmonica’s worse than Stevie Wonder?”
She laughed again. Nice to know I could still make someone laugh.
“No, I really like his voice,” she said. “It’s like a kid standing at the window watching the rain.”
After all the volumes that have been written about Dylan, I had yet to come across such a perfect description.

Fairness is a concept that holds only in limited situations. Yet we want the concept to extent to everything, in and out of phase. From snails to hardware stores to married life. Maybe no one finds it, or even misses it, but fairness is like love. What is given has nothing to do with what we seek.
(I couldn’t find other blog reviews of this book…if you have one, let me know!)


  1. Interesting! I've never read anything by this author yet... I've to give his book a try!

  2. I've heard a lot about this author lately. I think i'm going to try to read something by him this year!

    (I totally understand pet peeves in books. They can really upset a reading experience.)

  3. I do not read much Sci Fi and am not sure that it is my cup of tea but I loved reading your review!!!

  4. Great job describing yet another Murakami book! I haven't read this one yet. Can't wait to read about Calcutec and information wars ... oh, and the "Lovecraftian giant fish things." Yup, sounds like a Murakami thing.

  5. Hmm, surrending shadows.. I seem to remember there being some shadow talk in Kafka on the Shore as well. Nice review - I'd like to read this.

  6. What?! A Murakami book that makes sense?! lol...When you said "and what exactly is a calcutec" I first thought..."a person from Calcutta" :p Which could've made the story that much more interesting! Anyways, yes yes, this is going onto the wish list.

  7. Hi Nymeth! I emailed you earlier but I have to comment on this now lest I lose connection much later. While I enjoyed reading this one I never had the courage to actually post about it way back. Because seriously, I wouldn't know what to say. Hahaha!

    And reading this post makes me want to attempt my take on the book, but not yet. Hahaha!

    And it seems I have to read a lot of your previous posts for the month as well. Sigh.

    Oh and happy new year. Again.

  8. This one's sitting on my shelf and is my Murakami for 2009. :-) Everyone's reading Japanese this month, trying to finish up that challenge! I'm halfway through Out and hope to finish on time!

  9. Melody: Murakami is weird, but enjoyable weird. I hope you agree when you get to him :P

    Amanda, I hope you enjoy his books! And yeah, in this case it wasn't enough to ruin the book for me, but I couldn't help but be annoyed...I always am when things perpetuate misinformation like that.

    Staci: It's funny, when I picked up this book I had no idea it was going to be sci-fi. Murakami is one of those authors that always surprise you. I'm glad you enjoyed my review :)

    Terri B: It's always hard to describe his books, isn't it? lol, the underground creatures were very Murakami indeed.

    Charley: Hmmm...now that you mention it, that does ring a bell.

    Chris: Norwegian Wood makes sense too :P lol, a person from Calcutta...nope, not quite that :P Anyway, I'm sure you'll enjoy this one!

    Lightheaded: Book twin :D So glad to see you back (even if not quite). I hope you do post about it because I'd love to hear your take on it. Happy belated New Year!

    Joanna: Yeah, I was hoping to finish this one in time for the challenge (even though it was an "extra"). Good luck finishing Out! And I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did when you get to it.

  10. Great review. I guess I didn't realize that Murakami wrote sci fi. I just finished The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle which I really enjoyed. You have convinced me that this is my next Murakami read.

  11. And what is a Calcutec, you ask? Basically a human data-encryption system.

    Sounds like William Gibson's short "Johnny Mnemonic."

  12. Another great review! I really need to read Murakami this year. And this book sounds really different. Thanks!

  13. I have to admit that he is probably one of the authors I'm most intimidated by. I have The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, and I really want to read it, but I'm just so hesitant. Your review has me thinking that maybe I should try this one first. Not just because the story sounds good, but because I absolutely, positively love all three of those passages you shared!!!

  14. I hadn't heard of this book before, but it sounds like a real in-depth world!

  15. "Lovecraftian giant fish things"!!

    This looked like a good read then I saw that phrase and upgraded it to a must-read :D

  16. Moo: I didn't either until I started this. I guess the man writes everything!

    Loren Eaton: Someone asked him in an interview if that book had been an influence, but he said he hasn't read it. The concept is indeed pretty much the same, though. I haven't read any Gibson yet...maybe it'd be a good starting point.

    Mariel: It is indeed different. I hope you enjoy Murakami :)

    Debi: I understand being intimidated by him, but really, don't be! His stories are not at all hard to follow, it's just that you get to the end and all sorts of loose ends remain loose. But he does it on purpose, and as long as you don't expect concrete answers the books are very enjoyable. And very readable too! I'm glad you like those passages :D

    Serena: It is! And somehow this is a book of his you don't hear that much about...maybe because it's older?

    Joanne: You're a woman after my own heart :D

  17. This sounds like a Stephenson-esque novel! This sounds so good!

    I have to read this!

  18. I'm so glad you ended up liking this one. It's both different from his other stuff but the same too. Murakami, eh!
    I read it before I started blogging so no review but I really want to read it again sometime. When are you having that re-read challenge? ;)

  19. This sounds like something both me and Alex would enjoy. Me for the golden unicorns and Alex for the Lovecraft bits. Thanks for the review.

  20. this sounds interesting. great review as usual :)
    'strange creatures who inhabit the underground and worship Lovecraftian giant fish things'- that makes me want to read it.


  21. Saveophelia: Stephenson is an author I've been meaning to check out for I don't know how long!

    tanabata: It is both different and very Murakami! And I need to see about the re-reads challenge...another blogger was hosting one but I think only for the first half of the year, so I'll have to get in touch with them.

    Rhinoa: I really do think you'd enjoy it!

    Naida: lol, it's intriguing, isn't it? :P

  22. what?the 10% thing is not true? you're gonna hate The adoration of Jenna Fox then! hi hi:P

  23. I've only read one book by Murakami--that is, After Dark. I liked it.

    I also like your quote on fairness from this book.

  24. Valentina: I won't let it ruin it for me :P But I'm glad you warned me, because now I'll be prepared.

    Alice: I've seem mixed reviews of After Dark. I want to read it, it sounds good, but most Murakami fans seem to agree it's not one of his best. I guess it means you're in for something even better next time!

  25. My comment started off like this: Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh I need to get my hands on more Murakami. But then I read your paragraph about the ending and now my comment is this: Look at you trying to make sense of Murakami when you *just* told me you stopped. :P But really--two things make me really interested in reading more. 1. The fact that you don't know where to start with this review and 2. that the ending made you rethink the entire book. As frustrating as those two things are, I love it...

  26. Trish: lol! There is no denying it, you're right. I was tricked into trying to make sense of it by the fact that it makes more sense than his others :P I really like it when that happens too. Even though I think I preferred the direction the book seemed to be taking than the one it actually took, I love that it made me think about things differently.

  27. Brilliant work of Murakami(what a great mind) and a big step forward to a more deep soulfull realistic way of writing, exploring life and our self..


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