Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End Of The World is a novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. There. That's the basics of it.

First, some cold-soaked facts. The original Japanese version was published by Kodansha. An English translation, made in 1991 by Alfred Birnbaum (an expat American irrevocably - it seems - in Japan) was published by Kodansha International and Random House; the edition I have (by Random House's Vintage press) was published in 1993 as a trade paperback.

I could start by offering some of the praise heaped on the book by various reviews. The Village Voice goes so far as to invoke such enshrined names as Borges, Kafka and The Prisoner, all in the same sentence. I cannot dispute the arrangement nor the references. However, the reviews are intended to let you know if you should read the book or not, and since that's what I'm hoping to do in this my own E2 review, let us leave them lie.

This Review

It would be impossible to discuss this book to the depths I feel I need to (I just now finished reading it for the first - but not the last - time) without producing what are so artlessly called spoilers. So, if the happenstances of the story and the unfolding of it are critical to you, you may wish to read with care. I won't be able to label what's a spoiler and what's not. I strongly suspect, in fact, that any description I try to make of the story will be impossible to define a spoiler. If one considers a spoiler to be a shorthand of some part of the book which, upon being read, allows the reader to understand something critical in advance that they would otherwise need to read the book itself for, then there will be no spoilers. Consider this metaphor: looked at this way, a spoiler would be either a substring or a compressed version of part or all of the book itself. However, in this case, such would either avail you little or be impossible, because the book behaves (to such treatment) like a perfectly random and non-repeating string of information. Since it is perfectly random, it is impossible to derive meaning from any snippet without having the bits next to, before, after, and around it; context is required. Thus, snippets are not only safe, but likely useless. In addition, because it is perfectly random, it is incompressible; attempts to do so will only do the opposite, which is to say balloon out the text itself with the overhead of powerless compression systems.

If the previous paragraph bores, disturbs or otherwise repels you, you may wish to skip this book.

The Prose

Murakami's prose is almost literally violet. Although I'm not sure how, its intense evocative and visual content rings of the original Japanese text. I'm not qualified to say that; I've never seen the original text and couldn't read it if I did. I have to trust that Birnbaum was able to capture Murakami's fevered use of language and distill as much of it as possible into the more mechanical, cipherlike English. While not as firmly attached to vision as, say, various forms of Chinese, Japanese nonetheless always invokes a visual response in me. Of course, this could just be because I like anime.

The styles of writing in the two narratives differ subtly. The same sparse style in one is used to coat the scene in grains of black-and-white film, bringing the Detective and the Clue into our heads. In the other story, the style exudes a form of quiet, a quiet with substance. Imagine quiet as a noble gas, and feel it pouring into your head. Think of the complexities buried inside the simple descriptions of life during a Russian winter, and hold in your head the surface picture that arises from the description as opposed to the underlying spiderweb of meaning and nuance. That, then, is the End Of The World.

The very title of the work is almost an integral puzzle. The two parts of the sentence might almost serve as anagrams of each other; different enough to assure us they don't, but close enough that I keep trying to subtract 'the's and such to make the comparison work. Again, I don't have the link, but it's there, I assure you. I prefer to hope that whatever the link is, it's survived the translation to English; or, better, it is something that I have been given the tools to build, tools which transcend language, and now I must simply construct it on my own.

The Story

The story. I can, in fact, give you some information on what the story contains. The title, handily enough, describes the story precisely - if incompletely. The tale is told in two interleaved narratives, each occupying alternating chapters throughout the book. They are, of course, related, although precisely (note I say precisely) how they are related is something that you will not have been told even when you finish. You'll need to build this information yourself, and I don't honestly know what degree of control over your creation Murakami has decided to exert. He may have given us bricks, he may have given us a plan, he may have given us a prefab. All I know is that now, having just finished it, I am sorely aware of the incomplete nature of my understanding of what I've just read.

But it was a great read.

Sorry; I digress. The title describes the story perfectly because one of the linked narratives concerns The End Of The World (and I guarantee that phrase does not mean, here, what you think it means) and the other takes place in a sparse, monochromatic and sharp-edged subset of modern Japan. This latter, by following many of the 'rules' of the Hard-Boiled genre, manages to invoke its inspirations, references and homages almost by what it leaves out rather than what it puts in. The protagonist, whose name we never learn, in this tale inhabits a modern profession, one involving data, espionage, conflict, organizations bent on domination, greed, destructive curiosity, whisky, cigarettes, semi-automatic pistols, codes, codebreaking, surveillance, apartment-trashing toughs, switchblades, credit cards, mysterious superiors, The Professor, The Girl, the Macguffin and the Enemy. Hence, with all these stereotypes out to play, the Wonderland - a Hard-Boiled one, at that.

The other narrative, about The End of the World, is much harder to pin down. I could barrage you again with references, but those would do you much less good; there is no existant genre to invoke in your forebrain which would serve. At least, none I feel comfortable bringing across without spoiling...something.

There are comparisons I could make. Flann O'Brien, writing The Third Policeman. That had some similar feelings to it. An animated short I once saw at Spike & Mike's Festival of Animation entitled, simply, "The Village." The aforementioned Number Six and his predicament of stasis. All are recognizable, somewhat, in the second narrative, despite its being quite assuredly its own thing and master.

The interplay between the two has managed to avoid the constant back-and-forth references that will display the literary touch of a lesser writer; the smug sort of aren't-I-clever! hints that no doubt the author who penned such a meaner work would desperately wish to withhold from the reader, to preserve the perfection of the separation construct - but which they are forced to employ nevertheless, to compensate for weaknesses in the overall work. You know the type; plots from vastly different times or places begin to converge in the dark, but pages or chapters earlier, some serendipity has begun to start your mind working on building the bridges between them, and you find yourself reading the remainder in judgement, holding it up against the bridges you have built. Sometimes the author can save themselves by smashing the links you've built - but even then, they usually prevail through the expedient of misleading you deliberately, so that they can be sure their eventual resolution comes as a shock to you. It's a cheat, because they, while leading you, know what your idea will look like - and can then tune their eventual linkage between the plots to not so much be a jewel in its own right, but just to look different from yours. Hence, the shock of discovering the divergence replaces the sort of pure awe that comes when a truly skilled dancer, like Murakami, manages to go the entire length of the book and shock you not because he knows where you went with it (he doesn't care) but because his own construction is so breathtaking.

I still don't know precisely how they connect. I know that they do, however. Imagine two intertwined sculptures that occupy overlapping space, seeming to not actually touch, but are in fact all the same object? Their interaction is so complex that it is hard to determine where, in fact, they do share matter or link. However, if you tap a piece of this huge, complex structure with a crystal hammer, you are unable to find a single strand of it which does not resonate - so you know they are connected. The reading of the book, perhaps the second, or third, or fourth time, or even the calm and studied examination of the book as you mull it over - then, only then, when you're not searching, may the link suddenly become obvious to you, where it has been waiting for you the whole time.

The search for that link is engrossing. When you find it, the satisfaction of your accomplishment is special; you can't explain it to others, since as soon as you try to trace the structure of the sculpture's lines around the link, their eyes (unused to the sight, and without the knowledge you have of its whorls and secrets) cannot follow the strands. They need to find the link for themselves, and who's to say they'll come upon it int he same way you did? Perhaps they'll follow a different path along the branches, boles and pipes; perhaps they'll tilt their head just slightly differently as they look at the Big Picture, and so come to see it as one might bring a stereogram into focus.

That, then, is Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you read it, if any of the previous verbiage has left you curious. I cannot assure you that you will not be disappointed with enough confidence to convince you, perhaps, but let me try nonetheless.