Hard-Boiled Entertainment

Murakami Hard BoiledThis is my second Murakami experience and it was a good one. I read Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and found it relentlessly inventive but not much else. Hard-Boiled, however, has plenty of chewy meat beneath the author’s famous razzle-dazzle style.

The style alone is worth the read however. Consider, for example, a weird variant on chess in which “Ape takes High Priest, you realize? Go ahead, I say. I move a Parapet to cover the Apes’ retreat.” (p. 84). Murakami’s creativity has layers of ironic humor. Ape takes high priest, indeed! How about a vast library filled with, not books, but animal skulls. To read them, you put your hands on each side of a skull and concentrate. Ideas and images fill your head. That tops any library J.L. Borges ever described. Even at the sentence level, descriptions rarely turn out as you might have expected. “[I was] alone again, asleep like a tuna.” (p. 126). I did not see that “tuna” coming. The author’s writing style is consistently interesting and entertaining.

Structurally, the story involves two unnamed, first-person narrators, who we suspect are the same person. They tell different stories in alternating chapters, one in past tense and one in present tense, and both stories are good. Each involves the narrator trying to solve a mystery and simultaneously establish a relationship with a girl. In one story, the mystery is how the hero can get out of a strange, walled-in utopian town (called End of The World), from which no one has ever escaped, and to do that before his mind becomes erased, turning him into an unreflective but contented drone (along the lines of The Truman Show, The Prisoner, and even Odysseus on Circe’s island). It’s a contrived and well-worn story but Murakami makes it interesting with unexpected details.

In the second story the narrator is an information technologist in a futuristic Tokyo who discovers that a secret code has been implanted in his brain/mind which makes him an exceptional programmer but in only a day or two the implant will malfunction, killing him. Can he beat the system with the help of a mad professor? In this story, Murakami indulges his fondness for Chandleresque “hard-boiled” description, the other half of the complex title.  After waking up, the narrator looks in the mirror and sees “My puss was puffy like cheap cheesecake.” (p. 128-9).

Chandler famously advised mystery writers that when the pace of a story was sagging, just have a man with a gun appear at the door and move on from there. Dutifully, Murakami writes, “I finished my potato salad, I finished my beer, and just as I was about to burp, the steel door blew wide open and banged flat down. Enter one mountain of a man, wearing a loud aloha shirt…” (p. 131).

Overarching these silly but well-written stories is a set of serious ideas about the nature of consciousness. In one story, the protagonist is separated from his shadow. The shadow is put to work as a laborer and is not pleased, but warns the hero that if he hopes to retain his mental independence he’d better make a map of the walled town. It’s not quite a Jungian shadow, but it’s definitely an allegorical aspect of consciousness. In the parallel story, the hero is inhibited in contacting the mad professor by the lethal inklings lurking along his subterranean path. Inklings of intuition, perhaps? Layer upon layer of suggestions such as these describe a fraught relationship between the logical conscious mind (e.g., of a programmer) and whatever lurks beneath.

The narrator also indulges playfully with popular culture, including songs, movies, cars, and food. The Tokyo hero is an aesthete and his comments and preferences are often sophisticated and will delight the sophisticated reader. Also, for anyone familiar with downtown Tokyo and the subway system, it’s a pleasure to travel around with the narrator, from the underground city of Shinjuku Station to the hip Aoyama district.

While the story lines in this novel are not its main attraction and the characters only sketchy, the humor, layers of subtlety and the sheer force of Murakami’s writing make this novel unlike anything else out there and a unique enjoyment.

Murakami, Haruki (1991). Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. New York: Random/Penguin/Vintage. (400 pp.).

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