March 25, 2007

Hardboiled Wonderland

The Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Haruki Murakami, 1985

Well this novel is one of my all-time favorites. Just finished re-reading it again last night. It was the first of many Murakamis for me (grabbed it off a bookshelf in Japan, actually), and has a special personal resonance for me right now as well.

I don't think I could do this book justice in a full-on review - not that I've written a real review here yet for anything else either - so instead I'm going to talk about a couple of aspects of it that are rolling through my head at the moment.

The first issue is that this book seems to have something of a bad rap in the criticism, and I've been trying to figure out why. I happen to think it's the very best of Murakami's novels, so the lack of respect sticks in my craw a bit. I'm sure some of the reason is the more in-your-face sci-fi/adventure trappings. I bet the two parallel story lines might strike some people as too precious. More to the point, I think readers of his more recent work would find this one long on Jungian concepts and short on the deliriously elliptical storytelling that's become his trademark. So perhaps looking back to this (slightly) more straightforward paired narrative, it's easy for readers to dismiss the book as simplistic or the work of a journeyman. Perhaps some people are just too scared to be the first to laud the book, worried that they'll be shown up by someone who understands it better?

That's one thing that makes this book different from some of the later ones. While I think it happens to be just as "unknowable" and fever-dream-derived as more recent work, it doesn't wear its unknowability on its sleeve. It has a structure and tone that give an impression of well worked-out tropes and dynamics, which we could all understand and articulate fully if we just spent some more time with it, and maybe worked out a few charts and graphs. Now I don't have a PhD in literature or anything, but I think I know this book well enough to state positively that it's as much of a beautiful transcendent mess as ones that followed. So don't be scared, people! Trust me, nobody "gets it" any more than you do.

One particular thing I noticed this time through: one gloss on the novel is to read it as an extrapolation on the workings of the mind of a detective. (Please note I am saying that this is merely a gloss, not some kind of key for understanding the whole shebang.)

If you haven't read the book, I hope I'm not ruining much by telling you that there are two parallel stories, and it emerges partway through that one of the narratives is taking place fully inside the subconscious of the narrator of the other. The professor who performed a special surgery to seal off the narrator's subconscious, says at one point that the narrator's subconscious was "well-plotted, even perfect. It could have passed for a novel or a movie." In other words, the narrator has an inner core which is simple, well-formed, and complete. This strikes me as an apt metaphor for the moral/behavioral center that the most famous hardboiled detective characters have (thinking of Chandler's Philip Marlowe here in particular, naturally). Mostly incorruptible, single-minded in his pursuits, and clinging to a morality that seems timeless to him, this archetype hardboiled detective keeps that core sealed off from day-to-day rigors and trials, both mental and physical. Like we see in many pulp heros, it's that core which is supposed to give a detective like Marlowe his strength. It's separated from everything else (like Murakami's narrator's subconsious), prized (ditto), frozen in time (ditto again).

I like the idea that one can interpret a lot of the novel as a big old extrapolation of this metaphor, but spun out in a thousand unexpected directions.

The other thing that struck me this time through in a more powerful way than on previous readings, was the whole "perhaps the dream is dreaming us" deal. Certainly, there's a good bit of doubt all the way through as to whether the End of the World narrative is actually the subconscious one. There's enough weirdness in both of the parallel stories to make either of them a likely candidate, if you ask me. It's never fully resolved in a pat way (thank goodness!)

So I'll stop there, or maybe write some more another day. It's a gorgeous book, this one, worth reading again and again. Maybe the most majestically gloriously sad ending I've ever experienced.

Go read it.

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