The Murakami I’ve been reading lately (and that thus justifies his presence in this blog) is Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991, English translation 1993), which I read while on a work trip to New York back in May. It’s a mark of Murakami’s singular strangeness (or my limitations as a critic) that I’ve only now, two months later, figured out how to write about him.
I noted above that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is generally regarded as Murakami’s best; Stacey (and my co-worker Jim) prefer Hard-Boiled Wonderland. I may have to join them. In it, Murakami achieves something truly rare, telling two seemingly separate stories, wildly different in tone, in alternating chapters. The first relates the adventures of a typical Murakami narrator, whose job as a human encryption key leads him into a dangerous netherworld of hit men, flesh-eating monsters, and a mysterious scientist who warns of the impending end of the world, while the second story is a spare, parable-like tale set in a sparsely populated walled village known as the Town.
The pairing works largely because Murakami adapts his prose carefully for each world. Here’s the book’s opening paragraph, set in Murakami’s version of the ordinary human world:
The elevator continued its impossibly slow ascent. Or at least I imagined it was ascent. There was no telling for sure: it was so slow that all sense of direction simply vanished. it could have been going down for all I knew, or maybe it wasn’t moving at all. But let’s just assume it was going up. Merely a guess. Maybe I’d gone up twelve stories, then down three. Maybe I’d circled the globe. How would I know?And here’s the opening of the section set in the Town:
With the approach of autumn, a layer of long golden fur grows over their bodies. Golden in the purest sense of the word, with not the least intrusion of another hue. Theirs is a gold that comes into this world as gold and exists in this world as gold. Poised between all heaven and earth, they stand steeped in gold.
Throughout the book, Murakami employs the affectless, conversational tone of that first paragraph to domesticate the bizarre plot twists and unusual characters the narrator encounters; their strangeness becomes almost normal in light of the narrator’s unflappable ordinariness. As the title suggests, the plot resembles a cracked version of a noir mystery; like Philip Marlowe (especially Robert Altman’s version), the narrator gets threatened and beaten up by men looking for valuable items he doesn’t have. But he keeps going regardless, looking for answers to questions he doesn’t even understand, as if movement and effort themselves are a sufficient answer to uncertainty.
Meanwhile, Murakami does the opposite in the interlarded chapters set in the town, freighting every description with a sense of immanence. Every object is numinous and every scene deeply strange and loaded with meaning that is just beyond our—and the narrator’s—grasp. Objects (unicorn skulls, paper clips) appear in both stories, and characters, too, maybe, somewhat refracted and reconfigured, but recognizable. Compelling and distinct, the two stories travel in parallel to an ending that, to me at least, was completely surprising, playing on assumptions I didn’t even realize I’d made. It’s an ending that led me to sit quietly in my hotel room for a while, thinking about the book and listening to the white noise, alone.
And that’s probably a good place to end this, with the idea of aloneness. At the heart of both novels is a sense that loneliness—or perhaps it’s better stated as solitariness, or isolation—may be our essential condition. But Murakami doesn’t necessarily see aloneness as a inherently problematic: though his characters eventually are forced to recognize their solitariness, they ultimately, in these two novels at least, are left with (or choose) a new form of aloneness. But, far from being pathological, this new solitude is pregnant with possibility, with previously unseen connections and a sense that there is an actual self, existing separate from the clutter of the world around it.
This post, for what it’s worth, also serves as a goodbye of sorts to my co-worker, Jim, who is moving to a new job and a new town. When he saw that I was reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Jim said, “Oh, you’re going to love that. But you’ll like Hard-Boiled Wonderland more.” He was right; in the seven years we've worked together, he’s rarely been wrong about a book he’s recommended to me. Add a wry sense of humor, a deep understanding of people, and the skills and repertoire of a raconteur, and what more could you want in a co-worker? I'll miss him.