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Experimental and Traditional
on April 9, 1999
At some point along the way on your journey through "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World"--in my case, not until I had read the last page and closed the book--it may occur to you, Why, this isn't a modernistic, subversive, radical treatise on the ravages of contemporary society and the havoc that technology has wreaked on us, it's just an old-fashioned book about aging! The two halves of the book--"Hard-Boiled Wonderland" and "The End of the World"--represent, to my mind, youth and adulthood, respectively, and the protagonist--as well as the author--appear to find themselves poised in thirtysomething limbo, trying to decide what they want their lives to be like from hereon out. "Hard-Boiled Wonderland" certainly seems to be the more fun of the two worlds--exotic women, delicious food, cool cars, high-paced city living, and infinite possibilities for what career to choose, which woman to settle down with, and what town to live in. But Wonderland is certainly more dangerous--all that high-tech mafia business, gruesome violence, flesh-eating monsters, broken-into apartments, splitting headaches, and hangovers from those crazy nights drowning your confusion in whiskey. It's enough to make a thirtysomething guy long for a little peace and comfort. That's where "The End of the World" comes in. End of the World is everything Wonderland is not: one monogamous partner, gruel for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, no mode of transportation other than your own two feet, and nothing more exciting to do than stare off at the mountains or the smoke stack from the Power Plant or wait for the herd of beasts to come trampling through the town every evening. Your career is decided for you--you will "read dreams" from unicorn skulls in a musty old library--and you will settle down with such-and-such woman, who's the only available woman around, and you can never leave the high-walled town or even find out what's outside it. You can't even go outside in the daytime to see the light without your special dark glasses on. All this comfort starts to seem a little dreary to the narrator (who has no idea how he arrived there and can't remember his life beforehand), and he has to make a choice near the end of the novel whether to follow his Shadow (i.e., his soul) back into the exciting but treacherous spirit of his youth or to continue on forever in the calm but melancholy End of the World he has "created." I won't spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that it's a little surprising, makes more sense the more you think about it, and ultimately feels utterly natural. And despite the surface experimentalism of the novel--witty and inventive as it is--this theme of living in one's youth forever or accepting the idea of old age is probably one of the oldest themes in literature.
In such an experimental novel, the author is taking a risk that the unique style in which he writes to convey the message he has to give may affect our enjoyment of the book. Unfortunately, the two worlds are so polarized--for good thematic reasons--that they're difficult to read about: Wonderland is just a little too chaotic, the End of the World is just a little too dull. It's the type of book that's easier to appreciate than to enjoy, or more enjoyable to reflect on than to actually read. That said, this was still a wonderful book, my favorite book by Murakami only next to "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle," and it haunted me for a long time afterward.