You have 48 hours before you’re going to lose your conscious mind and permanently retreat into a world constructed within your subconscious. How do you spend them? If you answered, “Eat Italian food, have sex, and listen to Bob Dylan,” pick up a copy of Haruki Murakami’s 1985 novel “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” and read it immediately. And then do some serious reassessing of your priorities.
The delightfully convoluted plot of “Wonderland” is tough describe in few words, but here’s the basic premise. The book consists of two narratives presented in alternating chapters. The first, “Hard-Boiled Wonderland,” is narrated by a solitary human data-encryptor—only referenced as “the Calcutec,” the name of this profession—who faces the aforementioned doomsday dilemma and recounts the events of his last conscious days. The other, “The End of the World,” is narrated by a newcomer to a dreamlike, utopian/dystopian city similar to the setting of Lois Lowry’s “The Giver.” During the novel, it’s revealed that “The End of the World” is actually a version of the Calcutec’s subconscious, implanted into his mind by a rogue scientist.
If you’re confused, don’t worry, because I was baffled the first time I read “Wonderland.” I first picked it up in the midst of a yearlong Murakami binge and was immediately thrown by the book’s density in comparison to his other works. Murakami’s similarly ambitious novels “1Q84” and “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” feel downright straightforward and tidy compared to “Wonderland.” I finished the book with little idea of what had actually happened in its labyrinthine plot. So, later in the year, I read it again. This cleared up the plot somewhat, but the book’s meaning was still inscrutable to me. It wasn’t until reading “Wonderland” a third time this September that I determined it was an incredible and crazy book instead of just an incredibly crazy book. Having read most of Murakami’s novels and short stories, I’ve also come to view “Wonderland” as his best book—a killer combination of complex yet relatable characters, mind-bending philosophical themes, and slick, inventive writing.
At first, I didn’t find much to relate to with the Calcutec narrator of “Hard-Boiled Wonderland.” He’s divorced, alcoholic, and anti-social, likes to read Turgenev and Stendhal, and frequently says stuff like, “I don’t like to sleep with people I know. It only complicates things.” This kind of damaged, roguish character—a partially autobiographical depiction of Murakami himself—is ubiquitous throughout the author’s works. By the time I read “Wonderland,” I was well versed in and honestly bored of these mini-Murakamis.
However, this time around, the presence of “The End of the World” section shakes up the formula. The narrator of “The End of the World” is as close to a hero as Murakami has ever created—he’s generous, naïve, and adventurous. He’s also stuck in a walled city among mindless people for eternity, and, just like the Calcutec, is slowly having his mind taken from him. He’s a character to root for. But here’s the catch: because “The End of the World” is a representation of the Calcutec’s subconscious, it’s as much a part of him as the conscious side shown in “Hard-Boiled Wonderland.”
However uninspiring the Calcutec is in his conscious life, he’s got a hero inside of him—and however heroic the narrator of “The End of the World” is, he’s the product of an uninspiring man. In “Wonderland,” Murakami asks some serious questions about identity and existence. Are the two narrators really the same person? Is life a physical phenomenon—that is, is someone alive if they only exist in a mental capacity like the Calcutec’s subconscious? I don’t know the answers, and if Murakami does, he’s not telling—he leaves most of questions unresolved, forcing the reader to ponder over them long after the book is closed.
However, while these questions are compelling, I’m really a philosopher second and a writer first, so I also love “Wonderland” for the same reason I love all of Murakami’s works—the language. It’s been said before due to the author’s former profession as a blues club owner, but Murakami’s writing is pure jazz. It constantly and spontaneously changes tempo and rhythm, soars off on tangents, and is littered with moments of brilliant invention.
Simply, in “Wonderland,” Murakami goes into Coltrane mode, removing his filter and letting the truly zany stuff flow. As a result, the book is brimming with incredible sentences, including two of my favorites: “Perhaps some fluctuation in the gravitational field had suddenly inundated the world with paperclips,” and “After thirty-six steps—I’m a habitual step counter—we were met by the sound of a loud slap, as if a huge cut of roast beef had been flung against a stone wall.”
You might be skeptical to pick up a 400-page book that I’ve already admitted took me three readings to fully appreciate, but I promise that the extra effort pays off. “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” is a book well worth reading—and re-reading.