Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

5.0 out of 5 stars Two into One

I’ve had this book on my shelf for quite sometime now, and it just never seemed to make its way into my reading pile. I enjoyed both of my previous Murakami books, Sputnik Sweetheart and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A Novel, but he never really ranked amongst my favorite authors, Japanese or otherwise. His odd blending of magical realism and dreamtime philosophy reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s work more than anything else. It is enjoyable, but I have to be in the mood for it. When I had a long plane flight to look forward too, I figured it was finally time to enter the realm of “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World.”

The title of the book gives you some clue as to what to expect inside. “Hard-Boiled” refers to the “Hardboiled Detective” fiction of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, where a dame with trouble on her heels walks unexpectedly into a man’s life followed quickly by danger and adventure. “Wonderland” is of course a reference to the topsy-turvy realm of Alice In Wonderland where logic flies out the window and nothing could ever predict what was around the next corner. “The End of the World” thrust the book into the realm of science fiction and cyberpunk. And in truth the book is all of these things.

Basically two books split in half and then shuffled together, “Hardboiled Wonderland” is the story of a Calcutec, a human encryption system, who is charged with “shuffling” data in order to protect it. The Calcutec is an employee of The System, who protects information from the criminal element known as Semiotecs. When a mysterious genius professor and his seductive chubby daughter hire the Calcutec to shuffle some data, he suddenly finds himself the prize in a game between The System and the Semiotecs, both of who want what is in his head, and the mysterious unicorn skull that has come into his possession.

“The End of the World,” is the calmer, balancing story of a mysterious land surrounded by a high wall, where everyone is known by the name of their archetypical character. The General, who spends his days playing chess, The Gatekeeper, who guards the doors, The Librarian, who watches the information, and The Dreamreader, who collects fragments of old dreams and reads them for some unknown purpose.

These two worlds are linked somehow, and the book flips back and forth between the frantic pace of “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” and the soothing calm of “The End of the World.” Murakami keeps a skillful balance between the two, slowly leaking information that connects the two worlds, until the reader has the eventual “ah-ha” moment that brings the two halves into a single whole.

Murakami also does a good job of playing around with genres without falling into clichés and stereotypes. He is makes sure that the genre suits the story, rather than the other way around. The book never lapses entirely into hardboiled, or cyberpunk, or dreamscape fantasy. The unexpected lies around every corner, and the ending will take even the most seasoned reader by surprise.

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