Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is my personal favorite among the author’s collection (note: Murakami has also claimed it to be his personal favorite). Great minds…and all that…It is a work that demonstrates he found his stride after the Trilogy of the Rat, and it serves as a glimpse into the often surreal worlds that he would later become known for setting his stories in. Hard-Boiled is a statement that shows the author has settled into his niche.
More than just a precursor to the style of his later works, this story also is saturated with a theme that I have seen Murakami to continue to use throughout his career. That is, he draws lines between things, and lets them later bleed back together.
Though the first clue is in the very title of the novel, this theme of distinctions and dichotomies that I have found is revealed subliminally, but oh so clearly. If you know where to look.
Murakami and Schisms:
In later Murakami works, such as Kafka on the Shore and the sprawl that is 1Q84, we are presented with worlds that seem almost our own, with familiar actions and settings. Teenagers on the move. Bar scenes. Popping a record on. But in these later worlds, there are sublime undertones of the uncanny woven within these threads of the mundane. That is, these following stories all present one complete world.
Hard-Boiled gives us such blends of sci-fi, fantasy, thriller, but severed into two separate narratives.
There is no doubt that other works continue this theme, but they blend the opposites together into one seamless, albeit uncanny, whole.
A prime example of this paradoxical blending is in the character of Ushikawa. A man who is at first portrayed as an insensitive, spouse-abusing creature in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but is later demonstrated to be more sympathetic by his appearance in 1Q84. Perhaps it is not even the same Ushikawa, but rather alternate reality versions of the man. If so, this adds to the theme of blended pairs. No clear line is drawn. No disclaimer or warning that there are in fact two Ushikawas from separate universes who just happen to share physical similarities. We are presented it all as a whole, and left to make our own distinctions.
Hard-Boiled lets us slide into this atmosphere. The two narratives are textually separated by chapters, the motifs of separation and distinction drawn out for us (even literally drawn out in the text at times, scribbled drawings though they be).
The story is strewn with pair-opposites. This story is held together by dichotomies.
A and not A:
Murakami opens the story with someone in an elevator, an experience and setting that most of us are almost familiar with. And there the similarity ends. This lift is soundless, featureless. Even movement is not apparent. Here we find our narrator, a man who may very well soon come to be not all too different from the scene where we first see him.
And without much ado, we are given our first distinction, our first drawn line. Minor. Off the cuff. The narrator compares the elevator he is in to the one in his flat. What appears to be a spur of the moment commentary on the machine in which he is riding is actually our first gentle glimpse into this almost (quite) schizoid world and story.
It is a pattern that he can be seen to follow at other times. Something like this:
-Presents something familiar->Something out of the ordinary arises->Alternate Ad Infinitum
The purpose of these splits and opposites may vary in the minutiae, and they are myriad.
For the sake of brevity, I will only be, appropriately, discussing a pair of these pairs. However, for those who have read the book, or intend to in the future, check below for an incomplete list of these duos to think about.
- Mind and mindlessness.
- Above and underground (two worlds)
- Colors (grays/silvers of the elevator and hall in the first HBW chapter. The brilliant gold of the beasts in the first EotW chapter)
- Sounds (noise and noiselessness)
- East vs West descriptions of unicorns
- North vs South descriptions of the Town
- The System vs the Factory
- The duo of Big Boy and Junior
- Left vs Right brain
While there are indeed more, they are more incidental. This list is meant to draw attention to the theme rather than be exhaustive. And while I am well aware that stories are built on foils and antithesis, this one seems nearly saturated with them. For almost every aspect of the story, Murakami provides its complement, sometimes in one narrative, sometimes in the other.
Split 1: Mind and Non-Mind:
A recurrent…current that flows through the story is a focus on the human mind, specifically how it is structured and how that structure gives rise to one’s personal identity and inclinations. Oddly enough, for a story often about identity, none of the characters are actually addressed by a given name, instead being referred to by their occupation or some trait the narrator has picked out in them (The Caretaker, chubby girl, Big Boy, and so on). Their inherent traits and decisions which have led them to the position they are in are what structure who they are in the Narrator’s mind. As though a person is a sum of their parts. Could be.
Odd, because the narrator himself is in apparent contradiction to this concept. He readily describes himself as living a ‘perfectly ordinary existence’ and being ‘a regular guy.’ When, as we learn, the opposite is true, though not by any direct effort on his part.
His labeling tendencies are seen most clearly in the End of the World sections. Each person is described by their respective role. Nameless gears that rotate around the Town, each fulfilling its intended purpose. Each without Mind. How could they not be without it? After all, they are parts of the Narrator’s own unconscious.
His consciousness may be willing to enclose itself, build walls between the conscious and unconscious mind, but never to diverge past that initial division. Though the Narrator may wish that it would, his mind refuses to split itself so utterly so as to give rise to multiple, fully-formed individuals in the End of the World.
The townsfolk can’t possibly have mind, because they are part of the narrator’s. However, their existence points to the mind’s ability to absorb and reiterate countless behavioral patterns. An ability that can leave some with a fragile grasp on what their own personality actually is, whether they realize this or not.
The townsfolk do not have mind because they are replications, or manifestations, of the behaviors and observed patterns of other people, not shards of the Narrator’s own mind (in the sense of identity, that is).
Split 2: Buried and the Above:
In some ways, this pairing is interwoven with the themes of the mind. Now, what complicates this matter is that there are several ways to go about looking at this particular theme. Each with its own implications.
The underworld, not as a place of legend, but as the literal world beneath our surface-dwelling lives, is recurrent in works by Murakami. Whether it is the bottom of a well such as in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or the realm of the INKlings in Hard-Boiled, there is this idea that beneath our everyday lives, there is somewhere more. Something often powerful.
Like, say, the unconscious mind. Something so buried that our conscious selves cannot access it. Something so puissant that it determines all our drives. And, in the case of this novel, something that can create a narrative beyond the constraints of time.
On a more literal level, there is the separation between the above-ground everyday life of the narrator in the Wonderland part of the novel, and that beneath his feet. His life was uneventful, filled with the usual pieces like an ex-wife, a career, cooking meals, whathaveyou. None of this day-to-day stuff we see mind you, until the end of the story.
Going Down…and Up:
We get the narrator in an elevator (or rather, de-elevator) that leads him toward his first foray into the beneath. To the Old Man’s underground laboratory. And the schism from his normal life has occurred. Though he returns above ground and home, a certain point has already been passed.
Big Boy and Junior show up. Give him a slice. Pink Girl shows up and back underground he goes, where he spends most of the remainder of the novel. Only once he has delved as deep as possible, discovered the story playing out somewhere in the absolute core of his consciousness, does he return to the above.
And goddamn is it boring.
He cooks. Does laundry. Picks up groceries. Rents a car. Has a date, with a little bit of sex. All quite acceptable above-ground behaviors. All rendered well by Murakami’s minimalist language, all rendered torpid compared to the vast energy of the world beneath.
Drawing the Lines:
Though these divisions, these splits occur, they do not quite mean a separation of the two things. In most of the cases, the two form a pair, each a complement of the other.
The unconscious mind and conscious mind work as two circuits in Murakami’s story, melded into a single identity. Our own personality and the traits of those with whom we come in contact with will often meld into one.
Big Boy and Junior make an unsettling duo. Stark opposites. Effective.
Even the System and the Factory are hinted at being two sides of the same sleazy coin.
And, as humans, we love it. The human mind is stimulated by contrasts, by one shade posing as the opposite of another. It loves it even more when they are integrated into a whole.
Musical intervals. The teal and orange of movie posters. We are so obsessed with complementary opposites that we have even tried to (errantly) apply this to relationships with our ‘opposites attract’ catchphrase. Spoiler: statistically, opposite personalities do not make for a happy relationship.
Murakami seems to understand this quiet need for contrast, and accordingly provides an entire novel comprised of these corresponding pairs, alternating in their level of integration together. As we read it, we can match objects, and assimilate a whole. Pin one idea to another. Find the foil of a Wonderland character in the End of the World. And always with his subtle touch of minimalist wording.
The problem for us arises when we are no longer to make distinctions, and at the same time, no longer to integrate parts into a single gestalt. Our selves hinge on an ability to parse and paste, to split and sew. Without this oddly paradoxical ability, we would lose ourselves in the innumerable minute differences between all things, or in the vast oneness of it all.