A stictly bifurcated story: two separate but intertwined storylines unfolding in alternate chapters. One, “Hard-Boiled Wonderland,” is set in a lightly science-fictioned version of the present day (i.e., early ‘80s Tokyo, but with the addition of a cyberpunk infowar), and the other, “The End of the World,” is set in a fully-realized fantasy world (what feels like a middle-European town in an unspecified age that features some of the conveniences of modern life [electric power] and a lot of the picturesqueness of ages gone by [pastoral beauty]). Both narrated in the first person by (as it turns out) aspects of the same self. The I of “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” sounds exactly like the boku in other stories up to this point, but in the narrative calls himself the formal, public watashi; the I of “The End of the World” sounds like a formal, mannered watashi, but calls himself boku. In the end, we realize why this is: for all its otherworldliness, “The End of the World” represents the deepest, most private self of the narrator, while “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” is the self in society. Essentially it’s the same view we’ve gotten of the self in every Murakami novel up to now, but dissected for us: the Murakami Narrator is someone who, though in society, insists on living according to his deepest private self. Here we get an examination of what that means and how it works.
HBW: among other things, it’s a killer bit of science fiction. I is a Calcutec, a kind of human data-storage and encryption device. Murakami imagines a technology that allows data to be stored in the brains of certain highly trained individuals, and encrypted by them using a half-explained (fully-explained but only half-comprehensible?) process of left-brain/right-brain integration and and partitioning of the subconscious mind. Hacking the brain, in other words, although the term hadn’t been invented yet. He works for the System, a quasi-State apparatus that employs Calcutecs in order to safeguard intellectual property – the proprietary nature of information. They’re caught in a war with the Semiotecs, information pirates who are dedicated to the idea that information should be free, or stealable for their profit. And yes, the possibility is raised that both teams are controlled by the same entity, which benefits from the competition. I hardly need to point out how prophetic all this was in 1985 (although of course it was in the air: Rubin says that Murakami swears he wasn’t influenced by William Gibson, though).
EOTW: among other things, it’s a moving piece of fantasy fiction of a type particular to Japan. Specifically it’s the same vision that Miyazawa Kenji developed in things like “Night of the Milky Way Railroad,” and that Miyazaki Hayao would exploit in Laputa. A fantasy that, like Tolkien-style fantasy, embraces magic and strange beasts, but gravitates more toward a recognizable Europe of the late 19th century than an imagined one of the Iron Age. Unicorns coexist with power stations. A walled Town that nobody can leave; the wall also embraces mysterious woods, hills, a river, a power station, abandoned barracks, and other things. I newly arrives in this land, and the Gatekeeper severs him from his shadow. I is assigned to be the Dreamreader, freeing and “reading” the dreams embedded as residue in the skulls of dead unicorns; meanwhile he tries to figure out a way to free his shadow and flee the walled Town in which he’s trapped.
In HBW, I is hired by a mysterious old scientist who gives him data to shuffle and return to him in several days’ time. Once he gets the data shuffled, I is set upon by rogue third-party agents who trash his apartment and his stomach, and then gets a distress call from the granddaughter of the scientist saying he’s in trouble. The agents have trashed his place too.
When I finally tracks down the scientist (after some of the most surreal and funny adventures Murakami has ever come up with, pure acid-trip stuff), he learns that the data he was given was actually an experiment the scientist was running on him, and that the agents destroyed the means of ending the experiment. As a result, in a couple of days I’s brain is going to shut down. He’ll die, or rather die to the outside world, being locked forever in his own subconscious. The end of his world. And in fact that’s what happens: the rest of the book, over a fourth of it, is devoted to the playing out of this doom. Basically it’s what would you do if you knew you had 48 hours to live? How would you live it up? And if you know Murakami, and you know what he can do in describing the pleasures (and frustrations) of the flesh, you know this is going to be good. And it is.
Locked in his own subconscious. Which is, of course, the Town of “The End of the World.” As it’s explained (and I think I understand it), the old scientist, who in fact used to work for the system, found a way to partition off part of the subconscious like you might a hard drive, or rather create within the brain a duplicate of the subconscious, a copy of it, which is then used for data processing. The book posits that the subconscious is like a world of its own, different for each of us, full of private symbols and sensations that nobody else can understand or access. A private story. This story changes as stimuli from the external world – from living – affect the subconscious world – it’s constantly changing. What the scientist did by creating a copy of the subconscious world, the core, was to freeze it at one moment in its development, partitioning the copy off from external stimulus. The second core, the frozen one, was then used as an encryption/storage device – since it worked according to a totally personal code, it was totally secure.
Let’s stop here for a moment and recognize that Murakami has just laid on us some heavy science-fictional shit, some deep philosophical and ontological shit. Taking scraps of Freud and Jung and Saussure and a whole lot of other thinkers I can’t name, he’s equating the subconscious with a processor and narrative as the language of that processor. It’s the opposite of Jung – there’s nothing of universal meaning, only of the most intensely private meaning. And it’s the opposite of Freud – there’s nothing that can be deciphered by an outside analyst if it’s not first deciphered by the subject him or herself. But, and this is what’s most intriguing from a literary standpoint, it’s structured like a story: the unconscious is the story we tell ourselves in order to understand the world. In order to function in it. We take chaotic raw data and fashion it into a coherent story – well, coherent to us. That is consciousness, and subconsciousness.
Even if that’s all Murakami was doing, it would be a pretty remarkable book. But he goes further. The scientist, being a scientist, took his human experiments one step further: since the subconscious is like a fictional world or narrative, he mapped his subjects’ subconscious stories and edited them together into more coherent narrative frameworks, and then reuploaded them as secret third cores. Just to see what would happen. And it’s this third core that has been activated now, and that I is going to be trapped in. Not his own subconscious. A version of his subconscious that has been edited and filtered for him by an outside source.
This cuts deep. Murakami is speaking here of a signal modern anxiety: the fear (or in postmodernism the promise) that we are not ourselves, that our consciousnesses are not autonomous, that our minds have been colonized by ideology, by capitalism, by modernity, by fascism, by something outside ourselves. Murakami is giving us a character whose innermost private language has been appropriated by an outside agent, rewritten. I is not the master of his own mind. And it’s this polluted version of his own mind that he’s going to be trapped in. I resigns himself to this rather easily, but the anxiety lingers if the reader chooses to dwell on it.
As Rubin notes, as Napier notes, as lots of people have noted, this book is about solipsism – which is something Murakami had evidently been accused of from the beginning. He’s tuned out from politics (although I don’t think that’s ever been quite true), and tuned in to his own private obsessions, raising these to the level of literature, or not. This book is a full-throated defense of that, I think, twinned with a critique of it. What he’s suggesting, I think, is that each of us can only be solipsistic – that’s the way consciousness works. He (like I) may be singularly apt at solipsism (I is the only test subject who survived, because his subconscious was so jealously protected by its hard emotional shell), by virtue of his fuck-you-strong ego, for better or for worse. But as a novelist that means he’s singularly well equipped to dive down in the wells of the subconscious and explore what he finds there. That’s the source of his art. But it carries with it risks: he might get trapped there. His ability to dive deep is only useful if he can come up again and communicate what he’s found – the drama he explored in his first fiction, Hear the Wind Sing.
I haven’t even touched on the many, many pleasures of this book, from the crazy kappa shrine to the pleasingly plump pretty-in-pink granddaughter to the unicorn red herring to the image of I sinking blissfully into his subconscious to the sounds of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” I don’t think this is necessarily Murakami’s most representative novel, because it’s so much more carefully organized than most. But it may be his single greatest achievement. It’s the one that transcends Murakami Haruki-ness to stand alone.