A Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
By Dennis Abrams
Chapter One: The elevator. Consider the space. “I didn’t even know if I was moving up or standing still.” Silence. Counting the change in his pockets – “What I do is thrust my hand simultaneously into both pockets, the right hand tallying the hundreds and five-hundreds in tandem with the left hand adding up the fifties and tens…The right brain and the left brain each keep separate tabs, which are they brought together like two halves of a split watermelon.” Would it make a difference in everyday life if the earth wasn’t shaped like a sphere, but like a giant coffee table? Miscounting the yen. “A young woman, turned out in a pink suit, wearing pink high heels.” The long corridor, the numbers out of order on the doors. The woman was on the chubby side. “When I see a goodly sized woman, I have visions of her mopping up that last drop of cream sauce with bread, wolfing down that final sprig of watercress garnish from her plate. And once that happens, it’s like acid corroding metal: scenes of her eating spread through my head and I lose control.” The challenge of sleeping with fat women: “There must be as many paths of human fat as there are ways of human death.” Her white scarf. Her earlobes. “Proust.” More corridors. Melon eau de cologne. Room 728.
Chapter Two: The golden hair of the unicorns. The long single horn, “protruding from the middle of their forehead…” The Watchtower. The Gatekeeper herds the beasts at night. Their trek from the north across the Old Bridge, along the Canals through the Industrial Sector west to the Western Hill to the Gate. “We do it that way and that is how it is. The same as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.” The Gatekeeper’s sharp tools used in winter. The end of one day in the Town.
Chapter Three: The big empty room. White walls “…even in whites, there are tasteful whites and there are crass whites, shades that might as well not be white.” Opaque windows. The desk. Paperclips. Ordinary steel lockers. The woman brings in a rubberized slicker and boots and goggles. Not able to understand the woman. Opening the closet door, an opening to the river. The mission to grandfather’s laboratory. Straight ahead waterfall. A river chasm in the middle of Tokyo. Noise. Meeting grandfather. Grandfather turns down the sound. “Strictly speaking, I don’t turn it down, I take it out.” INKlings. Going under the waterfall. The cave. The reception room, identical to the room above. Semiotecs. Calcutec. The sounds of animal skulls. Protecting the grandfather’s experimental data from the Semiotecs. A crisis in civilization. Seven pages of numerics. Shuffling. The shuffled data has to be returned by noon, four days later, “If you’re late, something terrible will happen.” “World going to fall apart?” “In a way, yes.” Left brain, right brain. “I input the data-as-given into my right brain, then after converting it via a totally unrelated sign-pattern, I transfer it to my left brain, which I then output as completely recoded numbers and type on paper. This is what is called laundering.” The System vs. The Factory. Data Mafia. “Experimental data. One’s year’s worth of findings. Numeric conversion of 3-D graphic simulated volume mappings of the skulls and palates of various animals, combined with a three-element breakdown of their voices.” Sound removal.
Chapter Four: The geography of the town. The Clocktower that doesn’t tell time, hands frozen at thirty-five minutes past ten. The Library. The Gatekeeper tells “him” that “Soon as you get settled, go to the Library. There is a girl who minds the place by herself. Tell her the Town told you to come read old dreams. She will show you the rest…From now on you must go to the Library every day and read dreams. That will be your job…” Everybody in the town has a place, everybody has a job. “From now on, you are the Dreamreader. You no longer have a name. Just like I am the Gatekeeper.” There’s only one Gatekeeper, only one Dreamreader. The Gatekeeper painlessly sticks a knife into each of the Dreamreader’s eyeballs. The scars will fade when he is no longer Dreamreader, but he can no longer see the light of day. The Librarian. Have they met before? “…I have the impression that elsewhere we may all have lived totally other lives, and that somehow we have forgotten that time. Have you ever felt that way?” “No.” Come back tomorrow. “If you come seeking quiet…”
Chapter Five: Grandfather goes above ground to remove the “sound-removed state in which he’d left his grandfather. The digital alarm clock. A soliloquy on the importance of having a good sofa. “I always say – a prejudice on my part, I’m sure – you can tell a lot about a person’s character from his choice of sofa.” The advantages of sound removal. Grandfather returns with coffee and sandwiches – cucumber, ham, cheese. Grandfather talks about the advantages of being fat. The deliciousness of the sandwiches, “The sandwiches were really very tasty. And I’m as demanding a critic of sandwiches as I am of sofas.” Sex drive, and the grandfather’s attempts to pimp out his granddaughter. Grandfather predicts a silent future “The world ahead of us is goin’ t’be sound-free…Completely sound-free. That’s because sound is of no use to human evolution. In fact it get’s in the way…Don’t blame me. That’s evolution. Evolution’s always hard. Hard and bleak. No such thing as happy evolution.” The rest of the granddaughter’s cooking fails to live up to her sandwiches, “It’s sandwiches where she excels.” “Nobody chooses to evolve.” Grandfather plays his skulls like a master violinist examining his Stradivarius collection. Not afraid of death. Job done. He assures Grandfather that nobody wills teal the list. A few more sandwiches. He returns to above ground. “Anything that might lead to devolution.” He declines the grandaughter’s offer to sleep with him. He leaves with his check and a box to be opened when he gets home.
Chapter Six: Learning to read old dreams. The unicorn’s skull. “There is sadness about it, an inherent pathos. I have no words for it.” Dreamreading is not effortless. “My eyes are not accustomed to this. Drinking in the light of the old dreams makes my eyes hurt. I cannot look too long for the pain.” “Let your body work until it is spent, but keep your mind for yourself.” Brief flashback: The Gatekeeper takes the Dreamreader’s shadow. “…he produced a knife and deftly worked it between the shadow and the ground. The shadow writhes in resistance. But to no avail. Its dark form peeled neatly away.” The Dreamreader apologizes to his shadow, promises to come back for him. “I swear; you are blind. Look around,” said the Gatekeeper, his arm plastered on my back. “Nobody has a shadow in this Town, and anybody we let in never leaves.” The Dreamreader walks the Librarian home.
Chapter Seven: He returns home. The telephone rings, he doesn’t answer. 10 hours of sleep. Shopping list. Laundry. Occupational intuition. He opens the gift from the grandfather and granddaughter: it’s an animal skull. He taps the skull, hears a “mo-oan” like the nasal whine of a large dog. Lauren Bacall. “I love Lauren Bacall in Key Largo. Of course, I love Bacall in The Big Sleep too, but in Key largo she’s practically allegorical.” Shopping. The car purchased just for shopping. Shrimp salad, onion rings, and a beer. The library. Asking the librarian for books on mammalian skulls. He talks the librarian into letting him borrow the no-loan Pictorial Atlas of Mammals, in return he brings her ice cream from Baskin-Robbins, mocha chip on top of pistachio. The librarian was reading a biography of H.G. Wells, Time Traveller. Paperclips. “Perhaps some fluctuation in the gravitational field suddenly inundated the world with paperclips.” Still life: animal skull with paperclips. John Ford’s The Quiet Man. The man in the Tokyo Gas uniform: he tried to steal the skull but is caught by our hero; he tells him he was offered 50,000 yen to steal it. Semiotecs. Options: Go to the company and tell what’s happened or contact the chubby girl: he picks option three, “I would do nothing.” He realizes he’s in possession of a unicorn skull. He calls the librarian, asks her to bring him books on unicorns, “It’s a matter of evolution…There’s evolution that takes millions of years and there’s evolution that takes only three hours. I can’t explain over the phone. But I want you to believe me, this is dead urgent. This will affect the next step in human evolution.”
Chapter Eight: The Colonel. A different way of playing chess. Ape takes High Priest. “You are caught between all that was and all that must be. You feel lost. Mark my words: as soon as the bones bend, you will forget about the fracture.” “You mean to say, as soon as my mind vanishes?” The residents of the Dreamreader’s house in the Bureaucratic Quarter.
Paperclips and unicorns and libraries and librarians – what else is linking the two worlds?
What I hope you’re finding as cool as I do is the way Murakami grounds the most unreal of worlds with moments of completely mundane reality. On the one hand you’ve got waterfalls in underground Tokyo, you’ve got shuffling, you’ve got the Town and the Gatekeeper and reading old dreams and unicorn skulls. And on the other hand?
The elevator. Paperclips. Sandwiches. Baskin-Robbins. That amazing soliloquy/monologue on the importance of owning a high quality sofa:
“I always say – a prejudice on my part, I’m sure – you can tell a lot about a person’s character from his choice of sofa. Sofas constitute a realm inviolate unto themselves. This, however, is something that only those who have grown up sitting on good sofas will appreciate. It’s like growing up reading good books or listening to good music. One good sofa breeds another good sofa; one bad sofa breeds another bad sofa. That’s how it goes.
There are people who drive luxury cars, but have only second- or third-rate sofas in their homes. I put little trust in such people An expensive automobile may well be worth its price, but it’s only an expensive automobile. If you have the money, you can buy it, anyone can buy it. Procuring a good sofa, on the other hand, requires style and experience and philosophy. It takes money, yes, but you also need a vision of the superior sofa. That sofa among sofas.”
And this: “I wasn’t particularly afraid of death itself. As Shakespeare said, die this year and you don’t have to die the next.”
Murakami is FUNNY.
(Notice it took an entire eight pages for he got around to describing “the fullness of her earlobes…”)
And to give you a little background on the books that led up to Hard-Boiled Wonderland, which provides, I think, an interesting and useful way into the book, this from Jay Rubin (who has translated many of Murakami’s books, although not Hard Boiled…)
“Murakami won the prestigious Noma Literary Newcomer’s Prize for A Wild Sheep Chase. His next novel, Hard-boiled Wonderland and the end of the World (1985) won the still more prestigious Tanizaki Literary Prize, named after the great novelist [MY NOTE – one of my favorites] Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) author of The Diary of a Mad Old Man, The Key, The Makioka Sisters, and a host of other modern classics. It was fitting that Murakami should be honoured by association with Tanizaki, a novelist who helped establish a precedent in Japanese literature for wholly imagined fictional worlds. In Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World Murakami would create not one but two utterly different – though subtly interrelated – fictional worlds.
The distinguished writers who awarded Murakami the Tanizaki Prize were hardly unanimous in their praise of the book, but among them Kenzaburo Oe wrote how ‘wonderfully invigorated’ he felt that the ‘young’ Murakami had won the prize for having so painstakingly fabricated this adventurous fictional experiment. He also noted that it could be read as a new In Praise of Shadows…suggesting, by reference to Tanizaki’s most famous essay, that an aesthetic link could be made between Murakami and Tanizaki.
These words probably came back to haunt Oe, who later complained that Murakami’s works fail to ‘go beyond their influence on the lifestyles of youth to appeal to intellectuals in the broad sense with models for Japan’s present and future.’ Oe’s remarks are reminiscent of critics of Tanizaki, who said that his works were devoid of ideas or divorced from the real world.
If A Wild Sheep Chase was a major advance over Murakami’s first two books, Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is an even bigger leap forwards in scope and imaginative bravura. It was the first novel he wrote expressly for book publication rather than for a magazine, and it is his most successful attempt to create a novel with an overarching structure. One might assume from the novel’s sheer scale and complexity that he spent all of his time after A Wild Sheep’s Chase writing it. In fact, he did not begin the book until after his trip to American, and wrote it in the five months between August 1984 and the following January. The process took all his powers of concentration, and he finished it with a considerable sense of relief on the evening of his thirty-sixth birthday. He was taken aback when Yoko [Murakami’s wife] advised him that he should rewrite the entire second half, but he calmed down and spent another two months revising it, rewriting the ending five or six times.
At this point in his career Murakami had a substantial backlog of stories…but when the Shinchosha publishing house asked him to write a novel for their prestigious ‘Belletristic Book-Publication Series’ he turned to a long story he had written after Pinball, 1973: ‘The Town and its Uncertain Walls,’ which he considered such a failure that he later excluded it from the Complete Works. His powers as a writer had simply not been up to the task, he has written, but he felt that his subsequent experience had given him the confidence to try again.
Short as it is, [his earlier story] ‘Dabchick’ is probably the one most compelling piece of evidence that, for Murakami, all reality is memory, and that fiction is strictly the interplay of words and imagination. And this is just as true for the lengthy Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which Susan Napier has correctly labeled ‘solipsistic.’ As Murakami told an interviewer after the novel received the Tanizaki Prize, there is nothing that he enjoys so much as the process of describing in even finer precision the details of a thing that does not exist.
In retrospect, it seems inevitable that Murakami should have written a book like Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. If not so clearly in Hear the Wind Sing with its Martian wells, certainly by the following year’s Pinball, 1973 he was thinking in terms of a timeless ‘original place’ inside the deep wells of the mind. This repository of legend and dream is inaccessible to conscious thought, but, mysteriously and unpredictably, there emerge from it highly idiosyncratic images and words associated with a particular lost past (and the things and people one has lost in the past). They travel down dark passages and occupy the conscious mind for a while before returning to that timeless original place.
Murakami has said that a tendency to contrast ‘existence’ with ‘non-existence’ or ‘being’ with ‘non-being’ is fundamental to his work. His writings tend to posit two parallel words, one obviously fantastic and the other closer to recognizable ‘reality.’ In Hear the Wind Sing, for example, he created a cool, this-worldly Boku and an anguished, inward-burrowing writer called the Rat. In Pinball, 1973, Boku and the Rat never meet, separated not only by the geographical distance between Tokyo and Kobe but also by the epistemological distance between a seemingly autobiographical first-person narrator and a more overtly fictional character depicted in the third person. They live in two parallel worlds that are revealed to the reader in roughly alternating chapters. In A Wild Sheep Chase, the point of view remains entirely with Boku, and the only means he has to contact his dead friend in the other world is through a possibly delirious experience that occurs in impenetrable darkness.
This psychological bifurcation emerged again when Murakami turned to writing full-length fiction after a three-year hiatus following the publication of A Wild Sheep Chase. Now, however, instead of giving the other psyche a name (or a nickname), Murakami split his narrator-hero into Boku and Watashi, assigning the formal Watashi “I” to the more realistic world of a vaguely futuristic Tokyo, and the informal Boku – “I” to the inner, fantastic world of ‘The Town and Its Uncertain Wells.’ [MY NOTE: It is important to realize that the word ‘boku’ is the informal word for “I” in Japanese – “watakushi’ or “watashi” are more formal.]
The words ‘Watashi’ and ‘Boku’ give very different impressions in Japanese, such that the Japanese reader can open the book at any point and know immediately which narrator is spread out on the page. Unfortunately for the translator, the only word that can be used to translate either ‘Watashi’ or ‘Boku’ into English is ‘I.’ Alfred Birnbaum solved this problem by translating the ‘End of the World’ sections into the present tense, thereby making a distinction between the two narrators’ worlds that is natural in English. It also imparts a timeless quality that may be more appropriate than the normal past-tense narration of the original.
As narrators, Boku and Watashi remain absolutely separate, but in dialogue Watashi speaks to other characters in the book as a young man normally would, routinely referring to himself as ‘Boku.’ This becomes dramatically significant near the end of the book as the two characters begin to merge. When Watashi demands to know ‘what the hell’s going to become of me (boku)?’ he is in effect asking what is going to become of Boku in the other world.
The two narratives progress in alternating chapters, Watashi’s ‘Hard-boiled Wonderland’ and Boku’s ‘The End of the World.’ Each narrative creates a different world, each echoing the other at first only in the tiniest details (such as the odd prominence in both of paper clips), but obvious parallels begin to emerge. Both narrators become involved with librarians, and both visit the library in connection with unicorns. (The more ‘realistic’ affair is highly physical, but the woman in question has an enormous appetite for food that goes far beyond the bound of realism.) The great adventure of reading the novel is to discover how the two worlds are interrelated.”
Let the adventure continue:
Our next reading: Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Chapters 9-18.
My next posts: Friday (a more general post about the world of Murakami) and then Tuesday (with plot synopsis etc. of chapters 9-18)
And two quick questions: how’s the pace of reading working for everyone? And what does everything think so far?
And how often would you like to see me post?