Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
By Dennis Abrams
Chapter Nine: Food preparation. The librarian can eat. His inability to get an erection, “It was the first time I hadn’t risen to the occasion since the Tokyo Olympic Year.” Call girls. The librarian’s beautiful body “not a gram of fat.” No stomach rumbles. A spit take. A brief history of unicorns. “In the East, peace and tranquility; in the West, aggression and lust.” The difficulty of having one horn. The unicorn skull found during WWI on the Russian front – is it the same skull?
Chapter Ten: A visit to the Gatekeeper. His shadow asks him to draw a map of the Town “Also I want a verbal report. Particularly about the Wall.” A walk with the Gatekeeper. The perfection of The Wall. “Nobody leaves here…You have to endure, if you endure everything will be fine. No worry, no suffering. It all disappears. Forget about the shadow. This is the End of the World. This is where the world ends. Nowhere further to go.” The river.
Chapter Eleven: The librarian leaves. His shuffling password “End of the World.” The operation, the drama. “Should any individual ever have exact, clear knowledge of his own core consciousness?…Such questions are, as they say, beyond science.” Drinking does not impeded shuffling, but he shuffles sober. Chaos.
Chapter Twelve: Setting out to make the map. Determining the route of the Wall. The Colonel understands weather. The abandoned army barracks. The Woods. Progress at dreamreading. There are one or two thousand skulls. “You need not read them all, You need read only as many as you can read. Those that you do not read, the next Dreamreader will read. The old dreams will sleep…I am here to help you. That is the rule. One assistant for one Dreamreader. When you no longer read, I too must leave the Library. The pool. The librarian’s fear. They go to the Pool. “The Pool never gives back what it takes…I have been told the Pool only grows deeper and deeper…” The eerie call of the Pool. Winter is approaching.
Chapter Thirteen: Return to consciousness after shuffling. Two fingers of whiskey. His dream of retirement “I’d have plenty of savings, more than enough for an easy life of cello and Greek.” The chubby girl calls – there’s a disturbance in the sound field and the Professor has disappeared. “If Grandfather’s research got out now, it’d be the end of the world.” Arrangement to meet her at “an all-night supermarket in Aoyama.” Tasteless sandwich and cold milk. A poster of Frankfurt. Coffee. She doesn’t show up, he goes to the Shinjuku Station and puts the skull in storage. Visitors – Big Boy and Junior. The door destroyed. “Forget about the door. You keep thinking so much, no wonder you’re tense.” Crushing the Coke can, then shredding it. They’re there to help. “We’re here on a goodwill mission…You’re lost, so we came to give you moral guidance.” Independent operators. Moving before the Factory or the System does. The Professor was a member of the System, a Caluctec. Junior promises him that Big Boy will destroy nothing that he values, but then goes ahead and destroys everything that he values.
Chapter Fourteen: When does winter begin? The Colonel gives him a winter coat, and advises him not to go into the Woods after winter begins. The few people who live in the Woods. A trip to the Woods. The ruins of the house. The Wall is perfect. “The Wall is far too grand to capture on a map. It is not static. Its pulse is too intense, its curves too sublime. Its face changes dramatically with each new angle. An accurate rendering on paper cannot be possible. I feel a futility in my attempt to do so in my sketchbook.” Sleep. “I feel them peering at me. What are you doing here? they seem to say. What are you looking for?” All his heat gone – he struggles to get back to the Library.
Chapter Fifteen: All the whiskey bottles broken. “To convince a third party of their attention to detail? And who might that third party be?” He is warned that boys from the System will be paying him a visit – torture is possible. The cut across his stomach. “When your System boys show up, let ‘em see this little example of wanton violence.” Boys from Headquarters visit, he insists he knows nothing. “The System is the state. There is nothing we cannot do.” A trip to the hospital. Reading Turgenev’s Rudin then Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. “What can I say? I seemed to be in the mood for passé literature.” A cut on his finger. The chubby girl shows up and wakes him up.
Chapter Sixteen: Recovering from the Woods. The bitter herbal stew. The Colonel knows that he’s fallen in love with the librarian, but it wouldn’t be prudent, “Because she cannot requite your feelings.” She no longer has a mind. The mind is lost when the shadow dies. “The Wall leaves nothing to chance.” After ten days of recovery, he is able to return to the Library.
Chapter Seventeen: The chubby girl warns the world is going to end. Grandfather: “If I had this in me, it’d be the end of the world.” “Grandfather said you were the key.” Charlie Parker. “Shuffling was a door to a new world.” “But if shuffling is the door to a new world, why am I supposed to hold the key?” Grandfather is unconcerned about good or bad. Time bomb. He decides to go save Grandfather from the INKlings. “I don’t have much choice, it seems. I don’t know what your grandfather’s end-of-the-world scenario means, but from the look of things, I don’t think I can afford to ignore it.” “Either way, we have to help Grandfather.” “Because all three of us are good people?” “Of course,” said the chubby girl.
Chapter Eighteen: Dreamreading, He feels inadequate as a dreamreader. “Unclose your mind. You are not a prisoner. You are a bird in flight, searching the skies for dreams.” “My mind is turning away fro me.” “How can the mind be so imperfect?” “It may well be imperfect,” I say, “but it leaves traces. And we can follow those traces, like footsteps in the snow.” “Where do they lead?” “To oneself,” I answer. “That’s what the mind is. Without the mind, nothing leads anywhere.”
A few thoughts/questions:
1. Have you noticed the difference in the chapter titles? The “Hard-boiled Wonderland” titles are a list of three words, such as chapter 15’s “Whiskey, Torture, Turgenev,” while the “End of the World” chapters are a single word or action, such as chapter 16’s “The Coming of Winter.” I’m sure there must be some significance to this…any thoughts?
2. Why are there no actual names? In the “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” section we have the Granddaughter, The Professor, The Librarian, Big Boy and Junior…and in the “End of the World” section we have the Colonel, the Gatekeeper, the Dreamreader, and the Librarian. Significance?
3. “Many are the women who can take their clothes off seductively, but women who can charm as they dress?” Lovely.
4. While our hero in the “Hard-boiled Wonderland” is recovering from his knife cut, our hero in “The End of the World” is recovering from winter and the Wall.
5. I loved the Granddaughter’s “I can do all sorts of things. I can speak four foreign languages, I can play piano and alto sax, I can assemble a wireless, I’ve studied navigation and tightrope walking, I’ve read tons of books. And my sandwiches were good, weren’t they?”
6. He feeds the Librarian in “Hard-Boiled Wonderland,” and in “End of the World” she feeds him.
Anybody have any thoughts? Questions?
To continue with Jay Rubin:
“…The great adventure of reading the novel is to discover how the two worlds are interrelated.
Murakami keeps a tight rein on the process of that discovery through careful control of detail and structure. The tiniest details in the opening chapter – a poorly whistled song, a whiff of cologne – turn out to have great bearing on the unfolding of the plot. None of his other novels before or since has been worked out with such attention to an overall fictional architecture. The two separate but simultaneous narratives are deliberately kept apart. The rationale for this is the inability of the individual to know his own inner mind.
That innermind is called many things in this novel: the ‘core consciousness,’ the ‘black box,’ and, in the words of the character known as the Professor, a ‘great unexplored elephant graveyard.’ The Professor quickly corrects himself, however:
‘No, an ‘elephant graveyard’ isn’t exactly right. ‘Tisn’t a burial ground for collected dead memories. An ‘elephant factory’ is more like it. There’s where you sort through countless memories and bits of knowledge, arrange the assorted chips into complex lines, combine these lines into even more complex bundles, and finally make up a cognitive system. A veritable production line with you as the boss. Unfortunately, though, the factory floor is off-limits. Like Alice in Wonderland, you need a special drug t’shrink you in.’
Thus the elephant of Hear the Wind Sing has evolved through the elephant graveyard of Pinball, 1973 and the elephant factory of ‘The Dancing Dwarf,’ to become an image of the unconscious that sees the inner mind as an all-but-inaccessible factory engaged in the manufacture of elephants, those inscrutable masters of memory. ‘Nobody’s got the key’s t’the elephant factory inside us,’ says the Professor, not even Freud or Jung. In his hard-boiled wonderland, however, Watashi will learn more about his own elephant factory than ne ever wanted to know and will ‘succeed’ in the Proustian search for lost time.
The image of the well is flashed at the reader on the first page of the book, [MY NOTE: “Every last thing about this elevator was worlds apart from the cheap die-cut job in my apartment building, scarcely one notch up the evolutionary scale from a well bucket.”] and soon the protagonist of the ‘Hard-boiled Wonderland’ narrative, Watashi, is walking down a long, gloomy corridor, led by an attractive (but chubby) young woman in pink whose voice does not seem to work. Like the narrator of ‘Dabchick,’ Watashi is here for employment, and he apologizes to the mute receptionist by arriving late. The fruity scent of her cologne fills him with ‘a nostalgic yet impossible pastiche of sentiments, as if two wholly unrelated memories had threaded together in an unknown recess,’ at which point she forms the word ‘Proust’ on her lips. [MY NOTE: Why didn’t I put that together myself?] Reminiscent of the backhanded citation of Proust in A Wild Sheep Chase, this typically wacko Murakami-ism (try reading the single word ‘Proust’ on anybody’s lips, outside of any context, and more especially in the Japanese pronunciation, ‘Purusuto’!) suggests that Watashi is about to embark on a journey into the ‘unknown recesses’ of his own memories as serious as anything Proust ever attempted. Seemingly confident that he is forging into Proustian territory but that no one would ever suspect him of harbouring such pretensions, Murakami decides to have some fun.
Considering the possibility that he has misread the girl’s lips, Watashi experiments with other words. Did she say ‘urudoshi’ (‘intercalary year’: a word connected with ancient ways of keeping time)? Or ‘tsurushi-ido’ (‘dangling well’: a word Murakami seems to have made up to add to his inventory of wells)? Or was it ‘kuroi udo’ (‘large black tree’: a potentially powerful vegetative image joining the upper and lower worlds)?
‘One after the other, quietly to myself, I pronounced strings of meaningless syllables, but none seemed to match. I could only conclude that she had indeed said, ‘Proust.’ But what I couldn’t figure out was, what was the connection between this long corridor and Marcel Proust?
Perhaps she’d cited Marcel Proust as a metaphor for the length of the corridor. Yet, supposing that were the case, wasn’t it a trifle flighty – not to say inconsiderate – as a choice of expression? Now if she’d cited this long corridor as a metaphor for the works of Marcel Proust, that much I could accept. But the reverse was bizarre.
A corridor as long as Marcel Proust?
Whatever, I kept following her down that long corridor. Truly, a long corridor.’
With his literary credentials thus both established and denied in a single stroke, Murakami sets his protagonist upon a new but familiar quest down a long corridor with comic overtones reminiscent of ‘Dabchick.’
The girl shows Watashi to a bare, modernistic office, hands him a rain cape, boots, goggles, and a flashlight, and shows him to a black opening inside a large wardrobe, from which emanates a roar of a river. Following her silent instructions, he climbs down a long ladder into the darkness and begins to walk along a river bank, at the end of which he is supposed to find a waterfall behind which is the laboratory of the girl’s grandfather – all of this in the middle of Tokyo!
The grandfather unexpectedly meets him halfway. Somehow ‘turning down’ the sound of the river so that they can hear each other, he warns Watashi of the danger of the INKlings (yamikuro: literally, ‘darkblacks’) who live down there under the city – indeed, directly under the Imperial Palace – devouring the flesh of the occasional human who wanders into their realm.
We learn later that the grandfather, known as the Professor, has situated his laboratory in this dangerous place to keep out both the ‘Caluctecs’ and the ‘Semiotecs’, who want access to his work, and he keeps the INKlings away by controlling the sounds in the vicinity. (He also realizes that he has absentmindedly left his granddaughter’s voice ‘off’ from an earlier experiment and has to go correct his mistake while Watashi works in his laboratory.) Watashi himself is a Calcutec, and, it turns out, so was the Professor – but a far more prominent figure in the Calcutec ‘System’ than Watashi. Apostate Calcutecs are usually recruited by the enemy Semiotecs and their ‘Factory,’ but the Professor is not aligned with either side in the ongoing information war.
Watashi has been hired by the Professor his ability as a Calcutec: men whose brains have been split to allow them to perform complex calculations. This had been done for security purposes since, unlike computers, brains cannot be electrically tapped – at least not yet, though the ruthless Semiotecs keep trying. Once, in fact, they kidnapped five Calcutecs, saws off the tops of their skulls, and attempted, unsuccessfully, to extract data directly from their brains. This ‘cyber-punk’ aspect of Watashi’s identity bears a striking resemblance to one element in William Gibson’s 1981 story ‘Johnny Mneumonic,’ but Murakami denies that Gibson’s work as a source for the novel.
Watashi’s world stands in stark contrast to Boku’s. Watashi’s is one of words and sounds; Boku’s is one of images and song, many of them half-remembered, their significance all but lost. (As the barrier between the two begins to break down, however, Watashi experiences déjà vu, recalling both images and songs.) The garrulous Watashi is constantly cracking jokes, even to himself; the elevator in the opening scene is so big ‘You might even squeeze in three camels and a mid-range palm tree.’ Very much a ‘hard-boiled’ type, he keeps the world at a distance through sardonic humour. The dreamy Boku has no such distancing sarcasm. He feels vibrations from a past he can barely recall, and sees the world as poet might (‘Particles of yellow light seem to swell and contract as they fall.’)
Time passes differently in the two worlds. We get practically an hour-by-hour report of Watashi’s actions, which take place over a period of precisely five days, 28 September to 3 October. The passing of the season from autumn into deep winter is what marks time for Boku. The two move implacably towards a final crescendo…
The setting of the Boku-narrated part of the story, ‘The End of the World,’ seems to be a medieval walled town, but later references to abandoned factories, electric lights, obsolete army officers and empty barracks suggest something more like a post-nuclear (or perhaps simply post-war) world with ruined reminders of a past that cannot quite be remembered. The clock in the tower is frozen at 10:35 (though other timepieces in the town do work). The wall that surrounds the town is enormous – ‘almost 30 feet high, which only birds can clear.’ The entire town is, in effect, an elaborate well of the unconscious, as in Pinball, 1973: ‘We’ve got all these wells dug in our hearts. While above the wells, birds flit back and forth.’ Only birds can travel freely between the conscious and unconscious worlds, so they act as symbols for all the delicate psychological phenomena that interest Murakami – déjà vu, images of half-remembered things, flashes of memory, and – their opposite – sudden memory blanks. Murakami provides a map of the town, which seems to be shaped rather like a brain (He says he drew it as he wrote, so that he could keep the layout of his imaginary town in mind.)
In ‘The End of the World,’ a herd of unicorns spends its days inside the town walls and is let outside at night by the gatekeeper, who seems to have tyrannical powers over the residents…Boku is not a native of the town, and when he first arrived, the gatekeeper (who spends most of his time sharpening knives) insisted upon cutting Boku’s shadow off at the ankles, though he promised to take care of the shadow and let Boku visit him. The loss of his shadow signals the beginning of the loss of everything that allows him to think and feel as an individual. Boku soon learns that, detached from him, his shadow will not survive the coming winter.
Significantly, Boku’s primary informant regarding matters of the shadow and forgetting is a retired army officer, the Colonel. Stephen Snyder suggests that the ‘walled, amnesia-stricken community [is] a metaphor for a Japan that hesitates to come to terms with its past or actively define a global role for its future (though such a reading would be crediting Murakami with greater political consciousness than he is usually allowed). Murakami’s use of the Colonel would seem to confirm this, at least where the past is concerned, and many still find the ‘wall’ surrounding Japan a source of frustration. ‘It is not easy to surrender your shadow and simply let it die,’ the Colonel tells Boku. ‘The pain is the same for everyone, though it is one thing to tear the shadow away from an innocent child who has not gotten attached to it, and quite another to do it to an old fool. I was in my sixty-fifth year when they put my shadow to death. When you reach that age, you have lots of memories.’
The Colonel seems to echo pre-war conservative Japanese fears of ‘dangerous thoughts,’ from abroad when he warns Boku to keep away from the woods, for it is there, we learn later, that the few people live who have not fully surrendered their minds and memories: ‘Their existence is wholly different from our own,’ he says. ‘They are dangerous. They can exert an influence over you.’ The wall is another potential source of danger for Boku, he warns. Not only does it hold everyone in with a ferocious tenacity, ‘It sees everything that transpires within,’ as much on the lookout for those who threaten to step out of line as is Japanese society itself.
Intent on permanently separating Boku from his memories, the gatekeeper becomes an increasingly malevolent character. After Boku commits himself to living in this town where the residents are forbidden to have shadows, he discovers that neither he nor anyone else will be allowed to leave. During one furtive visit, the shadow orders Boku to scout the town and draw a detailed map, concentrating especially on the wall and its portals. (This becomes the book’s brain-shaped map.) The gatekeeper also assigns Boku on his arrival to the profession of ‘Dream Reader,’ marking him as such by painlessly cutting slits in his eyeballs. This makes Boku sensitive to light and requires him to sequester himself on bright days, and do his dream reading at the town ‘library’ at night.
The town’s ‘old dreams’ are contained in its vast store of unicorn skulls, and when Boku touches a skull the dreams come to him as vivid, disconnected images, the meaning of which he cannot fathom. Neither he nor the lady librarian with whom he becomes passionlessly involved know why he must perform this task, but eventually he realizes that he is releasing into the atmosphere the very qualities of personality and memory that permit of passionate feelings – feelings towards other individuals and towards the world itself.
In exchange for eternal life, the residents of the town must sacrifice their hearts and minds (their kokoro, in Japanese). This is the only route to salvation. As the gatekeeper puts it, when he is boasting to Boku of the wall’s ‘perfection’ and the impossibility of escape:
‘I know how hard it is for you [to lose your shadow]. But this is something that everybody goes through, so you’ll just have to endure it, too. After that comes salvation. Then, you won’t have any more worries or suffering. They will all disappear. Momentary feelings aren’t worth a thing. I’m telling you this for your own good: forget about your shadow. This is the End of the World. This is there the world ends. Nobody goes anywhere from here – you included.’
Living under the sway of the gatekeeper, the people of the town have only the palest feelings for each other and for the world. The young librarian loved by Boku cannot return his love because her shadow dies years ago when she was 17 (the age of the chubby girl in pink, who is perhaps her ‘shadow’ in the outside world), and she no longer has the kokoro to feel deeply for him. This numbers her among the ‘saved,’ rather in the way Pinball’s Boku concluded that the only route to peace was ‘not to want anything any more.’
Here, Boku asks the librarian –
‘Did you meet with your shadow before she died?’
She shakes her head. ‘No, I did not see her. There was no reason for us to meet. She had become something apart from me.’
‘But your shadow might have been you yourself.’
‘Perhaps. But in any case, it is all the same now. The circle is closed.’
The pot on the stove began to murmur, sounding to my ears like the wind in the distance.
‘Do you still want me even so?’ she asks.
“Yes,’ I answer. ‘I still want you.’
What we have here is a full-scale exploration of the ‘gap’ mentioned in [Murakami’s] ‘Girl from Ipanema’ story. ‘Somewhere in [my consciousness], I’m sure, is the link joining me with myself. Someday, too, I’m sure, I’ll meet myself in a strange place in a far-off world…In that place, I am myself and myself is me. Subject is object and object is subject. All gaps gone. A perfect union. There must be a strange place like this somewhere in the world.’”
My next post: Friday Mayl 23.
Our next reading: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Chapters 19-28