Monday, March 8, 2010

WFJ Book Club #3: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World

Of all the arts, the writing of prose carries the greatest potential for raw, nuanced expression, for the artist to expose as much of his teeming sea of neurons to his audience as humanly possible. It is beholden to fewer formal rules than poetry or music; it is more transparent than painting or sculpture; it is less relentlessly practical than cooking or architecture. The prose author is allotted indefinite pages to tell his story however he wants, to pace his rhythms and his themes at whatever speed or scale strike his fancy, and to put as much or as little of himself into the ink as he may please.

Is it any wonder so much of it is exceedingly awful? As attractive a medium as it is, it is a haven for unfortunate hacks, who nonetheless may consider themselves quite fortunate if their woefully inadequate novel (or "nonfiction" nonsense) lands them a steady income, or a book tour, or a (shudder) movie deal. What does it say about our culture if even the book, as ancient a symbol of wisdom, sophistication, and intelligence as can be found, is so thoroughly commercialized and debased?

The point of this rant is to give some idea of the extent to which I hate novels. This may seem like an absurdity, and from one point of view it is. I count many novels among my favorite books: I thrill at the writing of the masters of the form, and Tolkien will forever remain the north star in my literary universe. But my love of beautiful, powerful writing is met at par by my distaste for the pedestrian paperbacks that line the shelves of America's consciousness, and that is because I am an incurable snob. So I live my literary life as a hermit in the quasi-academic realm of histories and biographies, where no novel can find me without a an unquestionable pedigree and a sterling reputation on the part of the author. I expect a lot from my prose, and deny myself even more as a result.

Enter Haruki Murakami, a modern Japanese literary superstar, and his unaccountable brilliance. His books come stuffed with allusions to culture high, low, and every step along the way where meaning can be found. His style is both ironic and bizarre, and even he can't help but compare himself with Kafka. Murakami is an author with something to say, and I crawled out from under my rock just long enough to hear him out.

His break-through 1985 work, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, fell into my hands recently after a conversation I'd had with a friend about genre. Genre can famously be limiting, and its conventions can grow atrocious with the passage of time, but I instinctively felt that genre was as legitimate an artistic aspect as any other, and that in the hands of a true artist, a work could draw from all the strengths of a genre without belonging to it. My friend must have teased that sentiment out from somewhere in my incoherent ramblings, because the book he gave me is as much an affirmation of that approach as I could have hoped for. Best of all, it strives for its goal armed with a heaping handful of weirdness, an approach I can always get behind.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World has elements of science fiction, magical realism, technological thrillers, and detective stories, but it cannot be said to be any of those things. For one thing, it is a seamless hybrid from chapter to chapter, borrowing from such and such style in such a way as to keep any one genre from dominating the structure. The real reason that no genre encapsulates the whole, however, is because the book contains two separate narratives, and if either could be said to belong to a genre, than neither one belongs to the other. The story is divided roughly in half into odd and even chapters, and treated for all intents and purposes as thoroughly distinct from one another: even the small print in the heading changes. Both are set up from the start to appear completely as non sequiturs; then gradually, they begin to reflect, anticipate, and finally consummate one another in unexpected ways.

After a few back-and-forth exchanges, a pattern emerges. Hard-Boiled Wonderland concerns a thirty-five-year-old information trafficker who carries encrypted information in his head, à la Johnny Mnemonic. Known only by his profession as a "Calcutec," he keeps himself sane with an endless stream of mundane observations in the style of the great "hard-boiled" detectives of yore; rather than chasing down a crooked bookie or femme fatale, however, he finds himself faced with the weirdest of weird science, and subterranean monsters to boot. The End of the World, on the other hand, is relaxed, mysterious, and highly symbolic. It moves more slowly, written in the present tense instead of the past, and its chapters are generally shorter, more like vignettes. The setting is not the Tokyo metropolis but a self-contained town with simple, simply-named features. The protagonist is known in the town as the "Dreamreader,", and like a dreamer his memory is spotty, while his sense of identity is uncertain at best after he experiences the separation of himself from his shadow. Neither protagonist is given a name (and neither is any other character, for that matter), but it becomes increasingly obvious that they are the same person.

Given its laid back style, it's easy to ignore The End of the World at first. The kinetic energy of the tale is almost all contained in the story's other half, and so is the danger. In its place is a pondering mystery, which slowly changes to an ever more sharply defined existential dread as the Dreamreader more clearly understands his circumstances, and recovers more memories about his previous life. His rediscovery of music, his growing affections for the town's demure librarian, and the persistent warnings from his dislocated shadow about the town's unnatural existence put the story on a slow burn to an unconventional conclusion.

The book's other half is in some ways more accessible and pleasurable to read. Unlike the broadly archetypal characters of The End of the World, the ones in Hard-Boiled Wonderland are idiosyncratic and humorous in their construction. The Professor, a daffy old man, possesses knowledge and expertise of impossible science that still performs exactly as he expects; his precocious seventeen-year-old-granddaughter, a chubby girl dressed entirely in pink, is absurdly competent in a variety of skills, from music to spelunking; the librarian, with whom the Calcutec enjoys a brief affair, is an attractive young widow with a taste for mystery, sex, and seemingly endless quantities of good food.

The Calcutec is a lonely divorcée in what should be his prime, gainfully employed and proud of his work, but mostly interested in imagining his far-off retirement, spent in peaceful relaxation learning to play the cello and speak Greek. In the meantime, he occupies himself with keen observations and an expansive good taste in films, books, music, and whiskies. As his path leads him closer and closer to his day of reckoning, he takes greater and fuller enjoyment in the simple pleasures of life, from Johann Bach to Bob Dylan; his dénouement brings him a kind of happiness that belies its tragedy. He never quite unravels the mystery of all that happens to him, but in spite of the suffering he endures, the resolution still seems just right.

As I mentioned before, the heroes of the two stories are ultimately one and the same person, and they share the same terminal fate, a crisis truly befitting the name "End of the World," at least as far as one man is concerned. But what I found most interesting about the conclusion was the way the "two" characters faced their doom. The Calcutec is matter-of-factly informed of his destiny, and after the briefest of outbursts, resigns himself to the inevitable with his characteristic detachment. The Dreamreader, on the other hand, is given a clear choice between escape and oblivion: at the very end, he chooses the latter. It makes perfect sense, except that it doesn't; as plainly as it's stated in the text, it's not entirely clear who's really doing the choosing, or whether anyone chose at all.

The English translation is provided by Alfred Birnbaum, who renders Murakami's Japanese in a style consistent with the author's reputation: hip, modernist, and alive with semi-autobiographical voice. Apart from place names and the distinctive behavior of certain characters, the book does not come off as overwhelmingly "Japanese," and it leans heavily on western cultural and generic references. It reads as a truly internationalist artwork, which defies characterization in convenient cultural boxes.

The real joy of reading Murakami is that he so cheerfully resists cliches. Pastiche and homage are another matter, the natural consequences of an author who is widely read and cognizant of the techniques of his mentors and influences. It's a detective story where the mystery is never solved, a science fiction story with minimal emphasis on either technology or the future, and a quasi-Jungian symbolic work with deeply ironic undertones. It's literature with a capital "L," a respectable book even in paperback. Best of all, it challenges its readers, but never leaves them in the dust, concerned as it is with the true art of the story. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World hints at a complicated world of secrets, insanity, and conspiracy, then abandons that thread for something more interesting and mature: a meditation on life, death, and the mind. A book like this is as close as one can get to swimming in another person's brain cells, an experience as eerie and thrilling as it sounds.

If I sound like a convert, I really am: I recognize in Murakami's work much of what I hope to accomplish in my own. A teacher once told me that a great work of art is something you hold to be greater than yourself, and like all my heroes the latest has me beat. Arigato, sir, for one more star to chase.

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