This is my fourth Murakami. The first one I read was Norwegian Wood
, which is often called his most "accessible" novel, I guess because it has no traces of the supernatural in it. I'd actually call this book the most accessible Murakami for genre readers, though: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
comes close to being a "traditional" fantasy novel. It still has Murakami's dreamlike worlds, unexplained oddness that is simply accepted at face value (what the kids are calling "magical realism" nowadays), and, unfortunately, the same bland protagonist Murakami always writes.
There are two stories running in parallel, alternating chapters. Initially they're completely separate and seem to have nothing to do with one another.
"Hard-Boiled Wonderland" features the usual Haruki Murakami Everyman protagonist, a passive dweeby sort who we learn works for the System as a Calcutec, doing a job called Shuffling. The System has adversaries, known as Semiotecs. Our heroic Calcutec is summoned to do a job for a crazy professor in his underground lair, and meets his granddaughter, a pretty, chubby 19-year-old who loves pink. To return to his home, he has to get past a sewer system crawling with INKlings (Infra-Nocturnal Kappas).
The professor gives him a gift: a skull that moans when he touches it, and which he suspects may be a unicorn skull. He enlists a sexy librarian to help him research unicorns. Then a couple of Semiotecs break into his apartment, interrogate him, and cheerfully trash the place while he morosely watches them from his kitchen table.
Does this make not a lot of sense? You have to immerse yourself in a Murakami novel to make sense of it. They follow their own internal logic, but don't expect things to be explained with the sort of infodumps and Big Reveals you may be familiar with. The mad scientist's experiment gone amok that could bring about the end of the world is either the weirdest damn thing you've ever heard of, or a delusional fancy that everyone buys into for some reason. We never even see INKlings — it occurred to me halfway through the book that it could be read at face value, an ordinary man thrown into extraordinary circumstances in a world that's just a little bit off-kilter from ours, but it could also be read as the delusional adventures of a couple of people with very vivid imaginations.
The second story, interwoven with the first, is about a Town called the End of the World. The Town is surrounded by docile, golden-haired Beasts. A newcomer to this town learns that before entering, he must be separated from his shadow. His shadow remains a prisoner on the outside, slowly wasting away. The newcomer (curiously, yet another
passive Murakami protagonist who doesn't do much until the very end) has been appointed the town's Dreamreader. He takes skulls off a shelf and "reads" the bits of mind accruing to them, with the help of the Town's librarian.
There's no explanation of this place right away. It's like a fantasy world completely separated from the fantasy world our other characters are running around in. But eventually, the two worlds converge and everything makes a kind of bizarre, Murakami sense.
This may be my favorite Murakami so far. It's a fantastical, strange world and the clues, dangers, and solutions are not your typical plot-coupon-collecting boss-fighting quest.
Also, the author seemed a lot less preoccupied with penises than in all the other books I've read by him, though there is a short conversation about semen-swallowing that comes out of nowhere, serves no purpose, and is forgotten as soon as it's over. It just wouldn't be a Haruki Murakami novel without semen.