Thursday, April 7, 2016

Weird & Wonderful- Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

"Weird" and "wonderful" apply to most of Haruki Murakami's work, making his 1985 novel "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" a fitting selection for City Lit Books' book club of the strange & amazing.

The novel follows two very different threads in alternating chapters: in one, our narrator is a kind of cryptographer caught up in strange experiments and violent information wars. In the other, our narrator is the recently-arrived Dreamreader of a strange fantasy city, surreal and mythic. The two halves have very different styles and tones: Hard-Boiled, true to its name, has some similarities to a certain kind of crime fiction (somewhat akin to noir), while End of the World is written in a more spare, poetic style. To indicate differences in pronoun use and intimate voice not easily conveyed in English, translator Alfred Birnbaum also has the End of the World written in present tense.

We had an interesting discussion, particularly because we had a real mix of Murakami familiarity--one or two of us who'd read a good chunk of his work, a few of us having read one or two others, while this was the first Murakami novel for about half the group. Probable spoilers below!

We spent the first little bit quizzing the Murakami-initiates among us; it was suggested that this is actually not the best introduction to Murakami, being perhaps more experimental--many of his other works being more realist or more understandably fantastic or cartoony. "Kafka on the Shore" (2002) was highly recommended.

A good debate on which half we preferred--Hard-Boiled or End of the World, with a fairly big split. A few of us voiced the opinion that End of the World is kind of pointlessly surreal until we get a sense of how it lines up with the real world: once we get a sense of how things in End of the World are metaphors or analogs of "real" processes in Hard-Boiled, it becomes more rather than less interesting. It also sets up this pattern of both plots converging on each other, which is kind of formally pleasing.

We wondered about the chronology of both parts--are they happening concurrently? That in turn led us to talk about the alternating chapter style, and an experiment was proposed in which 3 groups of readers progress through the book in different orders: group A reads as published, group B reads Hard-Boiled followed by End of the World, and group C does End of World first, then Hard-Boiled. For science!

"For science!" seems to be the primary motivator for the pink girl and her grandfather, which we found fairly amusing--particularly the cryogenic experiments that the pink girl is planning to include Hard-Boiled's narrator in. The surreal, not-super-plausible, more-dangerous-than-useful experimentation that her grandfather has been doing reminded me a bit of Felix Hoenikker in Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle" (1963).

So, spoiler: "The End of the World" is, apparently, wholly contained within the narrator of Hard-Boiled, a kind of persistent core consciousness/dreamstate that enables his cryptographic abilities, as part of small number of Calcutecs who can basically use their own brains as one-time pads to encrypt data. That's an interesting premise, pretty silly if you poke at it much but hey: Weird & Wonderful.

It was Ice-T in the film adapation
(Longo, 1995), good job everyone.
Apparently Murakami is a big fan of doubled narratives, using the device in several of his novel. He also doesn't name any of the characters in either storyline, another device he's reportedly used elsewhere. We talked for a bit about other stylistic choices here, noting that Murakami is himself an accomplished translator into Japanese from English, so probably approved of this translation. For this work, probably particularly relevant that he's translated a great deal of the Raymonds Chandler & Carver. Murakami claims that he wasn't influenced by Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic" (1981), which has a similar core conceit, but I nonetheless detect a distinct smell of cyberpunk about the Hard-Boiled half of this book.

Miscellaneous points:
  • Gastric dilation, is it a real thing that lets you eat a ton? Preliminary research indicates its a real but deadly thing that happens to dogs. Hm. Those of us with crazy-high metabolisms sympathize with the librarian.
  • But on that note, we really liked the food and eating sections here. I was reminded of one of my favorite T.C. Boyle short stories, "Sorry Fugu" (1985)--highly recommended.
  • However, the combination of food sections, constant appraisal of body types, and the paratextual fact of Murakami's ultrarunning, made some of us wonder if he might have some body/eating issues.
  • Lots of discussion of the sexual relations here--on the one hand, there's this unbelievability to how women just want to jump the narrator, but on the other maybe that's just the hard-boiled tropes. And we liked the agency the women had, particularly the Girl in Pink.
  • The "encyclopedia wand" kind of sums up a lot of the ideas in this book: weird, intriguing, semi-plausible on the surface but doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Trying to do a back-of-the-envelope calculation of that, by the way, was pretty entertaining, for me at least. Brace yourselves:
    • (Using interweb searches for rough numbers). Let's take the Encyclopedia Britannica, which has 19 volumes at roughly 1,000 pages each. We'll use 2,000 characters/page for our estimate, requiring just 2 digits each in Murakmai's example, yielding 76 million characters, which to be honest is not that crazy.
    • Some helpful person on the internet measured a toothpick accurately, we'll use 6cm for length.
    •  Code the whole encyclopedia out to a number and then make a notch at that percentage point through the toothpick. Assuming we start with the "The" in the title, that'll be .200805...and 76 million more digits through.
    • So, to accurately read it all the way through ("Zygote" or perhaps "ZZ Top"), we'll need to be able to measure down to the attometer, which is HILARIOUSLY IMPRACTICAL, since the wood molecules are (significantly) larger than that. Fun thought experiment, though.
END MATH PART. (I kind of want to ask Randall Munroe to check my math/make a comic about this, though...)

We had this huge interlocking reference discussion at one point:
One day I will make a
"Deckard Replicant Theory"
music video set to "Judy and
the Dream of Horses
One day.
  • Pink chubby girl compared to Rachel in "Blade Runner" (based on the PKD novel W&W read last year)
  • Novel generally compared to Philip K. Dick's work
  • I had "A Scanner Darkly" fresh on the mind
  • Keanu Reeves played the lead in Linklater's film adaptation of "Scanner", and also the lead in the film version of "Johnny Mnemonic"
  • And to bring it back around to  "Blade Runner" and "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World": unicorns.
By the way, two tangential things: the Siberian unicorn pseudo-referenced in the novel just popped up in science news again. Also, I just stumbled on a really wonderful article on the grace & artistry of Keanu Reeves by Chicago writer Angelica Jade Bastién.

Much discussion of the Dreamreader, readin' away on those unicorn skulls to...dissipate emotions I guess? A few of us were strongly reminded of Lowry's "The Giver" (1993), with the caveat that "The Giver" is much better, according to those who'd read both.

There are a couple points of ambiguity late in the book that I really don't know what to make of. In particular, the skull (replica) in Hard-Boiled begins lighting up like the skulls in End of the World, and the Hard-Boiled librarian sees this too--it's not just a hallucination. That seems to me to break the rules that the novel has set, with End of the World a contained mental world. If it can spill out into the "real world" of Hard-Boiled, then it seems to me that the novel is even weirder than we thought. I was also very curious about the other characters in End of the World--if it is only in the narrator's head, then the Librarian et. al are only figments or aspects of himself, making his decision to stay profoundly if unintentionally solipsistic, and tragic. But if other minds are somehow coming in...then we've been misreading the setup of this novel anyway.

Still working on a
double-double pun,
I'll get back to you.
We liked the shadow excision and subsequent characterization, fun imagery--I couldn't help thinking of Le Guin's "A Wizard of Earthsea" (1968, and incidentally a wonderful Think Galactic discussion). And I also liked the "double doubling" the shadow represents; the shadow's possible escape at the end of End of the World (of the world) also injects some ambiguity into the novel's closure, since--if the shadow represents "Mind" in some sense of "connected, functional, non-locked-in brain", then the shadow's escape, rather than the quasi-execution planned for him, means that the Hard-Boiled narrator may not actually be about to fall into a coma at the end of the novel. If that's not too much of a stretch...

"Doubled doubling" and shadows invariably brings me around to Frodo/Gollum/Sméagol, SHOCKING NO ONE. And that in turn leads me to a theory I was trying to sound out at group without quite having anything fully-formed: "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" feels like it's engaging with Tolkien in this very oblique and cryptic way, and I'm fascinated by it and not quite sure what to say.

"Leaf By Niggle" (1945), Tolkien's short
story about inventing worlds, was strongly
in my mind while reading Murakami.
The thing that switched my brain to "Look for Tolkien" mode was definitely Murakami's naming his sewer-monsters INKlings: that was the name of the Oxford literary group formed by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and others (I recommend Humphrey Carpenter's 1979 book "The Inklings", a sort of group biography). What does that group have to do with the sewer monsters? Not sure, but it got me thinking.

Some of Tolkien's most potent non-fiction work addresses the idea of "sub-creation", the art of world-building, and his work popularized the craft of deeply-realized fictional settings. Critics from outside the genre tend to focus on "escapism" as a harmful goal of this style (see for instance Le Guin's 1974 essay "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?"), while SF/F authors such as Michael Moorcock and China Miéville, while obviously not attacking escapism & fantasy themselves, have gone after the what we might call the "opiate angle"--fantasies that offer consolation in the form of temporary escapes, thus diffusing dissatisfaction with problems in the real world rather than encouraging critical engagement or action.

Given that End of the World is a fantasy world sub-created by Hard-Boiled's narrator--not, it should be noted, by the scientific experiment on his brain; he had it prior to that and it's why he's the only successful subject--and that this fantasy is threatening to destroy his outward life, I feel like Murakami might be engaging some of these Tolkienian concerns in a roundabout way. There's also the angle that Hard-Boiled's narrator has had his inner fantasy monetized, commercialized, by a large and powerful System.

But then, complicating this even more, there's Tolkien's famous "cordial dislike for allegory". Miéville again:
But here is precisely the difference between allegory and metaphor: the latter is fecund, polysemic, generative of meanings but evasive of stability; the former is fecund and interesting largely to the extent that it fails. In his abjuring of allegory, Tolkien refuses the notion that a work of fiction is, in some reductive way, primarily, solely, or really 'about' something else, narrowly and precisely. That the work of the reader is one of code-breaking, that if we find the right key we can perform a hermeneutic algorithm and 'solve' the book. Tolkien knows that that makes for both clumsy fiction and clunky code.
I had this in my mind every time I was reading the End of the World sections, because once you figure out that it's internal to Hard-Boiled, you want to know what everything in the End of the World "really means". Are we supposed to read the Gatekeeper, the Colonel, the Librarian, all the shadows & mechanisms of the town to be some kind of allegory for Hard-Boiled's mental state & operations? A psychological allegory writ large? If so, that But Murakami doesn't make it so one to one that we can readily do that, making me think, again, that he's playing around, consciously if cryptically, with what the role of allegory is in fantasy.

Then again, it was suggested that the INKlings might just be your basic Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. Or perhaps your basic steroid-induced fishmonster à la that Buffy episode "Go Fish". Or Morlocks! Everything seems to come back around to Morlocks, lately.

Good discussion as per usual. I am unable to accurately trace the digressions that led us to Cucumber Gatorade and Ethan Hawke's entire film history, alas.

Next up for Weird & Wonderful is Joanna Russ's "We Who Are About To...". Check out info on that and many other lovely events on the City Lit page.

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