Eccentric Musings (jakaEM)

"I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy." Emily Brontë


still figuring this place out - Jen W

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Alice Munro
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Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World - Haruki Murakami, Alfred Birnbaum My last status update for this book claimed that it redeemed itself in the end, but I'm having second thoughts about that, hence the 2-star rating.

My two stars should not put anyone else off this. It's more a reflection of the sense of disappointment I have overall when something doesn’t live up to its early promise. (In some ways, an average book that turns out to be average has an advantage over a high-potential book that disappoints.)

Since this is my first Murakami, the 2-star rating also doesn’t reflect the likelihood that I may pick up something else of his—the reviews here on goodreads suggest that this is not his finest work.

The idea of exploring alternate universes within a character’s own consciousness is innately interesting. The interpretation of cognitive experience such as that required when reading a book—any book really, but particularly this book which is in fact about meta-cognition itself—offers exciting fodder for thought experiments and is always fun in a mind-screwing kind of way.

The book explores how we are conscious of our own consciousness: what is accessible to us, and what is not. How our consciousness creates our reality. How it might be possible to exist in several different realities at once—with death being only one of these; and the corresponding idea that an ‘afterlife’ might run simultaneously with our real life, just waiting for us to show up. Lost, anyone?

The problem is, as fascinating and worthy of exploring as each of these themes and questions is, the execution didn’t match the potential as a result of what I felt were some really basic flaws. The most egregious of these hit during the crux of the story, far beneath Tokyo, 1985. We know that this is its time and place through the HBW chapters’ repeated cultural references which I think are meant to be ‘hip’—or so the jacket blurbs would have us believe—but by 2010 standards, seem dated. There is a reference to the year being 15 years after Jim Morrison’s death, which is why we can pinpoint it so precisely, even if the Police cassette-tape blasting taxi driver didn’t do it for us.

I got stuck there though, not because of any anachronism but because of the mad scientist professor’s inexplicable Houston-by-way-of-Lancashire accent (more on that later). The professor had performed some strange and never fully-explained brain experiment on our main character/narrator which had killed off all his (the hero's) cohorts. The hero was mighty pissed about it, but forgave professor almost immediately, a behaviour attributable not to any believable motivation or broader psychological principle, but more because Murakami needed to paint hero-narrator as ‘hard-boiled’, natch, which really means possessing an amoral, hip cynicism.

Unfortunately, our hero’s world-weary tone, which I think was intended to be wry, never seemed to strike the right note. The humorous bits weren’t funny; the cynical bits were undermined by his sincerity and pathos. I imagined him as a kind of Eternal Sunshine-Jim Carrey plunked down in a James Bond movie. The combination doesn’t work, or maybe now in 2010 has just been done before and done better.

The author’s choice to ground the HBW chapters so precisely in time/place (without providing a similar level of detail to describe how that world is also very different from 1985 Tokyo, to support the mythical/fantasy elements of the plot) compromises his ability to achieve a believable world.

I was left with a feeling throughout that Murakami was doing stuff that he didn't need to do (the accent, in particular—I was totally derailed by that stupid accent) and not doing stuff that he did need to do: i.e., explain more about the HBW world he was trying to create. He didn’t have any of these problems in the End of the World chapters, primarily because there was no need to integrate real-world time/place details with the fantasy world he had created there.

I was left with too many questions about what had caused the character to be in the predicament he was in: HBW appears to be a futuristic, urban, sterile environment where science, technology and commerce have run amok and are now under control of “the System” – is that government or corporate, or some hybrid of the two, or something else? There appear to be two classes of knowledge workers: Semiotecs and Calcutecs. Are Semiotecs language workers and Calcutecs numbers workers as their names would suggest? (Murakami doesn’t give any of his main characters a proper name, so surely these two are meaningful?) And if so, does this have something to do with the left-brain, right-brain dichotomy that Murakami is exploring—another framework for understanding cognitive processing, a demonstration of which opens the novel (the hero, uniquely it appears, is able to separate left-brain from right-brain processing – was this the intention and result of the brain operation to which he was subjected?).

All of these very intriguing questions were set up in the beginning, and none of them were ever clearly answered. The plot of the HBW chapters became increasingly confusing, and when it finally appeared that our hero (and we readers) were going to get some answers, the whole thing fell apart instead of coming together.

There are editorial (translation? authorial?) choices all over the place which made me crazy—things that just felt ‘off’ to me. They added up, and I started to focus on them. Case in point (although I can’t find the page number for this one, but it really stuck in my craw): “blah blah blah,” he said. “blah blah blah,” said she. “Said she”? Another: “Then I slip the folded accordion into my pocket.” (p 347). Uhhhh … no accordion I know could fit in a pocket. Is accordion a mistranslation, or are you talking about a different musical instrument? Since the instrument--indeed, music, sound and memory--are monumentally important as symbols in this novel, it’s sort of important to get that detail right.

The End of the World chapters, on the other hand, kept me going. Here, the deliberately fuzzy, dreamlike details—beings without minds, separated from their shadows; golden unicorns; a walled-in city entrapping them—lyrical prose, and believable character motivations clearly demarcated these chapters from the HBW ones. The End of the World was (intentionally ironically?) fully realized and well-executed, with symbolism and a logic that was, while surreal, always coherent and compelling.

I think—think—that by alternating the HBW and End of the World chapters, Murakami’s intent was to create a jarring contrast between the two worlds, i.e., the two levels of consciousness. But for me, the contrast was jarring only because the two were so differently executed. The problem is that the one world—the one clearly meant to represent core, unknowable consciousness or perhaps death—was, from a literary point of view, well-executed, believable and quite beautiful; the other was poorly rendered, with inexplicable details, contrived and irrelevant plot points, and one-dimensional characters whose motivations were not believable.

If you’re creating a mythical world, then you have to be all-in. If there’s a fray in the fabric of your myth, the reader (well, this reader) will pick away at it until the whole thing unravels. I will also start focusing on details you don’t want me to focus on and getting increasingly annoyed when the text provides no evidence or hints about things you are obviously expecting me to interpret. If you’re giving me a detail, then dammit—it needs to be a detail that drives plot, character, theme – something.

I can pinpoint the spot that this novel plummeted from a 4-star rating to the two stars I gave it. When our hero meets the professor underground—a point in the story that should have started to answer the early questions—I had a Life of Pi moment. It was the professor’s ridiculous and unnecessary accent that did it. Why give him an accent? Is this a problem of translation, or one that originates in Murakami’s story choices? That led to: how is it possible that a character, whom you repeatedly (and offensively—because again, why?) label only as “the chubby girl” is capable of climbing up a many-stories-high knotted rope ladder in pink high heels after swimming for an hour across a lake in an underground cavern, dodging INKlings all the while by holding an INKling repellant on her head (so, she was swimming and climbing one-armed, too?)? Also, what is an INKling, exactly? Show us an altercation with one so we get a sense of how big a threat they pose instead of simply talking about them as some poorly-defined, stinky underground dwellers that seek to do harm to our hero, but are really simply devices to drive the plot forward. And what’s with the capitalization of the first three letters? Give us some clue or explanation, some opportunity to interpret this detail, or don’t bother giving it to us at all.

That’s what I was focused on at the most critical juncture of this book – why a main character had a stupid accent and how another main character, who was presumably not a top athlete, could climb hundreds of feet up a rope ladder while wearing high heels. Why the key threat driving everyone forward had three capital letters at the beginning of its name.

Dear Mr. Murakami: if your story does not contain enough that is gripping and interesting in the plot and characterizations to keep me from focusing on irrelevant, inexplicable details, well … you’ve lost me as a reader.

Now, you may say I’m quibbling. Or have missed the point. Or, that all of these literary stylings were theme-reinforcing, intentional and successful in this genre of novel, which I don’t frequently read. But I come back to what Murakami DOES tell us, presumably as a way to reconcile the fantastic elements within the real-world context of this hard-boiled wonderland. He tells us that the main character / narrator waits until chubby girl signals him that she’s back on dry land at the top of the ladder because the rope ladder can only bear the weight of one person at a time. Like I was worried about that?! THAT you choose to tell me, while expecting me to believe without question how the flippin’ hell he got underground, through a treacherous series of physical obstacles that defied the laws of physics for a human body to traverse, much less a human being that has almost been disemboweled by someone who might be a Semiotec, or might be a Calcutec, or might be someone else entirely but nooooo, you never clear up this plot point for me, do you Mr. Murakami? No, instead you worry that I will question the weight load capable of being borne by your however-many-stories high rope ladder. And tell me that our hero is finally able to urinate after something like 72 hours. Again, like I was questioning that? You give me a rationale for the main character’s normal biological functions being compromised by the timeline of your plot, but he seems to have no real trouble scaling the wet, sheer cliff wall of an underground mountain, in the dark, with a stomach wound?

Still, I finished it. Mostly because I, like our hero, had persevered on the journey Murakami took us on and was just about at the end [of the World:] and I chose to stay there. Hmmm. Ironic, yeah?