Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Haruki Murakami

I haven’t blogged in a good long while. There are so many half-written posts I just never finished, waiting in my drafts, probably never to see the light of day. I’m not really any good at these once the memory of the book has faded a little, so once they’ve dragged out a few days, it’s not worth going back to them. None of what I’ve read has been particularly spectacular – a lot of re-reading, and, shamefully, some Trudi Featured imageCanavan – but that’s no excuse. HBWatEotW (god, it’s even too long written like that) though… it’s just too good. I can’t possibly leave it to fester in the dungeon of unfinished posts. If I don’t write it now, work tomorrow or no, it’ll never get written. And it is so worth writing about.

I knew pretty much nothing about Murakami before I read this, just that he wrote some sort-of SFF stuff and was supposedly good. He’s been floating around on the edge of my To Read list for a while now for these two facts, so I eventually (having been paid) got my arse in gear and went to Waterstone’s to squander my riches. Based on arbitrary cover/title-judging and the fact that it didn’t come split into two/three volumes, I picked Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (coming in just ahead of the multi-volume edition of IQ84, because the split of three books into two physical volumes displeased me). I also got a copy of The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris, because I have looked at it every damn time I’ve been in a bookshop, and put it back down regretfully every damn time because it was £12.99 for a relatively slim volume. Oh well. Don’t care. NORSE GODS. Worth it. But that’s for next time.

I didn’t really know what to expect from HBW (I am abbreviating thus for the sake of my fingers), except what Work-Friend had told me, which was that it was “good but a bit odd”. That description does fit, but it really doesn’t do Murakami any justice – good is nowhere near strong enough. I absolutely adored it, every moment. Two days of Tube-commute reading plus lunch break to get me through it, and regretting getting off the train every day and having to stop. Not because it’s gripping and exciting and thrilling, quite the opposite, but because, like Sailing to Sarantium, for instance, it is blissfully, beautifully calming. It is a perfect morning tube book, for this reason. I don’t want to be crammed full of excitement before 9am. I don’t think I’m capable of being much more than apathetic until 11.30 or so. But, like in Sailing to Sarantium, the calm is really compelling and makes a perfect story and a perfect experience, without the need for excitement and drama to keep everything going.

I’m not saying nothing happens – plenty goes on – but it is all delivered in a gentle, measured tone that strips away the energy without stealing any of the artistry. Handled less well, it would be ridiculous – the characters too trusting of the otherworldly setting to make any sort of instinctive sense at all – but he manages to pull it off with barely an awkward slip. I think my only criticism would be of the dialogue – it doesn’t quite avoid awkwardness, while the narration escapes it altogether. It’s not so bad as to be jarring or really irritating, but enough to notice, at least at first. You get used to it after fifty pages or so.

Everything builds up this sense of measured pace, up to and including the fact that none of the characters have any names, in either thread; they are the unnamed protagonist, the Chubby Girl, the Professor, the Librarian and so on, made abstract rather than personal. This comes across in their characterisation too, though more in some than others. They aren’t blank slates, empty and a bit flat, but nor are they fully fleshed out (like a Pratchett character, say). I actually rather like it, though I really haven’t in other things (see: The City and the City by China Miéville) – possibly just have to be in the right mood for it.

The pacing is likewise undramatic – slow and measured and perfectly spaced between the two narrative threads, which draw closer and closer to each other as the story progresses, the sizes of chapters (I think?) getting smaller and smaller as they draw closer, but only by tiny degrees. Things happen, goings on go on, but it’s all taken, no matter how exciting, in a measured and calm way, filtered by the strangely calm viewpoint of the protagonist.

I know I’m going on and on about one thing, but it is the overwhelming sense I got from HBW, and a theme which runs very strongly in one of the story threads. It balances the surreality of what’s going on in the plot, and makes it all seem almost acceptable.

The other aspect I like the most, I think, it how little exposition you get. You intuit things more than work them out, exactly, and if I had to explain what I think happened by the end of the book, I’d phrase it more in “I think…” than in actual certainties. There is one specific chapter when a lot gets explained, but even that is a little vague and nebulous. Beyond that, you are left to interpret a lot of what you’re given as best you can or as you see fit, and there are several ways I can see that interpretation going, depending on how you want to think about it. Quite hard to explain without spoiling, really.

Overall though, it’s a rather wonderful “down the rabbit hole” sort of story, with all the excitement sucked out, without harming the quality of the narrative in any way. It’s not at all tropey, at least in terms of other things I’ve read, and if the rest of Murakami’s stuff is anywhere near as good, I shall be throwing plenty of money his way soon. Would strongly recommend.

Next time, probably much squeeing, flailing of hands and gnashing of teeth, because mythology and Loki and amazingness. Hopefully I will actually get back into the habit of this blogging thing.

(Additionally, I love the covers of the Murakami books they had in Waterstone’s. Partially because they’re really pretty and minimalist, but also because they’re the extra-floppy, nicely textured paperbacks that are really forgiving of movement and don’t get damaged very easily at all. These things are important.)

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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