Simply put, this novel defies categorization: one part Hardboiled Detective, one part Cyberpunk, one part Science-Fiction, one part Fantasy, one part Literary, one part existential exploration, pour it all into the pot and stir it up and what you have here is a truly inventive novel that is its own thing. This novel is living proof of the infinite possibilities where one can take fiction if one allows for their doors and windows to remain open and be receptive to those possibilities. Not a perfect novel by any means (there were parts I thought could have been shorter) but the overall effect of this book was nothing short of outstanding, thought provoking and yes, even entertaining. There is a lot to think about here and although the story tackles some heady issues concerning existence and the workings of the mind, it is accessible to the general reader and doesn’t bog you down too much with scientific and psychological theory, although there is plenty of it for those who are interested in that. Murakami has one hell of an imagination. Although clearly his own man, you still sense traces of Kafka, Pynchon, Burroughs, Vonnegut and at times Knut Hamsun influences on the work.
At its core, this is a Postmodern Science Fiction story although the blending of the differing genres enhance the experience. Murakami is a hell of a stylist as well, which is probably why he finds fans among the Literary crowd, at least in the Western world. (He was once reviled in his native Japan for his willingness to experiment). There are two parallel stories here, or so it seems at first, its structure patterned like the right and left side of the brain. Set in Tokyo - presumably some time in the future (you don’t really know for sure) - the “main” story (“Hard-Boiled Wonderland”) concerns a man who is hired by a scientist to “shuffle data” for his scientific experiments on the brain. A lot of people are interested in this data; the System, who protects data and the Semiotecs, who steal it. Many subjects were first hired to work with this data but all but one died - the narrator of the story. Little by little, what seems like routine work for him becomes mired in intrigue and mystery and soon he is the target of those who want him to unlock the secrets of the scientist’s work, and he is pulled into this world against his own will, with he himself trying to understand what is going on.
The parallel story (“The End of the World”) reads like a fantasy or a fever dream. The unnamed narrator enters a place called “The Town”, which is surrounded by a wall and the only way in and out is through a main gate guarded by a man called “The Gatekeeper.” In this town, beasts (unicorns) roam freely and are routinely herded out of the town in order to later die when the winter months come. In this world, no one is happy, no one is sad, but everyone is content, living a seemingly endless existence where knowledge of their previous world slowly dissipates until it is completely forgotten. A person’s shadow holds these memories of the past world but one cannot enter the town with their shadow. Their shadows are literally cut off and banished to an area of the town called “The Shadow Grounds” where they eventually weaken and die and once they die you are forever part of The Town, your Mind ceases to exist. The narrator, having just had his shadow cut off and banished to the Shadow Grounds, still feels the pull of the old world and flashes of memory still haunt him. He is allowed to have irregular contact with his shadow but little by little his shadow is dying, his last connection to where he had once been. (His shadow is a fully developed character in and of itself and you will empathize with him/it.) He is given the job as “Dreamreader”, which entails working at a library at night and reading snippets of old dreams from the skulls of the beasts who die in the winter months. But the pull of the old world remains strong and he is determined to find the answer to all his questions.
These chapters read like someone’s dream and it written so deftly that the reader becomes immersed in it and the wild fantasy imagery becomes completely plausible. Murakami allows you to feel and see everything the narrator is experiencing and you can even empathize with the characters who inhabit this world. For anyone who has ever had one of those bizarre dreams that make you scratch your head and dig through all the symbolism upon awakening, you will appreciate these chapters.
These chapters alternate throughout the novel and the reader gets about half-way through when he starts to get the impression that “The Town” is actually the workings of the narrator’s subconscious mind and a close reading of what is taking place in “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” will reveal, in ever so slight ways, the parallel events taking place in “The End of the World” until the mystery is solved and the two stories merge. Towards the end of the novel it becomes an exploration on the workings of the mind, the meaning of the Self, and poses the question whether or not one would rather live in the world and be subjected to its horrors, its disappointments, its unhappiness but still maintain the core of who they are or to live in one’s own mind, separated from the world, losing the Self in order to feel peace and tranquility.
Like I said, there is a hell of a lot to think about here. One thing is for certain, though. After reading this, I guarantee you that you will never look at your shadow the same way again.