The elevator continued its impossibly slow ascent. Or at least I imagined it was ascent. There was no telling for sure: it was so slow that all sense of direction simply vanished. It could have been going down for all I knew, or maybe it wasn't moving at all. But let's just assume it was going up. Merely a guess. Maybe I'd gone up twelve stories, then down three. Maybe I'd circled the globe. How would I know?
The opening paragraph (for such this is) of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, by Haruki Murakami, encapsulates so much of the flavour of this unique and faintly unsettling novel in its cluster of brief sentences that it would be impossible to begin anywhere else. Here is the distant, disconnected protagonist, whose literal disorientation in the elevator mirrors his emotional detachment, and which will be echoed and amplified as the tale goes on. Here are the themes of perception, reality, and how the one can distort the other past the point of recognition. Here is the tone, of half of the book, at least: a dry-witted, casual drawl, resigned to its own bemusement and laden with half-rhetorical questions, like a movie voiceover... a noir, as will become apparent.
Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a novel of two halves. In all sorts of ways. It is two stories, told in alternate chapters. Hard-boiled Wonderland is a Tokyo-set near-future detective tale in which our hero's esoteric mission goes all manner of wrong. He is a 'Calcutec', and his job is data-protection, which he performs by rearranging and encoding it as numbers in his mind, a process taking many hours. Its chapters all begin with three-fold titles, apparently-random lists (the first is "Elevator, Silence, Overweight") of concrete objects, places, and people, and/or abstract states of mind, often touching upon Western pop culture and consumer society. The significance of the items, and their connections to each other, remain inexplicable until they are encountered during the chapter (and sometimes not even then).
The End of the World plays out in an isolated, fantastical city, where the meadows are grazed by unicorns and our protagonist has a role not unlike that of a Calcutec. He, too, is a filter for information: he reads dreams from skulls stored in an old library, by staring at the skull until it glows to his altered eyes, then reading the streams of light with his fingertips. Its chapter headings are singular, unified, and much less impenetrable - "The Library", or "The Coming of Winter" - and its characters operate within a clearly-, though mysteriously-, defined network of roles and responsibilities. It is a world of contentment, of certainties, but also one in which inhabitants must surrender their shadow (and thus their memories and selfhood) as a condition of entry.
There is a map of the city at the beginning of the book, which much resembles a diagram of the human brain - and here the major concern of the novel first becomes apparent. It is some time, however, before the first explicit crossover takes place, when the hard-boiled protagonist is given a unicorn skull by his client. Events, of course, spiral into chaos from there, as he finds himself pursued by his employers and their rivals, and learns terrible truths about the procedure by which he was created a Calcutec (the explanation of which is a little laboured, unfortunately, and might have been better left in the impressionistic realm ruling the rest of the plot). He is properly sanguine about it all, as any good noir (anti)hero should be, although this does have the effect of rather distancing him from the reader, and rendering him less a full and compelling character (rather than just a vehicle for themes) than he might be; it is tricky to divine what makes a man tick when he barely seems to react to anything.
One senses, in any case, that this is all by-the-by for Murakami; his interest, here, is rooted in an exploration of the unconscious, and of the metaphorical rather than the emotional workings of the brain. The focus is upon the little details - the books read, the films referenced, the food eaten, the nail clippers given as a gift - and how they operate in the mind, stimulating, suppressing or altering memory, identity and perception. And, in so doing, how in every moment these details transform the world for the owner of that mind.
Ultimately, one story is a reflection and projection of the other, and is also happening within it - but what precisely it (and more particularly the choice made at the end) signifies is, I think, up to reader. I've read a review that suggested Hard-boiled Wonderland symbolises the flightiness and opportunity of youth, and The End of the World the settling down to responsibility and routine of middle-age. My own feeling is that entry to The End of the World denotes a surrender of idealism and vitality and imagination (ironically, it being fantastical) along with the shadow; Hard-boiled Wonderland may be harsh, but there is selfhood there (unless, um, you're a Calcutec suffering from the emotional dislocation inherent in being a Murakami hero...). YMMV.
As a novel, Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is many things - deliriously experimental, swift-paced, darkly funny, charmingly odd, somewhat cold, and occasionally clumsy in its over-eager inventiveness - but it's certainly food for thought.