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HARD-BOILED WONDERLAND AND THE END OF THE WORLD by Haruki Murakami [Book 16 of 2011]

So the nerd blogosphere has been buzzing about Haruki Murakami’s upcoming trilogy 1Q84 pretty relentlessly. The first print run of the first volume sold out on it’s first day of release in Japan. The critics love it. The fans love it. I want to read it so bad I could spit. But, alas, the translated version doesn’t come out here until October 2011, so… I decided it was time to read something else by Murakami. This would be my third Murakami novel; the first was NORWEGIAN WOOD, and I loved it. My second Murakami came in the mid-aughts with KAFKA ON THE SHORE. Again, I loved it. But for whatever reason I had yet to find my way back to another Murakami novel after that. So almost sick with the desire to read 1Q84, I checked to see what all they had on Audible and loved the description of HARD-BOILED WONDERLAND AND THE END OF THE WORLD. Here are my thoughts:

What It’s About: I really can’t neatly sum it up. But the narrative switches between a Calcutec (a sort of human processing and encryption system) living in 80s-era Tokyo and a stranger newly arrived in a strange land.

What Makes It Different: What’s interesting about Murakami is that though you can point to other pieces of literature that have obviously influenced his work (including Kafka, Chandler, and a few Russian greats), nobody could ever call him derivative. It’s like he’s swallowed the white male Western cannon and spit out something wildly original.

What I Loved: Turning on this book during my daily walks felt like turning on a dream. I haven’t been so wholly transported to another world in quite a while. Also I wish I knew how Murakami manages to make the reader feel smart and engaged at the same time. Saying that you’re reading a Murakami is kind of like driving an Audi — it’s got it all: sophistication, status, and it’s really fun to drive.

What I Didn’t Like: The women were all written dead-interesting, but the two protagonists didn’t seem very interested in them. There were a few points when one of the women would say something insanely intriguing, and then the protagonist(s) wouldn’t follow up with a question. I understood and forgave this b/c both men were under really heightened circumstances, but it reminded me…

Writing Lessons Learned:

Have your main characters be curious about other folks. Otherwise they come up as a bit selfish, even if their lack of curiosity is totally understandable. I’m reminded of how Alice Randall masterfully takes Rhett Butler from desirable leading man to insensitive asshole in THE WIND DONE GONE, just by having his former slave mistress realize that her diary is safe out in the open with him, because he’s not curious enough about her to open it.

Make your characters earn information. Murakami has this great writing quirk in that his protagonist is presented with a bunch of questions, goes through some huge physical ordeal, and then gets those questions answered after he’s been through heck and at one point, literal highwater. This makes the novel’s expositional conversations immensely satisfying. When another character has a long multi-page conversation with one of our narrators, basically just explaining things to him and answering any questions he has, the reader having just been through something harrowing with the narrator is happy to just rest and soak up this new information with the narrator.

The more complicated your story, the simpler your writing should be. This novel is written in aggressively plain language with little to no poetic flourish. There are very few people who can pull off both lush language and an unusual concept. In fact Aimee Bender, Toni Morrisson, William Faulkner, and Salman Rushdie are the only writers I can think of who can and have done both well. I read a ton and I can tell you right now, that they are extremely rare exceptions to the rule. Everybody else with a super-complicated story would do well to just keep it simple, stupid.

To Whom Would I Recommend This Novel: Huh, I have no idea. I do get that Murakami isn’t for everyone. It’s kind of like trying to figure out who will like David Lynch. So I guess I’ll start there: Those Who Love Lynch, Kafka, David Byrne, and Brian Eno — oh and Librarians. This novel features one of the most interesting librarians I’ve come across.

Click on either book cover to buy HARD-BOILED at Amazon!