Translated by Alfred Birnbaum
“What was lost was lost. There was no retrieving it, however you schemed, no returning to how things were, no going back.”
Set in Tokyo at some undefined point in the future, the unnamed protagonist works as a Calcutec, a human data encoder, for the System. The mysterious System is opposed by the equally shadowy Semiotecs of the Factory, who search out ways to crack the codes as fast as the System can invent them. The latest defence against the Semiotecs is an encoding process known as shuffling, but for unknown reasons, shuffling has been suspended until further notice. So when the Calcutec is called to the underground laboratory of the Professor to encode and shuffle research data, he knows that something unusual is going on. All the paperwork seems to be in order, but there is something highly unusual about the situation, and it isn’t long before the Calcutec’s carefully ordered life is unravelling around him. The ability to shuffle bestowed on him by the System is slowly destroying his brain, and the magical subconscious world of unicorns and shadows that exists there.
Haruki Murakami flits back and forth between the waking world, and the metaphorical walled Town that exists only in the Calcutec’s mind, where the Dreamreader must decipher old dreams from the skulls of unicorns while he waits for his shadow to die. As with his more recent novel, 1Q84, it is the slow-building connection between these two disparate worlds that drives the book forward, and the pleasure of reading Murakami’s distinctive prose (well-translated by Alfred Birnbaum) is in slowly fitting all of the pieces together. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is replete with references to classic music, film, and literature, and yet relentlessly post-modern. Both the plot arc and the conclusion are looser and more open-ended than many people will enjoy.
The least enjoyable thing about this novel, however, was spending four hundred pages inside the Calcutec’s head. The Calcutec is a familiar variety of middle-aged male character, of the sort that loves women, but who is constantly sexualizing each woman that he meets, evaluating her physical appearance, and his personal desire to sleep with her. There are two main female characters in his waking world, one of whom he refers to only as “the chubby girl,” or occasionally, “the Professor’s granddaughter.” The opening passages of the novel are spent evaluating the sexual appeal of beautiful fat women, followed by a skin-crawling conversation with her grandfather about how the girl ought to lose her virginity, after which she repeatedly entreats the Calcutec to go to bed with her, though she is seventeen and he is thirty-five. The Professor’s granddaughter is a strong and determined character who saves the Calcutec more than once, but he spends most of his time thinking about her physical appearance. These details frequently intruded on my enjoyment of this novel, and I would qualify any recommendation I might make about the undeniable quality of the prose with a caveat about how gender roles play out in the book.