(Throughout 2014, CCLaP cultural essayist Madeleine Maccar is looking at the classic definition of the "hero's journey," as seen through a series of international texts that she is reading in English translation. For all the essays in this series, please click here.)
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
By Haruki Murakami
Review by Madeleine Maccar
There is nothing quite like Haruki Murakami's brand of world-skewing magical realism, the way its echoes of familiarity transform the hilariously improbable into the poignantly relatable. With Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Murakami has written a novel ostensibly in two alternating parts that converge seamlessly and a bit tragically, fusing the fates of its two heroes with a brutally inevitable finality that is the only possible denouement for the worlds he built and the paths he's constructed between the two.
The novel revolves around the twin travels of a finely tuned, split-brained data processor living and working in modern-day Japan and a Dreamreader who remembers nothing of life before his arrival at the creepily ethereal world's-end village to which he is a newcomer. The data processor, who taps into his subconscious to decode numerical data for a government-run organization, accepts an encryption side gig for a scientist, which sets off a chain of events exposing him to subterranean critters with a taste for long pork, the labyrinthine world below Tokyo, and the true extent of how tightly his and the scientist's pasts are intertwined. The Dreamreader, meanwhile, is the most recent arrival at the blithely idyllic, walled-in Town, where residents are separated from their shadows and he is tasked with reading the dreams stored within the skulls of The Town's deceased beasts, a job that separates him from most of the other residents in that it marks him as still having both the active mind and living shadow that prevent him from being one with The Town.
The data processor and the Dreamreader (neither of whom, as with the rest of the novel's characters, are identified beyond their roles) embark upon two wildly different quests--the former's beginning with a literal journey to the scientist's underground lab before finding out that he's but a cog in a much bigger machine that pits the System employing him against the more sinister Factory, only to join the scientist's granddaughter on a rescue mission that results in the scientist's apologetic explanation of what's really going on, and ending with a race against the faulty time bomb of his own mind; the latter, a far more straightforward mission to reunite with his shadow so they can escape The Town before the Dreamreader loses his mind and his detached shadow succumbs to an especially unforgiving winter.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World begins with two starting points but hurtles toward a unified goal where the two stories are rising to meet each other in the demise of one and domination of the other. As the novel progresses, the similarities between each narrative grow more obvious: Unicorns, librarians, the battle between the self's conscious mind and un- (for convenience's sake, "subconscious" and "unconscious" seem to mean the same thing in the context of this novel), music and water all serve as links between both stories. The Town at the End of the World betrays itself as an obvious mental construct of the data processor (whose understanding of his left and right brain's separation becomes wretchedly ironic the more obvious it is that his conscious mind and subconscious are both dangerously out of sync and creepily mimicking each other), just as the Dreamreader's shadow is the conscious mind's stand-in imposing the data processor's real-world urgency on a subconscious mind that, left unaware, would be content to languish in and assimilate to The Town.
Murakami's dreamy fiction readily lends itself to contemporary adaptations of the hero's journey, rich as it is in enough symbolism to bestow oceans of malleable interpretations on a story while gifting it with the kind of supernatural goings-on that make anything possible and immediately credible. Both of the main characters are plunged into the depths of their respective odysseys, connecting all the prescribed dots along their ways to a singular finish line. Among them: Crossing strange thresholds (a sensory deprivation tank of an elevator and a sound-adjusted waterfall for the data processor, the impenetrable walls of The Town and ritual eye-scarring for the Dreamreader) that signal the onset of their unique, perspective-altering paths; accepting the help of women they've just met (librarians for whom they both forge affections, as well as the scientist's granddaughter for the data processor); facing the burdens of revelations that shatter their worldly perceptions while effectively obliterating whatever peace of mind to which they'd clung (the data processor's realization that the altered mind allowing him to shuffle data is shutting down and will lead to his conscious death while leaving him eternally entombed in the world his unconscious mind has created; the Dreamreader's visit to a fellow outsider bivouacked in The Town's power center yields the accordion that reunites him with the forgotten music that leaves him conflicted between fleeing The Town with his shadow and sacrificing the remains of his mind to stay with the librarian he has come to love); and accepting that sometimes there are no more options to choose from, that a happy ending isn't always possible, or that what one wanted isn't what one was meant for and that facing an unanticipated path isn't always an unhappy ending (the data processor making the most of his last conscious hours and choosing to enjoy them as best he can, and perhaps arriving at the same conclusion that it's not so bad to be lost in one's head if you exist in others' memories; the Dreamreader knowing that it he is meant to live with the mixed blessings of an eternal outsider while still aiding in his shadow's escape).
In the end, both men face the ends of their journeys with a stoicism worthy of the "hero" moniker, as they both fought a good fight but can't force their respective fates from playing out the way they were meant to. In the data processor's case, he will literally lose his consciousness and sink into The Town at the End of the World in his mind; for the Dreamreader, he follows his shadow to mere footsteps' distance from the point of no return before realizing that only his shadow must leave and that he must resign himself to life in The Town but apart from it, his shadow's circumvention of death marking him as a man with a mind who is incongruous with the other residents' peaceful but colorless lives. But allowing the data processor's identity to be subsumed by the Dreamreader's brings about a coalescence of the self that could not have happened otherwise: Assuming the role of the Dreamreader in his internalized Town allows the data processor a reconciliation of two ill-fitting halves with the symbolic death of his shadow and the shedding of his Dreamreader role, as he will no longer be allowed to read dreams as an outsider. He returns to a unified state of being by allowing both of his selves to shed their final conflicting identities.
What makes these journeys especially interesting (aside from the strange places they take their travelers) are the philosophical queries they address. In the battle for control between the overt consciousness and the subconscious mind, there is no clear winner because a personality comprises both halves, and so neither contender has a better claim on the whole when one's rise and the other's obliteration negate the person whom they've claimed as their gladiatorial arena. Though if one really wanted to be obtuse, this novel is allegorical enough to lend itself to a reading wherein the subconscious is the one true hero, emerging victorious to prove that it's better to be lost in one's own mind eternally than to lose one's mind entirely.