The story is split between parallel narratives. The odd-numbered chapters take place in the 'Hard-Boiled Wonderland', referred so in the headers. It is called so because it is like our 'real' world with perceivable logics. The narrator is a "Calcutec," a human encryption system who has been trained to use his subconscious as an encryption tool. The Calcutecs work for the quasi-governmental System, as opposed to the criminal "Semiotecs", fallen Calcutecs who work for the Factory, a rival organization. The narrator completes an assignment for a mysterious scientist, who is exploring "sound removal". The narrator eventually learns that he only has a day and a half to exist before he leaves the tangible world for the created universe inside his mind. The even-numbered chapters deal with a newcomer to 'the End of the World', a strange, semi-steam-punk, isolated walled Town surrounded by a perfect and impenetrable boundary. The narrator is in the process of being integrated into the town. His Shadow has been "cut off" and this Shadow lives in the "Shadow Grounds" where he is not expected to survive the winter. Residents of the Town are not allowed to have a shadow. The narrator is employed as a 'Dreamreader' wherein he is expected to read and remove dreams from the skulls of the Beasts: herd animals kept by townspeople. He must discover the strange truth about the town before it is too late and before everything changes forever. The two worlds must collide in the end, but which one will survive to prove its reality?
Murakami rarely sticks to any defined context. He has attributed his novel to being influenced by the 'gritty-detective-stories' of the '50s and yet it is distinctly cyber-punk in its settings. Most disturbingly (for the reviewer at least!) his theme of self-exploration and style of auto-absurdist presentation is deeply reminiscent of Franz Kafka.
The two parts are written in different styles in the original Japanese with the 'Hard-Boiled' part being in the more formal style and the 'End of the World' in an intimate mode of address. In the English language translation this effect is achieved by the narrator using the past and present-tense narratives respectively. Murakami is gripping and slippery as always: sneakily interspersing satirical commentary with classical references in his characteristically blink-and-you-miss-it manner. However, this is one his more disguised novels. It appears comedic and light throughout to leave the reader in an almost despairing state of melancholy after the conclusion.
I loved it. I don't usually play favourites with books but this is one of the clearest winners. Light in style (i.e. un-heavy) and yet dark (i.e. black-like) in theme, Murakamis foray into the recesses of the human mind is of Kafkaesque proportions. He tingles, he shocks, he bludgeons and leads you on. But most of all he makes you laugh: at the world without and you a part of it, at the world within and you as it and at the world as a part of you both within and without. Elegant, multi-layered and witty, Murakami proves that he is one of the few successors to Franz Kafka.
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