The Short Version: Two alternating tales, of a data analyst whose brain may have been altered to carry a terrible secret and of a man just come to a strange town called the End of the World. But these seemingly unconnected stories have far more in common than first meets the eye and the double helix of the story begins to spiral inward…
The Review: At first, the novel feels like it’s two completely different novellas that Murakami just decided to put out in the same book – but with the twist of alternating between them. The connections, at first, are non-existent. But anyone reading even somewhat closely will pick up the trick very quickly, even if they can’t see what the endgame is: these two stories are, somehow, related. But does the gimmick work? Or perhaps more importantly, what does it achieve?
Cyberpunk, as a genre, feels like something that had a brief moment of glory before all but fading away. The stories of Philip K. Dick and Neal Stephenson feel very distinct – even novels like Lexicon are touted as being not descendants of those novels so much as they are just… next to those novels. To put it another way, the genre has not (to my notice, which is admittedly limited in scope) really evolved at all. And so when the reader is presented with a story like this one – or, more accurately, the “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” half of the story – it’s hard not to land in an immediately evoked time and place and style. ‘Hard-boiled’ is a little generous to describe the action here: although it dallies with some noir tropes, it doesn’t really go all the way. Instead, as noted, it is cyberpunk with a dash of fantasy sprinkled in. There’s a whole lot of jargon, most of it completely unnecessary to the actual story, and our unnamed narrator is that Neo sort of ‘ordinary’ guy who turns out to be not so ordinary after all. But the reader never really comes to feel for him. It’s alluded to a few times that the various neurological things that he does (this “shuffling” and “laundering”) might have rewired other parts of his brain – and as such, he’s strangely uncompelling. He seems passive, even when he’s active. And that could be a flaw…
…because the narrator of “The End of the World” isn’t terribly compelling either. His story might be the more exciting because the reader is experiencing this town – this strange town without names beyond job titles (Gatekeeper, Librarian, Colonel), full of unicorns, encircled by an impenetrable wall – at the same time as he is. We’re all discovering things and the mysteries of the town are such that we want to find out more. Indeed, each time the book flipped back to these chapters, I was more engrossed for the simple reason of exploration – not because of the characters.
And isn’t that a problem? To not really care what happens to the main character on an emotional level?
I would say yes – but it doesn’t matter, is the thing. Because the trick that Murakami pulls off here is to make the question of the character’s emotions, feelings – character, even – irrelevant. We read this book like a sort of science experiment: the reward is to see how it does all come together. As mentioned, any reader paying a modicum of attention will put together the first steps of the connection long before the characters do. But there’s still a sense of breathless anticipation that builds towards the end of the novel based around the (no spoilers) question of what will happen. It’s a little bit akin to seeing one of those paintings that can only be properly seen from a particular angle, specifically the way it moves into focus as you move towards the right spot. And as such, as an art piece, it works really well.
But you only realize that that’s what it is when you get to the end – and Murakami’s cool and easy prose doesn’t do the novel any favors before that. It feels like he’s trying his hand at something (at two somethings, really) but because his time is split between both, neither really fully develops. It’s only once you see the whole picture that the achievement… well, comes into perspective.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I had been inclined to feel more ‘eh’ about this novel as I started it but as the strands twined closer together, a double helix coming to a merge point, my appreciation grew. Although it feels largely like a piece rooted in a particular moment (that moment being the early 90s, before we really got what computers could do – and I know full well that plenty of cultural artifacts of this present moment will look similarly amber-locked to generations down the line), the technical wizardry on display is well worth the price of admission.