This early work by Murakami gives tantalizing glimpses of the otherworldly imagination he'd hone to near-perfection in later novels. Indeed, said imagination appears to have sprung fully formed from his cortex. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World may not always be consistent in tone or execution, but it's often brilliant and always utterly unlike most anything else on the racks. It's like a game of hide-and-go-seek in the playground of the mind, where the true nature of self is just a little too well hidden to be found. Philip K. Dick fans and those who enjoy stories that get off on exploring inner rather than outer space ought to have a whale of a time with this.
Murakami's whimsical adventure is a not-quite-noir, not-quite-cyberpunk, not-quite-mythological mashup whose hero is, quite literally, searching for his own mind. It runs two parallel storylines. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland, the unnamed narrator is a "calcutec" working for the System, in a near-future (?) alternate Japan where information is the ultimate currency. The System's chief rival is the Factory, which employs Semiotecs. Their goal is to pirate knowledge produced by the System and make it available on the black market, while saving the choicest pieces for themselves. That this story predated the p2p craze by nearly a decade really raises my estimation of Murakami's skills at innovative thinking quite a few notches.
Our hero is like a biological encryption device, running coded information through one hemisphere of his brain, scrambling it, and spitting it out the other. This talent was achieved through a procedure in which his "core consciousness" was isolated and firewalled, so to speak, deep within his brain, destroying many of his memories into the bargain. When he undertakes a delicate job for a rather wacked-out professor who's developed a means of deadening sound, he finds himself up to his eyeballs in a crazy plot and a race against time to stop a process that could lead to the destruction of his core consciousness itself.
The concurrent storyline, The End of the World, has, again, an unnamed narrator with total amnesia about his previous life. He finds himself in a mysterious walled town whose few inhabitants lack normal emotional responses, and golden-furred unicorns roam the fields only to freeze to death in the winter. It soon becomes clear what this town is: the other narrator's isolated core consciousness. But it's still a brilliantly rendered literary device, as our hero, throughout both of his storylines, undertakes perilous journeys — one underground, in a sequence reminiscent of ancient mythological voyages into the underworld, and the other solely within the confines of his walled boundaries, where dangerous areas like the deep eastern forest and the whirlpool represent hazardous regions of inner turmoil — all in the goal of piecing himself back together.
There's a lot of full-on comedy at work here, particularly in the Hard-Boiled chapters, where several absurd supporting characters turn up to riff on the tropes of the noir genre. There are the obligatory heavies who turn up at our narrator's apartment to threaten him with nothing in particular, then trash the place just to do it; and the femme fatale in the form of the professor's plump, flighty, and not especially vampish daughter. This tone is contrasted, sometimes jarringly but never without interest, with the haunting, elegiac and almost narcotic mood of The End of the World, where the imagery often evokes a dream environment where you know you can't stay, but somehow can't bear to leave.
Thematically, Murakami explores the nature of selfhood, the way in which who we are is entirely defined by the experiences and memories that comprise our consciousness. Take away all memory, and what kind of person would you have? How would that person possess any kind of individuality, without recall to the events that shape personal development? Of course, Murakami never makes the mistake of taking himself too seriously when playing around with this stuff, and the result is a delectable little literary eccentricity.