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3rd May
2010
written by Steph

There’s always a lot of talk in the book blogosphere about genre fiction, often in the vein of “why does genre fiction have such a bad rap?” as well as people arguing that putting up barriers in fiction and labeling what we read is both artificial and limiting.  Notably, Margaret Atwood is one author who has claimed at one time or another that she doesn’t write “science fiction” (as though such a suggestion is distasteful), but that her writing is “speculative fiction”.  Terry Pratchett has cheekily stated that “magical realism is like a polite way of saying you write fantasy”, while Gene Wolf has opined that "magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish.” Whether it’s romances, western, military fiction, mysteries, or yes, fantasy and sci-fi, there is this pervasive view that genre fic, is somehow not proper writing (and as a corollary, I suppose, that those who read it are not doing proper reading).  Nymeth has spoken out about her dislike for the term guilty pleasure, because of the indirect implication that the work in question is of lesser value. Of course, at the end of the day, why do we need to label what we read? If a book is well-written, imaginative, emotionally honest, and provocative, then I want to read it, regardless of where I have to go in the bookstore to find it.  Often times, my favorite books are the ones that are difficult to define and pin down, those so-called “genre-benders”. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (henceforth known as HBW), is one such book. The back cover of the book doesn’t even bother really trying to give a synopsis of the book, and I think that’s a good call.  For one thing, it would be hard to do because there’s so much weird stuff going on in this book.  But for another, half the fun is trying to figure out what exactly is happening and how everything pieces together. The novel is told through interleaved chapters, with two seemingly unrelated storylines: one set in Tokyo, and one set in an odd place called the End of the World. I think if I had a quick and dirty summary on the back of the book, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the book nearly as much. I spent the first 50 pages or so being utterly baffled about what I was reading, but just decided to go with it.  Ultimately the two deranged stories are linked and do make sense, but if I’d known in advance how they would join, I’d have been denied that wonderful moment of insight where the clouds part and you cry, “Ah ha!” I would hate to deprive you of that, so I’m not going to talk about the plot; you’ll just have to read it yourself to find out what this is all about.  All I will say is that despite my evasions, it’s a book worth your time. This was my first Murakami novel, so I had no idea what to expect going in.  I had vague ideas that maybe the writing would be sterile (as I’d read some reviews suggesting that readers had a hard time connecting to his prose), or that the content would be intensely intellectual and difficult to parse.  I found neither of these things to be true.  The writing was really engaging, fun and quirky (and oddly British in its cadence and jargon, I must say), and the plot was philosophical, but also zany and weird and really accessible provided that you don’t mind your fiction more than a tad bizarre.  As I was reading HBW, I kept remarking, “I didn’t realize how strongly fantasy-based this was going to be!” and I meant it.  I certainly didn’t expect there to be unicorns in the book.  (Sing it together with me: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that…”) So yes, there are unicorns in this book.  And there are also things called INKlings (which I must admit I never fully figured out) as well as secret underground labs hidden behind waterfalls. But it’s also a really interesting examination of human consciousness (which, by now I’m sure you know fascinates me), namely the ways in which our subconscious and conscious minds interact and inform one another.  I thought the notion Murakami explores of us having a secret self that may be truly us, but also inaccessible was very cool. I like my fiction to tell a good yarn, but I also love when it makes me pause and reevaluate my own conceptions of reality and what I believe about the mind and human beings.  I love the feeling you get when you sense that fiction holds the key to a very real mystery; it may not tell you the entire truth, but I often feel it can provide an interesting and important perspective for examining an idea that holds some wisdom at its core.  I may not understand everything a book has to say, but I do like when I walk away from one feeling like my mind is a little bit more accommodating to challenging and exciting ideas.  That’s what I feel HBW did for me. AND it managed to be fun while doing so! If you decide to take a gander at this book, you’ll find it shelved in the Literature section.  But it could just as easily be shelved in the Fantasy area, too.  Try not to hold that against it, because personally, I think it’s great. And as for Murakami, I’m really glad I have a copy of Kafka on the Shore, and I’ll happily read anything else by him that comes my way. Rating: 4 out of 5

19 Comments

  1. 05/03/2010

    The only Murakami that I have tried has been The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I had some trouble with it and wasn’t able to finish it, and I am not exactly sure what the problem was, because it has been so long ago. Since then, I have read several really great reviews of his other books, and have really wanted to give another one a try. I like the fact that this book borders on fantasy (and I admit to being more than a little intrigued that it contains a unicorn!) and think that your review makes it sound really interesting, so I am going to give Murakami another try. I will also be curious to hear what you think of Kafka on the Shore, as that is another one that I have heard good things about. Wonderful review. You have inspired me yet again!!

  2. 05/03/2010

    Great review and excellent point. Since I often venture with pleasure into the realms of sci-fi and fantasy, this is a relevant issue for me, especially in my own mind lately! This book sounds AWESOME. Must really try some Murakami soon.

  3. 05/03/2010

    You are so right about labeling books. When we put labels on things we tend to make a judgment about something without being open to what it has to offer us. I can admit I’ve shied away from SF and Fantasy in the past because I didn’t think I would like it. I couldn’t have been more wrong! This book sounds like something that would blow my mind a little bit (in a good way).

  4. 05/03/2010

    I’ve read several of Murakami’s novels and his work is just brilliant! Each book is refreshing and fun and just takes you to places you wouldn’t have imagined. So glad to see you enjoyed this book and am glad you are going to read more of his work!

  5. 05/03/2010

    I haven’t read Hard-Boiled Wonderland but I have read Norwegian Wood, (part of)The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Kafka on the Shore. I thought Kafka was great, but I was speaking to a woman who has run a book club for 6 years, and she said that, in those 6 years, Kafka on the Shore is the only book the members unanimously disliked. I don’t think she even said the title. I think she just said it was a Japanese author and there were cats, and immediately I knew: Haruki Murakami! Are there cats in HBW?

  6. 05/04/2010

    @ zibilee: I have to confess, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the book I’ve always wanted to read by Murakami… but it turns out most people tend not to like it! So I may very well read it one of these days, but I think I’ll read some other Murakami things first!
     
    @ Sarah: This book was AWESOME! 😉 It was frenetic and wild, and I’m so glad to have finally read some Murakami!
     
    @ Kathleen: Yes, expect your mind to be blown in a good way! I admit that I don’t spend tons of time seeking out sci-fi & fantasy, but I definitely think I need to be more open to things from “the genres”. There are a lot of great books there that tend to be overlooked, I think.
     
    @ Nadia: Glad to hear you’ve had such a good experience with Murakami! I’m really looking forward to reading more by him!
     
    @ charley: There are NOT cats in HBW! So at the very least, the person you were talking to couldn’t have been talking about this one! Since Kafka on the Shore is the only other Murakami I currently own, it will likely be the next Murakami I read!

  7. I’ve never read Murakami, but this book sounds fun. I love books that give you a big “ah ha!” moment in them, so thanks for not ruining it 🙂

  8. mee
    05/03/2010

    charley: but there are cats in every Murakami’s books :D. He has a few constant recurrent themes, and one of them is cat.

    Steph, I can’t believe you hadn’t read Murakami before! I’ve read four and my favorites are Norwegian Wood (his only book that doesn’t have fantasy element) and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. I didn’t like Kafka on the Shore much though, but I know a lot of people do. I intend to read Hard-Boiled Wonderland as my next Murakami.

    I hate the genre label too and they confuse me. Murakami’s books are always in literature section and nobody ever describes them as fantasy or magical realism. Why? “magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish.” made me chuckle.

  9. Lu
    05/03/2010

    Murakami is one of my favorite writers, I have pretty much loved everything he has written. After the Quake was easily my favorite. As for magical realism… I know this isn’t the point of your post, but there is a distinct difference between magical realism and fantasy, though I would say magical realism is underneath the umbrella that is fantasy, in much the same way urban fantasy is as well. Magical realism is set in the real world and magical fantastic things happen, but it is completely normal. It is not a separate world, it is our world. That is the largest difference, but I agree that there is a stigma against fantasy that does not exist against magical realism and it’s ridiculous. Sherman Alexie talked about this in his interview with Nancy Pearl after his book Flight was published. Because he was a USian author, a lot of the reactions to the book were against him using any fantasy elements. It’s all ridiculous – a good book is a good book and I wish all readers believed that.

  10. 05/04/2010

    @ Kim: Yes, I love when you get a great “ah ha!” moment with a book. I find it happens so rarely for me these days, so I treasure those moments when they do happen!
     
    @ mee: I’ve wanted to read Murakami for about 4 years but never made the time to do so! I’m so glad I finally did! I really can’t wait to hear your thoughts on HBW!
     
    @ Lu: Thanks for your thoughts on magical realism! I hadn’t thought about it the way you pose it, but I think you make good points about MR having first a foremost a place in our own world.

  11. 05/05/2010

    I started a Murakami and abandoned it recently (apparently it was his most “normal” novel) and I honestly don’t know what to think of this one after reading your thoughts. Other than the unicorns gets me quite interested in it.

  12. 05/05/2010

    I loved Kafka on the Shore…it was a total trip. My friend named her fish Oshima, which makes sense in a weird way if you’ve read the book. 😀

    But that’s the only Murakami I’ve read. As much fun as Kafka was, I just can’t imagine reading his books close together…I think I’d burn out quite quickly. But I am starting to think it’s time to read another.

  13. 05/06/2010

    @ Rebecca: Which novel was it? I know you’ve been into Japanese lit lately, but I feel like Murakami is kind of in his own little world! 😉
     
    @ softdrink: There are few authors whom I like to binge on in close succession. Maybe Tana French. But otherwise I like to take big breaths in between so each book can be its own star.

  14. 05/06/2010

    Steph, I started Norweigan Wood. It had lots of blatant modern sex scenes, which are not my thing. I read about 120 to 150 pages, but it was torture for me to keep reading that much.

  15. 05/15/2010

    Steph, I’m currently in the middle of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and, like Rebecca said, there are “blatant modern sex scenes,” which I find offputting, but then, take away those parts, I am enjoying it so much I couldn’t put it down. I was in the hospital for 5 hours yesterday, waiting to have an xray done, and I never noticed the time, having the book on hand. I think you will enjoy the other Murakamis. I have only read Kafka on the Shore before and it was, WT@*! was that about? But again, I found it unputdownable. I think it is hard to appreciate Murakami when someone isn’t even a little attracted to fantasy because it just crosses the line between the real and absurd, zigzagging in between. I, for one, do not crave him when I am not reading him (often even thinking I’ve no desire to go back to his world), but while his book is in my hands, I can’t help but giving myself wholly over.

  16. 05/15/2010

    P.S. Just to make myself clear, I loved Kafka on the Shore, even if I didn’t really get it. It sticks. Also, I love fantasy A LOT.

  17. 05/16/2010

    @ claire: I can see what you mean about him not necessarily being a craveable writer – I really enjoyed this one while reading it, but it didn’t make me desperate to read everything else by him RIGHT NOW. I think that when I find books of his at good prices I’ll pick them up because they’ll surely entertain me, but there are plenty of other authors and books I can read in the interim!
    But glad to hear you liked Kafka on the Shore… I am glad I found a copy of it!

  18. 05/19/2010

    It’s funny how Murakami’s novels are often classed as literary fiction when there are a lot of fantastical elements in his work. Doesn’t bother me, as I love his writing and I love sff too!

  19. 05/21/2010

    @ chasing bawa: Yes, I completely agree. I think it’s an interesting tactic, though I have to say, it’s made me wonder what makes a book count as literary fiction and not something else!

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