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Tokyo the Day After Tomorrow : HARD-BOILED WONDERLAND AND THE END OF THE WORLD, <i> By Haruki Murakami (Kodansha International: $21.95; 400 pp.) </i>

What we conquer comes back to ruin us. World War II pointed up the irony. Defeated by the industrial and technological power of the United States, Japan absorbed its lessons and rose to an industrial and technological proficiency that, if it hasn’t conquered our economy, threatens important parts of it.

But in real life, ironies, like happy endings, have no real end. They have to get up and go to work the next day. Haruki Murakami drags them forward into a kind of dismal Monday morning of the Japanese soul.

The young Tokyo advertising men and computer engineers in his novels drink imported Scotch and American (!) beer, dine out Italian, or on Kobe beef--that lethally caloric parody of the American steak--listen to rock music in their spiffy cars, or to Bing Crosby singing the foggy Irish “Danny Boy” on nape-shivering hi-fi equipment in their expensive apartments.

In “A Wild Sheep Chase” Murakami used a Western genre, the action thriller--as deracinated and incongruous as that “Danny Boy"--to suggest not so much the triumph of the Western style as the collapse of Japan’s. In “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” he uses another such genre: a futuristic science-fiction tale.

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This new novel takes place, seemingly, in two utterly different worlds. One is a hard-driving, prodigiously efficient Japan of the near future, where data manipulation is the prize, and two immense organizations vie for domination. The System holds power. The Factory strives for it. In such a chic paranoid set-up, it gives nothing away to say that these two shadowy groups are manipulated by a common, even more shadowy one.

Shadows apart, it is a glossy, high-speed world, and the narrator, a privileged computer expert, lives a glossy and privileged life. As in “A Wild Sheep Chase,” there is an exorbitant amount of expensive eating and drinking in lieu of any more enriching nourishment.

The chapters set in this world intercut regularly with others that present what is, apparently, an utterly different place. It is called The Town. It is dark and deprived, a phantasmagoric, sepulchral community populated by people with no shadows or minds and by herds of golden unicorns that turn white and die in winter. Its central institution is a library stocked with dreams. There the narrator, newly arrived and still in possession of a shadow--which is failing fast--has the job of reading the dreams. Thus he spares the other inhabitants the need to have any.

Again, it gives nothing away to say that virtually from the start, we sense that these two worlds and their narrators are converging.

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The first narrator is prosperous, unattached and in his 30s. He is a Calcutech, a particularly brainy and well-paid computer specialist who works for the System. Through devious means, he is summoned by the Professor, an aged genius who is independent both of the System and the Factory, and who has a lab deep under the city’s sewers.

Since information is the society’s prize, data security is its obsession. The Professor has invented an unbreakable code keyed into the deepest core-consciousness of the brainiest Calcutechs. Of 26 candidates in whom the circuitry is implanted, 25 die. The narrator is the 26th. A mass of data is fed into him and suitably encoded. Unfortunately, before he can be switched back, the Professor’s lab is destroyed by marauders from the Factory.

The core of the narrator’s particular consciousness is his sense that his society, despite its prosperity, imported whiskey and free lifestyle, has reached--for lack of any sustaining soul or culture--the end of the world. Locked in, he finds himself, precisely, in this world’s end: the Town, with its doleful zombie-like inhabitants. Finally, offered the possibility of escaping, he resolves to stay and take care of this second world whose deprivations are, in fact, the grim product of the first world’s prosperities.

Murakami’s allegory is persuasive, but the means he uses to work it out are awkward and often unconvincing. The narrator’s life in the Tokyo of the day after tomorrow is amusingly offhand, a nice, brainless parody of a rootless up-to-date material world. In his quiet moments, which are not many, he goes about his business and his pleasures with an amusing detachment.

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The author’s style changes considerably in the sections devoted to the dark Town. His tone becomes somber and evocative, but he lacks the resources to convey the silvery pathos of this wintry place and of its inhabitants. The images of unicorns and of dream-reading--meant to suggest the qualities of soul that Japan has lost, and that the narrator will try quixotically to recover--seem more morally decorative, even sentimental, than truly suggestive.

The least successful parts of the book are the science-fiction trappings. The Professor and his mind-scrambling projects are expounded at tedious length; they are both abstract and murky. There is a long section in which the narrator, accompanied by the Professor’s virginal but eager granddaughter, trek through perilous underground tunnels and swamps, threatened by leeches, monsters and floods. We get no sense of adventure, much less of tension; it is like one of the duller journeys in the Land of Oz.

Murakami’s gift is for ironic observations that hint at something graver. At his best, he is wry, absurd and desolate. His talent lacks the innocent energy that keeps a complicated plot moving. Here, as also in “Wild Sheep,” we sense the author shoving his machinery along with a considerable dutifulness. He is better at asides and excursions.


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