Please halp me grok
July 30, 2008 9:52 PM   Subscribe

[spoilers within] Please help me understand the ending of Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

Specifically I'm wondering about the choice he had to escape the town with his shadow (which means returning to reality right?) or stay in the Town with the librarian and read dreams. Why did he choose corporeal death and eternity in the lifeless town over reality? won't his mind fade once the shadow is dead? he alludes that he thinks he can hold on, but then what is the point of the shadow anyway? maybe he was choosing to turn on tune in and drop out, opting out of the materialistic society, especially since his job with the System was probably not his to go back to? he was disaffected, but his life wasn't THAT bad...
posted by drgonzo to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Wow, thanks for asking this question - I read this book a couple weeks ago and I was similarly annoyed by how arbitrary the ending felt, because the entire book it felt like he was going to do the opposite.

Can't help you...but I look forward to what others have to say.
posted by crinklebat at 11:09 PM on July 30, 2008

It's been like five years-ish since i read it, but the impression that I got was that both stories are simultaneous tellings of the same events and it's up to the reader to determine which one is reality. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe I'll re-read.
posted by knowles at 11:29 PM on July 30, 2008

Have you read any other Murakami? Norwegian Wood is the only novel of his I've read that has anything like a coherent ending (and even that one is a bit of a cop-out). All of the others have been about the journey rather than the destination. By which I mean that he seems to just say 'okay, finished that one' then write one more chapter which stops the story but doesn't explain anything. So maybe it doesn't mean anything at all.

(I still like him, though)
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:08 AM on July 31, 2008

It helped me to think of HBW as a book that is about identity and not knowing your own identity. I'm gonna give MY idea of the ending and I hope you write yours out before you read mine...

Our calcutec hero remembers basically nothing of his own past (a major byproduct of the procedure to become a calcutec?), he essentially is severed from reality... also we get the sense that in the dream world he literally is wiping his own memories away, (although this might simply be part of the the end of the world sequence activated by the scientist)

His shadow is the glimmer of his past self, that fights to get him to leave his self-created reality ... but his dream character (I believe) chooses against his shadow, in favor of the only real world he knows.

Alternatively his shadow (his original identity) is allowed to escape and realigns with his own original self, his brain lives out the EOTW sequence (essentially living forever), while his physical body still dies.

Or maybe by keeping himself in the ETOW forever he keeps the balancing act going, and his physical body gets to live, I don't think it matters in either case. Each of his personalities is as real as the others.
posted by stratastar at 4:29 AM on July 31, 2008

This is actually my favorite book, but even so, I don't think I can give you any kind of perfect answer. I think one key thing (possibly a major cop-out, maybe by Murakami) is that there's no set connection between the world of the depths below Tokyo and the System and the land with no shadows. The character is clearly meant to be existing in both of these worlds, but not in such a clear mind/body split. I think, in essence, the shadow would somehow help him to recover his past (sacrificed to become a calcutec) in the 'real' world. The thing is, the character in the town has no memory of that life, no conception of the life we would think to be his real life. His life in the walled town only knows that he's met someone, and would sacrifice all that he doesn't know to find out what he can learn about where he is now, and who he is with. I think it's almost certain that by staying, he will find himself in the woods, though, lending a sort of pain to his decision.
The key, though, is that in Murakami's worldview/novels the character's decision to stay has no impact on his body, not in our world. He will, as per the laws of the town, live on for however long, but the effect of chosing the town over the shadow will have some sort of magical realism 'no effect'. Maybe the body will die. Maybe he'll go comatose, or maybe he'll just cease to be. He will, however, live on in the town, because that was his choice.
Last thing, and I can't recall just now, but wasn't there something about the model of calcutec that he was that was inherently unstable? Wasn't he, Johnny Mnemonic style, burning out anyway? His life expectancy wasn't very long, wasn't it? Maybe that throws a different light on it.
Either way, as you can see, no perfect answers here, but it's a stunning book. Try Wind-up Bird Chronicles for something with even less of a typical ending where things are wrapped up and explained. Still good though.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:00 AM on July 31, 2008

Last thing, and I can't recall just now, but wasn't there something about the model of calcutec that he was that was inherently unstable? Wasn't he, Johnny Mnemonic style, burning out anyway? His life expectancy wasn't very long, wasn't it? Maybe that throws a different light on it.

Well the scientist explains that it was some sort of internal fissure/ contradiction that allowed him out of all the early models to survive. The scientist by trying to figure out what it was that allowed this set off the ticking time bomb that was the EOTW storyline, before that he was stable.
posted by stratastar at 7:17 AM on July 31, 2008

Best answer: It's been a while since I read this one, and I should probably go back and reread it before attempting to answer this question. But whatever.

Isn't there a girl in the Town that he's interested in? And there's also an old lady who lives in the woods who still has part of her shadow or something? I think Murakami's protagonist believes that he can "save" the girl and "save" himself and somehow make-it (whatever that means) in the Town or in the Woods or something. I think his shadow represents his conscious self and the "normal" world. The protagonist believes he can reject the normal world and reject the Town, but still somehow retain his conscious self and create his own reality. And also get the girl. I think one of the major themes (of Murakami in general) is how the individual can strive against typical societal values in order to create his own world based on his own set of values.

Like the Wind-Up Bird protagonist who chooses to go in the well and "go through the wall" to save his wife, the EOTW protagonist stays in the town in order to "save" the girl (and himself) from some ineffable, metaphysical doom.

As someone else said, this is typical unresolved, and somewhat unsatisfying Murakami at his finest.
posted by Wayman Tisdale at 8:26 AM on July 31, 2008

read norwegian wood (if you haven't already). there's a similar other-world in that book, but it's within the main story timeline so the meaning is clearer. in that book it's a lot clearer (the hero returns).

dance, dance, dance expands on the idea that the parallel universe offers only temporary solace and protection.
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 8:40 AM on July 31, 2008

meh. forgive even poorer than usual editing, please.
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 8:40 AM on July 31, 2008

Best answer: It's been a while since I've read this book but I will echo most of the sentiment above, esp. about Murakami being a journey>destination author.
I interpreted the ending as being him willing to fight, without certainty of winning yet suspicious of doom, for what could be great instead of settling for the ordinary. I believed that even though the protagonist in the EOTW didn't recall his backstory, he still could feel that where he came from wasn't all that great. He digs this chick and is willing to fight for her and he believes that he can accomplish it.
I thought that by letting his shadow go he would briefly "leave" the real (Tokyo) world and go into a coma/die but, if he succeeded in breaking out of the EOTW he would awaken or be reborn.
posted by shokod at 1:57 AM on August 1, 2008

Coincidentally, I was in the middle of this book when this question was posted, so I had to wait till I finished the book to read the post and answers. Here's my take: There was never any choice. The idea of the "choice" was just a part of the story that he had created in his mind. His choosing to stay was just the embodiment of that junction of his physical mind shutting down. There was no way he could have made the choice to leave with his shadow; that part of his brain was physically available. The whole idea of the "choice" was just another construct of his "story" -- just like all the other aspects of how those junctions in his mind work were dramatically represented to him.
posted by chaplinesque at 8:57 PM on August 6, 2008

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