I had a dream, which was not all a dream. — Darkness, Lord Byron
The Strange Library, a novella by Haruki Murakami with illustrations by Chip Kidd, is an odd, beautiful little book. It tells the story of a lonely, unnamed boy who finds himself imprisoned in a labyrinth beneath a library. The boy’s captor is an old librarian who wants to eat his brains—but only after the boy has memorized the contents of three obscure and weighty tomes on the subject of tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. Two other characters are trapped in the labyrinth with the boy: one is a man dressed in a sheepskin, who makes the best fried doughnuts the boy has ever tasted, and the other is a mysterious, beautiful girl, who can’t speak and who may or may not exist, but who does her best to help the boy make sense of his predicament.
If this strikes you as the stuff of dreams—or nightmares—then you’re on the right track. As in a dream, the passage of time becomes uncertain and the action unfolds in a sequence of increasingly disturbing images and events that shouldn’t hold together but somehow do. We suspect it isn’t real, it can’t be, and the boy himself confirms our suspicions at the end, long after he has escaped from the library basement. He hasn’t told anyone what happened, and he has done his best to to put the ordeal behind him, though he admits that he sometimes still thinks of it:
For a moment we feel reassured, secure in the knowledge that we were right to distrust the strange tale. The boy was never in danger; there is no labyrinth hidden beneath the library, no scowling librarian waiting to saw off the top of the boy’s head and slurp up his brains. The world could never be so cruel or grotesque.
Then, on the last page, a shattering revelation changes everything. What at first appears to be haphazard is anything but. The boy’s dream is not as difficult to bear as the reality it masks.
Murakami renders this heartbreaking story in a simple, unadorned style that makes even the most surreal moments feel understated. The spare prose, translated by Ted Goossen, stands in stark contrast to the book’s physical form, which announces its strangeness in bright colors and bold strokes. Designed and illustrated by Chip Kidd, it is a slim volume, just 96 pages. On a bookstore shelf, sandwiched between the author’s more substantial works, it is easy to overlook. But once it catches your eye, you can’t look away. A pair of oversized cartoon eyes dominate the front cover. They evade your questioning gaze and at first distract from the black-and-white image of a snarling mouth—feline? canine?—over which the author’s name has been superimposed in heavy yellow type. Is this a warning or an invitation ... or both?
From cover to cover, Kidd’s illustrations, which comprise almost half the book, threaten to overwhelm Murakami’s text. The images respond to events in the story, but they aren’t literal depictions of scenes. Kidd takes an impressionistic approach, echoing the brooding atmosphere of the boy’s imprisonment and escape from the labyrinth. The illustrations overlap and compound, sometimes grainy, often magnified, always too close for comfort—insect-patterned paper and an origami bird, a leering moon and a sugary doughnut, obscured faces and staring eyes. The effect is disorienting, hypnotic and—dare I say?—dreamlike. You don’t read this book so much as you feel it.
What does it all mean? The question lingers after a first encounter with The Strange Library. I won’t presume to answer it for you, except to say that the book rewards multiple readings, and it isn’t as opaque as it seems the first time through. Symbols abound, as in any dream, urging you to look closer and delve deeper in search of the story’s hidden meaning. I believe I’ve found the threads that lead to the center of the labyrinth and back out—but, like the boy, I can’t be certain. Perhaps dreams aren’t really so different from reality after all.
Read Similar Stories
Rounding out our coverage of the 2017 Hugo winners, with special congratulations to Lois McMaster Bujold for winning the first-ever "Best Series" Hugo Award.
In Miller's poignant debut novel the power to control and the power to discover truth are superhuman abilities in a world where everything is in doubt.
The Unbound Writers appreciate Hugo Award nominee short stories.
No one is reading more dark fiction than Ellen Datlow. Her knowledge of the horror genre is deeper than mine or yours.
It's Lent. What better time to contemplate Catholics in space? Theodore McCombs and CS Peterson discuss The Sparrow, A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Book of Strange, New Things.
The Reader is a meta-meditation on the mystical act of reading itself. With pirates. And assassins.
Family, identity, and the trouble with relatives living and dead.
Gemma Webster and Theodore McCombs conclude their three-part appreciation of Octavia Butler's groundbreaking Xenogenesis trilogy.
After a politically tumultuous 2016, Jon seeks solace in the fantasy worlds of Beth Cato and V.E. Schwab.
Our favorite books and posts from Year Two.
In our second appreciation of Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, we look at the second generation of Lilith's Brood and his embrace of self-determinism, even at the highest costs.
Is the world ready to say goodbye to the docile black man trope?
Unbound Writers, Theodor McCombs and Gemma Webster, bring you the first installment of their appreciation of the Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn
Fairy tale elements and symbolism in Yaa Gyasi's debut, Homegoing
If you could communicate with the past without changing the present, would you do it? Of course you would.
Authors love to taunt troubled characters with mirrors.
Go big or go home when you're writing about opera.
The interactive nature of video games may not make for the purest, strongest story telling, but this year's E3 proves again games are creating some of the most ambitious speculative universes you can find.
Trivial fiends and ordinary grace in Hilary Mantel's literary fright show.
Two appreciations of Gold Fame Citrus, the debut novel from Claire Vaye Watkins.
Nevada and California battle over water rights on the Colorado River while the city of Phoenix lies in ashes in Paolo Bacigalupi’s post-apocalyptic novel.
Paolo Bacigalupi, the master of the dire sci-fi future, visits Fiction Unbound to talk about black-swan events, speculative fiction's power to contextualize the present, and what he has learned about his own creative process.
It broke my heart, but I did it anyway. I bought an anthology of 72 time travel stories even though not a single one of them was by Jack Finney.
Zelazny's works are essential speculative fiction classics and represent an important step in the evolution of science fiction and fantasy. He mixed various genres to produce entertaining, trail-blazing, genre-bending fiction.
Cromwell is the hero of his own life. Flawed, sure, and antihero most definitely, but hero nonetheless. This strong point of view is an asset in humanizing Cromwell, who is often seen as the cunning right hand to a fickle, sex-crazed violent king -- a role that would typically be characterized as a villain.
Military space opera sends carefully-crafted heroes on bold interplanetary adventures where ethical choices are not always black and white. Complex plots explode with military action, side love interests and high consequences for war's losers, while its themes often explore the consequences of bigotry and prejudice.
In The Lunar Chronicles, Marissa Meyer re-imagines four classic princesses and their associated princes. With the five-book series now complete, it's time to unpack these princesses and see what patterns, new and old, have emerged in their heroic journeys.
In "Revolt 1680/2180," an exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, artist Virgil Ortiz explores a post-apocalyptic world informed by the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680, where the future echoes the past.
A look back at the year that was. At least, the cool stuff.
How do we insert the wonder of short stories into the crowd of things there’s no time for as easily as we watch our favorite Netflix shows? Speculative fiction podcasts!