What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Dan Deluca
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

A tightly focused window into a defining avocation of one of the world's great novelists.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9780307269195
Author: Haruki Murakami
Price: $21.00
Length: 192
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2008-07

Before Haruki Murakami became a novelist, the author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore ran a jazz club. That might sound like a transition from a potentially unhealthy lifestyle to a healthy one. But in fact, as the fanciful and philosophical Japanese writer explains in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running -- which he describes as "a kind of memoir centered on the act of running" -- the opposite was the case.

The idea to become a novelist first occurred to him while watching a baseball game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp in Tokyo in 1978. "You know what? I could write a novel." he thought to himself out of the clear blue sky.

While he was still operating his club, he wrote two, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball in 1973, before deciding to dedicate himself to fiction full-time. "I had to give it everything I had," he writes. "I knew that if I did things half-heartedly and they didn't work out, I'd have regrets." But an unexpected problem arose.

Without the physical exertion required to keep a business running, he got fat, despite smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. So in 1982, he started to run, and hasn't stopped. He has completed more than two dozen marathons, several triathlons, and one 62.1-mile ultra-marathon.

The races, coupled with a training schedule that runs to as much as 186 miles a month, have given Murakami plenty of time to think about running, and writing, and how they intertwine.

In both endeavors, he considers himself "more a workhorse than a race horse." Each is noncompetitive, except with the only person who counts. "What's crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you set for yourself. ... In this sense writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike. Basically a writer has a quiet, inner motivation, and doesn't seek validation in the outwardly visible."

For Murakami, "running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. ... In long distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be."

As he aged, that gospel of self-improvement ran into difficulties for the 59-year-old Murakami, who titled this book after Raymond Carver's influential 1981 short-story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Murakami, who calls Carver "a writer beloved to me," translated the collection into Japanese.

After his late 40s, Murakami's marathon times began to get worse. He hopes that that won't be the case with his novels, and that the discipline and endurance required in long-distance running will aid him in sustaining a level of artistic excellence attained by his heroes, such as Dostoyevsky, who knocked out The Brothers Karamozov just before his death at 60, and Domenico Scarlatti, who wrote most of his 555 piano sonatas between the ages of 57 and 62.

The clean, easily accessible style with inclinations toward profundity that marks Murakami's novels is evident here -- as is the interest in American pop culture that has earned him a devoted audience of Western readers and a teaching job at Harvard, conveniently located near the banks of the runner-friendly Charles River and the 26.2-mile course of the Boston Marathon.

While running, he listens to 1960s pop by the Lovin' Spoonful, Carla Thomas and Otis Redding. He competes in a Japanese triathlon with the title of Bryan Adams' song "18 Till I Die" scrawled on his bike. "It's a joke, of course," he writes. "Being eighteen till you die means you die when you're eighteen."

Readers of Murakami novels such as Norwegian Wood (2000) and After Dark (2007) will find his mind working in similar ways. Just as pretty young girls in his fiction befriend lonely male protagonists in late-night cafes or on long bus rides, they catch the eye of the famous novelist as he goes about putting one foot in front of the other on the paths and tracks of Tokyo, Boston and Hawaii.

And just as Col. Sanders shows up as a quasi-deity from the spirit world in Kafka, a visit to Manhattan for the New York Marathon in November 2005 sets Murakami daydreaming on "the kind of wonderful day when you expect to see Mel Torme appear out of nowhere, leaning against a grand piano as he croons out a verse from 'Autumn in New York.'"

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is by no means the equal of daringly ambitious novels like Kafka and Wind-Up Bird. What sets Murakami apart is his unfettered imagination, and this is a short, introspective work of nonfiction that can be read in less time than it takes to run from Marathon to Athens. (A course Murakami ran in 1983, sucking exhaust fumes in oppressive heat at rush hour.)

It's no juicy tell-all memoir, but something much more intriguing: a tightly focused window into a defining avocation of one of the world's great novelists. It goes a long way toward explaining what makes him tick, and keeps him running.





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.