Books

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
Amazon

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.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Music

Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?

Music

Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.

Music

IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.

Music

Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.

Film

NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Music

David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.

Music

Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

Music

Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.

Music

The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

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