Thursday, January 22, 2009

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

[Just because I've got the weight of the world and not a lot say about it at the moment, here's a review I wrote of Haruki Murakami's running memoir that was originally intended for the Toronto Star last fall, before the book section there started shedding pages. Thank you to the Star and Dan Smith for letting me reprint it here.]





What I Talk About When I Talk About Running Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel Bond Street Books/Doubleday Canada $27.95

Despite the plainly informative, Carver-biting title of Haruki Murakami's newest book, the hardest thing for a reader to do is decide what it's actually about. Ostensibly, it’s a kind of memoir of the globally popular Japanese author’s obsessive dedication to long-distance running, a sport he took up in the early eighties after selling his successful jazz bar and starting out as a novelist. (He felt he needed the exercise.) In the introduction, he admits that he has been trying to write this book for ten years without success. “Running is sort of a vague theme to begin with,” he writes, “ and I found it hard to figure out exactly what I should say about it.” On the evidence here, it would appear he never did figure that one out.

The connections between novel-writing and marathon-running are fairly obvious: the loneliness of the act, the single-minded discipline and sheer will power required, the need to best your own previous efforts, and so on. Murakami returns repeatedly to these themes, but never with any central point in mind or with any sense of enlargement. In fact, there seems to be no organizing principle at play here at all, so we are left with accounts of Murakami’s various marathon runs, detailed run-downs of the training he does before each, and only the barest of glances at the one activity we can only assume holds a higher place of importance in his life than running: writing.

The slackness and seemingly off-the-cuff nature of the book would not be such a problem were the writing itself vivid or revelatory or simply interesting enough to draw us along. Instead, we get only the banal ramblings of a writer who is either unwilling to reveal the kind of complexity that could be more usefully channelled into fiction, or – scary thought – who is genuinely this dull.

Consider these nuggets of wisdom:

“Forgive me for stating the obvious, but the world is made up of all kinds of people.”

“Some people can work their butts off and never get what they’re aiming for, while others can get it without any effort at all.”

“You have to wait until tomorrow to find out what tomorrow will bring.”
Etc., etc. Elsewhere, the music of the Lovin’ Spoonful is described as “sort of laid back and never pretentious,” and there is an admission that being old “feels really strange.” If this is how casual his published prose can get, I shudder at the thought of the man’s e-mail style – does he even bother with words, or does he just drag one sleepy arm across the keyboard and hit “Send”? It’s possible that some of this can be laid at the feet of the book’s translator – possible, but not probable, given the abundance of Hallmark-worthy sentiment crowding the book.

Murakami says that he is often asked what he thinks about as he runs. His answer: “I don’t think much of anything worth mentioning.”

As with running, so with writing about running, it would seem.

1 comment:

Dan Donaldson said...

"The connections between novel-writing and marathon-running are fairly obvious: the loneliness of the act, the single-minded discipline and sheer will power required, the need to best your own previous efforts, and so on."

you forgot to add, the tendency for thousands to begin, and only a few to finish, the habit of showing up at public events wearing trackpants, and the willingness to take drinks offered by strangers (which are usually spilled down one's front, thrown on the ground or poured over one's own head) .