Saturday, June 19, 2010
I expected to love Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, since it features two of my favorites subjects, jogging and the craft of writing. Throw in a dash of memoir and you have what should have been an inspirational read. I hoped the book would jumpstart my exercise program and fuel my progress through the final revision of my second novel.
To those ends, the book disappoints, but I was still glad I read it. Maybe I was expecting too much from one of the world’s premier authors, but this thin memoir doesn’t measure up to classics like Stephen King’s On Writing or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. If you don’t already love running or writing, Murakami’s memoir won’t do much for you.
Why? Let’s get the bad out of the way first and then discuss what the book does right. Murakami’s descriptions of running feature some of the most flaccid prose I’ve encountered this year. He even resorts to cliché, complaining of it “raining cats and dogs” during a training session for the New York Marathon. Consider this passage about his run between
Marathon, Greece and : Athens
The road within the Athen’s city limit is very hard to run on. It’s about three miles from the stadium to the highway and entrance and there are lots of stoplights, which messes up my pace. There are also a lot of places where construction and double-parked cars block the road, and I have to step out in the middle of the street. What with cars zooming around early in the morning, running here can be dangerous. (Murakami 61)
Note the painful passive tense, the lack of sensory imagery. Much of this book contains exactly these kinds of snooze-inducing descriptions of running. The memoir portions from a man characterized as a “guardedly private writer” probably won’t surprise longtime Murakami fans. We learn he once owned a jazz club and was a former smoker. He collects LP’s and has a special fondness for classic rock and roll. There’s little insight into the man’s psychology, the unique forces and life events that shape a great writer. And maybe this is a good thing. Murakami comes across as slightly dull in his memoir. There’s no messed up childhood, no triumph over alcohol or drugs. This is a record of one writer getting it done. He leaves the magic for his stories.
There are surprises in this book. Murakami discusses artists who hit their peak as they approached middle age, like Dostoevesky, who produced his greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, shortly before his death. The book becomes most dynamic and hits some soaring notes when it makes the connections between running and writing. Noting that both are a matter of talent, Murakami, who doesn’t consider himself talented at either, believes that:
I have to pound the rock with a chisel and dig out of a deep hole before I can locate the source of creativity. To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort. Every time I begin a new novel, I have dredge out another deep hole. (Murkami 43)
Many of us have seen runners crippled by aching joints and bad knees in old age. What Murakami points out in this book is that writing offers similar highs and joys, but also takes a toll that is both psychic and physical. Art always involves sacrifice. In another passage, he makes his thoughts on discipline and concentration abundantly clear:
Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor. Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor. It doesn’t involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high. Most people only see the surface of writing and think of writers as involved in quiet, intellectual work done in their study. If you have the strength to lift a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel. But once you try your hand at it, you soon find it isn’t as peaceful a job as it seems. The whole process--sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track—requires far more energy than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there’s grueling dynamic labor going on inside you. Everybody uses their mind when they think. But a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion. (Murakami 79-80)
When my teaching schedule or home life gets hectic, the first thing I let go is the exercise. The hour a five mile jog—or plod, in my case—is an easy cut. As the papers pile up, or the children get sick, I cling to what little time I have. I keep writing, trying to carve out a little space in the day. What I gained from this book most clearly is a realization of how important my physical health is to the writing that I need to do. If I want to write, I need to run, or like Charles Dickens, take up an evening walk which will allow me to think about the stories I’m working on. I’ll leave with Murakami’s thoughts on these things:
In any event, I’m happy I haven’t stopped running all these years. The reason is, I like the novels I’ve written. And I’m really looking forward to seeing what kind of novel I’ll produce next. Since I’m a writer with limits—an imperfect person living an imperfect, limited life—the fact that I can still feel this way is a real accomplishment. Calling it a miracle, might be an exaggeration, but I really do feel this way. And if running every day helps me accomplish this, then I’m very grateful to running. (Murakami 82)
For the Murakami fan in your family this book is well worth a purchase. For the runner with literary ambitions, it offers some heady delights. It’s by no means a perfect little memoir, but this is a book on writing worth your time and effort.