Book Review: Haruki Murakami on Running—Better for the Nylon-Shorts Set Than Tweed Brigade
Review by Andrew Burmon
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Knopf), by Haruki Murakami, Philip Gabriel (Translator)
Haruki Murakami’s sentences have always ticked forward with the confident beat of footfalls. Even his most surreal daydreams unfurl with pace and deliberation.
In his latest book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a collection of essays on his decades-long career as an amateur marathoner and triathlete, Murakami briefly explores the connection between his runner’s discipline and his writerly reserve. “Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor,” he writes in an essay entitled “Most of What I Know About Writing Fiction I Learned From Running Every Day.” The rhythm behind Murakami’s sentences, he reveals, is the echo of his shoes hitting pavement.
But What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a surprising book. It is not, as would be reasonably expected, an accomplished writer’s victory lap. On the contrary, the book is a slow and thorough tribute to the joy of exhaustion. The reader comes to know Murakami’s knees better than Murakami himself, which is to say that the book is geared more toward the nylon-shorts set than toward the tweed brigade.
The problem created by Murakami’s decision to write a book about himself as a runner rather than himself as a writer is that he is a much more accomplished writer than he is a runner. His preparation for the New York City Marathon leads towards a nicely turned phrase—“I’ve got to save my energy, so I can bring it as a carry-on when I board the plane for New York”—and a middle-of-the-pack finish. Anyone familiar with his novels will be frustrated to hear so little about Murakami’s inspiration and so much about his lactic acid. His long descriptions of his methodical training rapidly become dull and even verge on a caricature of Japanese self-flagellation.
There are also virtues in giving the book a tight focus. When Murakami gets lost in the smallest details of his running, “Breathe in, breathe out,” the book becomes an enjoyable simulation of he manner in which fatigue can distort time. The slower the descriptions come, the more the reader’s pulse quickens.
Unsurprisingly, music is a major part of this book (Murakami’s novels are almost universally named after popular songs). The Lovin’ Spoonful, Bryan Adams, The Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton are all members of Murakami’s motley running crew. Picturing Murakami as a shirtless scholar running through the back streets of Tokyo singing the “hoo-hoo” backup on “Sympathy for the Devil” is charming. Still, Murakami is at his absolute best here, as he is in his other books, when describing quieter moments.
After being passed by several young Harvard women while running near the Charles, he waxes philosophical. “Not to brag,” he writes, “but these girls probably don’t know as mush as I do about pain. And, quite naturally, there might not be a need for them to know it. These random thoughts come to me as I watch their proud ponytails.”
What I talk About evolves, in the closing essays, from being almost stubbornly about running to being about Murakami’s relationship with pain. As Murakami concerns himself less with the mechanics of movement and more with the obscured source of his need to run, the forceful strides of the book’s beginning give way to the intricate stumblings of an aging man. The beat behind the sentences stays steady but ceases to seem mechanical. By conceding the inevitability of his limitations, Murakami finally offers a glimpse into his life as a writer.
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