David's Reviews > What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
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Mar 11, 2009

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The audience for this book--a memoir of the author's life as a writer and a marathon runner--is probably limited to distance runners who are Murakami fans. It’s not a bad book, but it doesn't begin to approach the power and mysteriousness of Murakami's fiction.

Part of the problem is that it shows up the weaknesses of Murakami’s writing style. He has a very low wattage, meandering, conversational narrative style. It's almost an absence of style. It’s not like, say, Richard Yates’ style in Revolutionary Road, which reads as totally transparent, but where the craft that went into creating the illusion of transparency gleams off of every word. Murakami's prose doesn't grab you by the lapels. Rather it gradually pulls you in, building to a cumulative effect that is absorbing and quite moving.

It also hints at and evokes a kind of metaphysical surround, a dimly perceived spiritual or metaphysical current flowing through ordinary events. For example the subtext of The Wind up Bird Chronicle is the spiritual aftereffects of the Japanese role in World War II.

This element is largely missing from What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It’s not entirely absent. The passage about how Murakami was inspired to become a writer has some of these qualities—he’s sitting in the stands at a baseball game and suddenly the thought occurs to him, as far as the reader knows out of the blue of the afternoon sky, “I could write a novel.” One night soon thereafter he comes home late after closing the jazz club he owns, sits down and starts writing, and in short order finishes a novel. He mails the only copy of the manuscript to a literary competition and forgets about it, until he receives a letter informing him that he’s won a prize. This inspires him to keep writing. Coincidence is a big theme in Murakami, and the power and mystery of this tale comes from the way the random but ideal circumstances of the day seem to pull the conviction that he could write a novel from out of thin air. He then acts on it, without much expectation or much at stake. He seems to win the competition as much by chance as by destiny, and his subsequent career as a writer also seems fortuitous up to a point.

The other side of the story is the way he seizes the chance offered by fortune and works diligently to turn it to his advantage. This is where running comes in. Eventually he sells his jazz club and begins writing full time. Writing is a solitary and sedentary endeavor, and he soon begins to feel sluggish and starts putting on the pounds. So he starts running. Running becomes part of the means by which he totally commits himself to the craft of writing and the vocation of novelist. It helps instill the discipline and routine, and provides the physical stamina necessary to sustain a single writing project over a period of months or years.

But the problem with What I Talk About is that, while its not a self help book, it does frequently boil things down to life lessons that seem a bit banal (though not necessarily trivial, because banal as the are they are still good rules to live by). The vagueness and indirection that makes his fiction seem mysterious (and therefore absorbing) makes the prose here seem slack and uninspired, since it doesn't point to much of anything other than Murakami's desire to keep pounding the pavement and writing novels.
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