Marathon man: It never occurs to you, reading Murakami’s novels, that his characters look Japanese. Courtesy Rex Features
In his new memoir, Haruki Murakami reflects on life as a ‘running novelist’ and ponders the meaning of a marathon. Youssef Rakha logs his discontent with the great storyteller’s descent into pop wisdom.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Translated by Philip Gabriel
Aug 18, Dubai — Day 1
Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (translated into English by Philip Gabriel), is the only book I have with me on my tour of the Emirates, and so far I am not gripped by it. For the first time since I discovered Murakami, it looks like I will not be enjoying one of his books.
The stated focus of What I Talk About is Murakami’s life as a writer, a runner, a runner who writes and a writer who runs – not inherently boring topics. But however much Murakami labours to present himself in an everyday, informal register, to “just write honestly about what I think and feel about running”, the fact that he is a famous, best-selling novelist remains paramount; everything in the book tells me I am to be interested in his thoughts on life and productivity not for their own sake, but because they have been issued by Haruki Murakami, Famous Author. This will clearly undermine identification.
Even worse, I cannot help fearing that Murakami himself will end up exemplifying a disturbing notion often expressed by the writers in his novels: that, in an “advanced capitalist society” like Japan, producing copy for publication is as ingloriously Sisyphean as an “shovelling snow”.
Aug 19, Ras al Khaimah – Day 2
“Writers should be read,” wrote Daphne du Maurier, “but neither seen nor heard.” As I predicted, I find it hard to appreciate Murakami when he speaks in his own voice. Having declared himself a professional novelist, my favourite shoveller stops producing the (Raymond) Carver Effect (That’s it exactly! And exactly as I might’ve written it myself!).
As Carver himself put it: “Anyone can express himself, or herself, but what writers and poets want to do in their work, more than simply express themselves, is communicate.” And surely this means shedding your professional writerly persona (if you have one) – forgetting for a while whatever status you have acquired since you were young. But in What I Talk About, Murakami remains too conscious of his success to achieve the necessary and expected intimacy.
He takes care to distinguish himself from “legendary figures” like Shakespeare, Dickens and Balzac – whom he takes to have been so prodigiously talented that questions of routine, discipline, running and so on are irrelevant (this is absurd, but a topic for another essay). Instead, he counts himself among “the remaining majority of writers”, the “many who write for a living”. Here he forgets not his own status, but the fact that literary success remains fickle. He forgets that a writer might be talented, work hard, produce good work and still, for arbitrary or circumstantial reasons, not sell – or even be noticed at all. In mental and physical spheres where commercial English-language publishing does not exist, members of the real “remaining majority” of writers live and die with neither access to nor desire for a global market. They write to write, and make their money otherwise. Where does the author of a memoir predestined to sell across the world, no matter how bad it is, get the nerve to speak for them, even indirectly?
Aug 21, Ras al Khaimah – Day 4
Had What I Talk About been an efficient Murakami novel, it probably would have started 27 superfluous pages later than it actually does, and it would go something like this: at exactly 1:30pm on April 1, 1978, while watching a baseball game and sipping beer at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, the young owner-manager of a hip new jazz club was gripped by the sudden urge to write a novel. Over the next few months, working for one hour each night, he wrote his first short novel, Hear The Wind Sing. In 1979, it was published in Japan’s most influential literary magazine. The young man decided to sell his thriving club, move out of Tokyo with his wife and adopt an efficient routine: to get serious about writing. He stopped smoking, took up running and in due course started pounding out phenomenal full-length novels.
Murakami takes running to be the magic ingredient in all this. Chapter Two, Tips on Becoming a Running Novelist, ends on this hyperbolically epic note: “Thirty-three – that’s how old I was then. Still young enough, though no longer a young man. The age that Jesus Christ died. The age that Scott Fitzgerald started to go downhill. That age may be a kind of crossroads in life. That was the age when I began my life as a runner, and it was my belated, but real, starting point as a novelist.”
But since this is not an efficient Murakami novel, it goes on. Convinced that his running and writing are so essentially linked that any information about the former will illuminate the latter, Murakami proceeds to essentially share his training logs for marathons, ultra-marathons and triathlons. He observes a bit, reminisces a lot and reveals little. He writes around running, not about it.
Aug 22, Ajman – Day 5
Four chapters in, I am struggling to place What I Talk About in Murakami’s oeuvre.
Platonically speaking, there are two Murakami books. Book A – which occurs in its purest real-world form in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World) – is an exercise in universe construction, an otherworldly cerebral puzzle with brilliant dramatisations of complex, abstract intellectual premises. It is off-putting to hear the author of Book A write with overbearingly false modesty, as he does now, “I’m not the brightest person” and “I’m a physical, not intellectual type of person.”
Platonic Murakami Book B – Norwegian Wood being the closest thing – has more to do with character and coming-of age, and is full of references to pop culture. Book B produces the Carver Effect in spades, particularly for young people.
Big, complicated but readable Murakami books like The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore and the distich of A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance work by combining the immediate psychological appeal of Book B with Book A’s supernatural /philosophical underpinnings. So do smaller works like South of the Border, West of the Sun and Sputnik Sweetheart. Even Underground, Murakami’s account of the 1995 gas attacks on Tokyo’s subway system, has its magical elements.
What I Talk About is the first Murakami book that bears no traces of Book A. In this sense, it prompts questions about whether or not it is really (as many commentators assume) the Carveresque readability of Murakami’s novels that make them so compelling. Without at least a bit of the deep wacky stuff, it seems, my friend Haruki just doesn’t work.
Aug 24, Abu Dhabi – Day 8
Now that I have finished What I Talk About, I realise that its entire message is simply stated by the title of its fourth chapter: Most of What I Know About Writing Fiction I’ve Learned From Running Every Day.
Murakami elaborates on that message with the kind of platitudinous pop wisdom that perennially inspires young would-be writers: “To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm”, etc. But the is either unable or too complacent to articulate the connection between long-distance running and novel writing. “I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist,” he writes, “my work would have been vastly different. How different? Hard to say. But something would have definitely been different.” Maybe it is this failure that makes the book most disappointing.
“Easy reading is damned hard writing,” wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne. Reversing that logic: for the first time since we met, my good friend Haruki seems to have done some damned easy writing.
Sept 1, Abu Dhabi – Day 16
Leafing back through What I Talk About, I am struck by how American it is. Not that you expect anything particularly Japanese from Murakami. It never even occurs to you, reading his novels, that his characters look Japanese. Nor do you find serious evidence of Japan’s fawning embrace of its erstwhile conqueror’s culture. Sure, Colonel Saunders appears in the flesh in Kafka on the Shore, but that does not undermine or seem out of place with the novel’s engagement with Shintoism. Norwegian Wood may be named after a Beatles song, but it still tells a culturally rooted story of love and loss against the backdrop of Japan’s 1960s student movement.
Murakami’s novels transcend cultural barriers not so much because they are acultural, but because they evoke a sort of universal openness: to the imaginary, the uncanny, the implausible, the out-of-place, the curious – to everything, as long as it is compelling, as long as it works. These are the origins of the Sheep Man of Dance Dance Dance, who plays the music of destiny on a switchboard in an extraterrestrial hotel room; and Toru Okada, the Wind-Up man, sitting quietly in a dry, abandoned well near his house in suburban Tokyo, looking for his lost cat …
What I Talk About leaves us with a different, banal image: a man in his fifties jogging every morning through Cambridge, Massachusetts with Brian Adams’s 18 ‘Til I Die playing through his earphones. It is fine to be that man. But to build a memoir around that image, some attendant facts about muscle pain and training regimens and a sprinkling of gnomic wisdom is not open: it is narrow, a tunnel of suburban triteness.
Writing is a tricky business. It takes talent, focus and endurance – the three qualities Murakami lists, in that order, as necessary for his “manual labour” of completing novels. And it is interesting to hear that (albeit not much about how) running has helped him with the last two of those elements. But writing novels – at least novels like Murakami’s – also takes a sort of subversion: a willingness to obsess over feelings and images ignored by most people in their everyday lives. In his eagerness to underline the importance of discipline and good health to his success, Murakami overlooks this. It’s a shame: surely all that running – all that solitary, self-inflicted pain, itself practice for more of the same – can tell us something interesting about where Murakami is writing from. But he has little to say on this subject.
So why must he upset me now with this otiose memoir, a book that will remain marginal to his achievement? Perhaps Murakami is, for whatever reason, desperate to convince himself that writing is just a job like any other. Perhaps he is just writing honestly, or trying to. But everybody knows that writing honestly is not the same as writing well. Putting away this little hardback, I know I will never pick it up again. I can only compare reading it with Murakami’s own experience of finishing a marathon in less-than-satisfactory time: “I guess I should be proud of what I’ve done, but right now I don’t care. What makes me happy right now is knowing that I don’t have to run another step, Whew! – I don’t have to run anymore.”
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