Japanese fiction master gets personal
“What do you jot down about jogging?” late comedian Bill Hicks sneered about deceased health writer Jim Fixx. “Right foot, left foot—faster, faster, umm, go home, shower.” As if in direct response (or, more likely, in tribute to Raymond Carver), Haruki Murakami has written the new memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. As it turns out, there’s quite a lot to say.
Murakami’s first explicitly autobiographical work, Running demonstrates the kind of willful economy necessary for a marathon. Nearing 60, the Japanese novelist has much to mine from his life—jazz, food, American culture, even childhood—so there’s no need to blow it all out at once, as the long-distance writer would be the first to tell you. Like many of his novels’ narrators, Murakami is diminutive and quick to point out his normality. But, also like his narrators, he is utterly unique. Writing about himself through the filter of other topics suits him well.
In Running, Murakami uses a right-foot/left-foot pace to access the same peace his previous fictional characters found between trips down mysterious wells and interactions with sheepmen. “What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue,” Murakami insists. But that’s not true. His writing is effortless, open.
“As I run, I don’t think much of anything worth mentioning. I just run,” he writes. “I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void. … The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky as always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky. The sky both exists and doesn’t exist. It has substance and at the same time doesn’t. And we merely accept that vast expanse and drink it in.”
Murakami uses the same earthbound imagery that grounds his deepest weirdness in a sense of the natural order: “Runners can detect each notch in the seasonal shift in the feel of the wind against our skin, its smell and direction. In the midst of this flow, I’m aware of myself as one tiny piece in the gigantic mosaic of nature. I’m just a replaceable natural phenomenon, like the water in the river that flows under the bridge towards the sea.”
But, even while Murakami finds beauty in his quarter-century of marathon running, at first it seems he rarely offers himself. “I don’t think most people would like my personality,” he admits at one point, deflecting instead of reflecting. “I placed the highest priority on the sort of life that lets me focus on writing, not associating with all the people around me,” he writes elsewhere.
It is a solitary life in which—intricately bound to his identity—running becomes an even deeper solitude. “I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different,” he writes in an essay titled, quite directly, “Most of What I Know About Writing Fiction I Learned by Running Every Day.” “How different? Hard to say. But something would have definitely been different.”
He gives us an intricate catalog of physical details: the state of his body before, during and after running (often down to the mile number), his routines, diets and occasional playlists (The Lovin’ Spoonful, Carla Thomas and Otis Redding). It is a genuine memoir, filled with gentle minutiae that truly communicates the rhythm of Murakami’s daily life and work. With his show-don’t-tell intensity, it seems that much else of what Murakami knows about writing he learned from reading Carver. Murakami actually offers himself whole.
Running inverts Murakami’s appeal. We get only the visible world, as it looks to him before it is refracted into his fictional universe, as if he could merely toggle between the two in his own brain. And, perhaps—like the unnamed Calcutec, a similar narrator in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World who claimed to be nothing special—he really can.