Friday, August 8, 2008

haruki murakami's "what i talk about when i talk about running: a memoir" book review

maybe my expectations for this book were too high? the short, slim volume arrived last friday and i couldn't wait to start it. after having read "the running novelist" in the "life and letters" section of the new yorker magazine in early june, i pre-ordered haruki murakami's "what i talk about when i talk about running: a memoir" from amazon - a month before its scheduled u.s. release date.

a few pages into chapter two, i was overcome with one of those - "this stuff seems awfully familiar" kind of feeling. no doubt that was a result, i quickly discovered, of having already read the entire chapter (practically verbatim) in the new yorker! pages 24-47 of the 180 page book was the material published as the "running novelist." while i've read plenty of excerpts of works in progress which, in turn, found themselves between the covers of the published work - this was different and, to me, disappointing.

i'm not sure if that slightly unpleasant discovery permeated my subsequent take on the book. as much as i enjoyed reading chapter two - twice as it turned out - i was underwhelmed by the rest of murakami's book. the majority of the material was written in mid-2005, as he trained for the upcoming nyc marathon, and then in the summer of 2006. however, the presentation is anything but linear. in fact, one of the most jarring aspects of the book is the breakaway from the completion of his marathon training to altogether unrelated material, without bothering to tell the reader the outcome of his race!

the transition from the lame end to chapter 7 (and his training cycle): "on the day of the race, as i run those very streets, will i be able to fully enjoy this autumn in new york? or will i be too preoccupied? i won't know until i actually start running. if there's one hard fast rule about marathons, it's that." (his emphasis, in original text), to the start of chapter 8: "right now i'm in training for a triathlon." - was the singular low moment of the entire book. but it got worse, as his abrupt change of gears continued on about bicycle training(!) and then the coach he hired to improve his swimming technique!

granted one-third of a triathlon is about running. however, when the title of a book is "what i talk about when i talk about running" (which itself, as a quick aside, is a nod to raymond carver's book, "what we talk about when we talk about love," which murkami translated into japanese), i didn't think it was an unreasonable assumption to expect most of the talk to be about running! but the most unforgivable breach, in my opinion, was the off-handed return to the 2005 nyc marathon story midway thru the chapter - literally, brought back to our attention as an afterthought. it's as if he sought to bury the details - a time that turned out to be his personal worst marathon performance.

then, something sure to be familiar with runners, he breaks with his routine of one marathon a year and enters boston in an effort to redeem his poor performance in the nyc marathon. that didn't turn out as he expected, finishing in a roughly similar time as he did in nyc. but the startling element of this narrative (as too, his description of the nyc marathon) - it wasn't in real time. again, it was as if he stopped talking (writing) about RUNNING through two significant events (nyc and boston) and suddenly started up again that summer. and, unexplainably, he spent chapter 9 (the last one) on the details of a triathlon!

not to end on a down note, the two parts of the book i enjoyed were his 1983 solo run from athens to marathon (the reverse direction), which had been previously published as a magazine article. and then his mid-90's performance at a 100k ultra at lake saroma in hokkaido, japan. the ultra material is especially fascinating because, aside from his wonderful description of the race itself, he discussed his encounter with a long period of "runners blues," to use his terminology, and how he suddenly seemed to lose interest in running. but that period changed his focus and led to his participation in triathlons.

as a consequence, he now focuses on one marathon and one triathlon per year. "what i talk about when i talk about running: a memoir," was a mixed bag from my perspective. murakami, a world-class novelist, creates extraordinary fiction. however, this detour into non-fiction was entirely pedestrian. maybe it was the translation? the subject-matter? who knows? since i finished the book wednesday night, as i proctored a midterm for my students, i can't help but assign it a letter grade: B-


Kevin said...

From reading your review, I thought you were going to give it a D.
Glad you reviewed. I'll make sure to stay away from it when it makes its debut.

rundangerously said...


it is a running book after all! that alone would have started it off with at least a c!

but, seriously, despite the shortcomings, it's well worth reading. i did enjoy it1