What I’d Rather Be Reading When I’m Reading Murakami

My coworker recently suggested a book to me. It is a memoir by the greatest living Japanese author, Haruki Murakami,  What I Talk About When I Talk About RunningThe suggestion made sense in a sort of syllogistic way. I like to run; Murakami likes to run. I am shuffling awkwardly through the great works of literature; Murakami is a milepost on that road.

I have to say it was the worst book I’ve read this year. Not really a book even, but a blog that was run off the printer. Not to demean the blogging craft, but I expect more from a writer who knows his words will be published than this sort of throwaway. Here’s the beginning of the first chapter:

  I’m on Kauai, in Hawaii, today, Friday, August 6, 2005. It’s unbelievably clear and sunny. Not a cloud in the sky. As if the concept clouds doesn’t even exist. I came here at the end of July and, as always, we rented a condo. During the mornings, when it’s cool, I sit at my desk, writing all sorts of things. Like now: I’m writing this, a piece on running that I can pretty much compose as I wish. It’s summer, so naturally it’s hot.

The whole book is like that. Sentences, entire chapters even that have the flavor and consistency of rice cakes. So many things make me angry about this kind of writing. In quick succession:

First, the appeal. Who does this appeal to? I imagine the kind of person wh0 likes this writing is the type who is scandalized by the pornography and ultra-violence of modern culture, iconically represented by such current trash as, oh, the Iliad and Old Testament. Why can’t someone write good clean stuff like they used to in the old days? A mild reflection on the weather, and spare prose about running in lots of different weathers, would appeal to that person.

Second, the arrogance. What kind of arrogance does it take to sit at the keyboard and put this sort of memoir out there?

People are at their best at different times of day, but I’m definitely a morning person. That’s when I can focus and finish up important work I have to do. Afterward I work out or do other errands that don’t take much concentration. At the end of the day I relax and don’t do any more work. I read, listen to music, take it easy, and try to go to bed early.

I hate to say it, but there’s more important things going on. Hell, there’s tons of less important things that are far more enjoyable going on.

All right, all right, I am being harsh. I am sure that this memoir is not so bad. I’m sure instead it is what it feels like, a quickly tossed off series of diary entries that fit in between Murakami’s real work, the novels he (I’m sure) carefully crafts word by word. How can such a beloved author write so flaccidly? I must have it wrong. But then I find the NYT review of the book. Novelist Geoff Dyer, who is also new to Murakami, has much the same reaction. In a damning phrase, he notes the book is “easy on ear and mind alike.”

On Page 25 he tells us that the “kind of” jazz club he used to run was “pretty rare” and served “pretty decent food” and that he was “pretty naïve.” Moving on, we learn that he was “pretty surprised” when his first novel was “fairly well received,” that his Cambridge apartment was “pretty noisy,” that his new running shoes have been “pretty well” broken in, that he is “pretty easygoing” and had “a pretty good feeling for the pace” he would need to maintain in the New York marathon.

Again, I can’t help it, but the arrogance. Haruki Murakami is a man who will, when he is gone, be mourned the world over for his mastery of the written word. A mastery he feels “pretty good” about. (He offers an epitaph in the final chapter.) Is this the damnation of the successful in their later years? Is What I Talk About When I Talk About Running the handbook of the Boomer bourgeoisie? A real life Rabbit is RichBabbitt, and John Cheever cover model in from Tokyo’s central casting.

The book, it is sad to say, tells more than it intends. It tells the story of what success brings, and it is “pretty boring.”

2 Responses to “What I’d Rather Be Reading When I’m Reading Murakami”
  1. Meghan says:

    It is a real relief to read your review. I started to read this book and couldn’t finish it. The story had no real drive or even a plot line, which, having read a lot of running books, I feel is pretty important (runners set goals! The achieve or do not achieve them! Their tales are interesting!). I have heard his other books are great and they are certainly well-reviewed, but this one put such a bad taste in my mouth I haven’t even wanted to try another one of his works.

  2. gold account says:

    Which is, to be honest, a platitude, even if it’s a true platitude. If such affirmations were all What I Talk About When I Talk About Running had to offer, it would be merely a collect-’em-all curio for Murakami fans or, worse, a work of inspirational literature. But an “individual limit,” as Murakami knows (and as the authors of inspirational books tend not to mention) is more of a negative than a positive concept; and it’s in the awareness of the negatives, the limits — of both writing and running — that Murakami’s memoir finds a melancholy richness akin to that which animates his fiction.

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