I seem to have developed a fondness for approaching great writers via the road less traveled. I read John Cheever’s “Journals” before his stories and novels. I got around to Joseph Brodsky’s poems, in “A Part of Speech,” only after reading “Watermark,” his short book on Venice. Martin Amis? I started off with the bits of journalism in “The Moronic Inferno” and then moved on to “Money.” And now I commence my reading of Haruki Murakami, not with “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” or “Norwegian Wood” but with this little book about running. I’m guessing that the potential readership for “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” is 70 percent Murakami nuts, 10 percent running enthusiasts and an overlapping 20 percent who will be on the brink of orgasm before they’ve even sprinted to the cash register. And then there’s me, the zero-percenter: a non-running Murakami virgin. Oh well. The supreme test of nonfiction is that it be interesting irrespective of the reader’s indifference to the subject under discussion, and a great writer’s work is obviously beflecked with greatness whatever the occasion. So the terms of the test are clear.
Murakami began running seriously when he was 33, in 1982. In recent years he has covered an average of six miles a day, six days a week and has competed in more than 20 marathons. In 1996 he completed an ultramarathon of 62 miles. Lately he’s developed a fondness for triathlons, and although he’s fighting a losing battle these days against his own previous (that is, younger) race times, he has no intention of quitting. To give up running would be like giving up writing, which would be like giving up living. When he crosses the ultimate finish line his gravestone will, he hopes, read:
Writer (and Runner)
At Least He Never Walked
The book is part training diary, part reruns of escapades undertaken at the behest of magazines (including an excellent account of a solo assault on the original route from Athens to Marathon in the full scorch of summer) and part memoir. Narrative incentive is provided by the looming prospect of the 2005 New York City Marathon. Some of the nicest touches derive from stuff he notices out of the corner of his eye, on the hoof, as it were. As a quick chill descended on Boston in the fall, “even the faces of the squirrels looked different as they scurried around collecting food.” Or there are moments when he views himself and his fellow triathletes as they might appear to an outsider, as “a bunch of pitiful dolphins washed up on the shore, waiting for the tide to come in.”
“What I Talk About” is the latest installment in a pleasant mini-tradition of writers bunking off from their day jobs to take their sporting hobbyhorses out for a trot: Robert Hughes on fishing, John Updike on golf, Joyce Carol Oates on boxing. Sometimes this interest is entirely that of a spectator (Oates), sometimes it is that of a keen if limited practitioner (Updike); always it engenders quasi-philosophical musings. Murakami exaggerates when he describes his own thoughts on “the fleeting nature of existence” as “very philosophical,” but running certainly has closer kinship with the labor of writing than any other sport. For Murakami, long-haul running is not just a metaphor for the loneliness of the long-distance novelist; it’s pretty well synonymous with it. In the style of Albert Camus — who claimed that much of what he knew about morality and duty he learned from soccer — Murakami believes that “most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day.” Specifically, he believes that writing requires, in order of priority, talent, focus and endurance — all of which find their complements in the habit of running. Writing, he thinks, is “an unhealthy type of work” because it brings the author face to face with the “toxin that lies deep down in all humanity” and without which “no creative activity in the real sense can take place.” Even if you don’t buy into this — and I don’t see how you can, unless you throw in the dully dampening qualifier that it depends on the kind of creativity involved — the more modest claim, that running is a useful antidote to sitting on your bum and writing, is easy to accept. The discipline needed to keep running when you don’t feel like it, the constant instruction to your body to cover the requisite number of miles, offer immediate parallels with the grind of meeting your target of however many words a day. Murakami is not dogmatic. He knows that for writers, as a Tobias Wolff character put it, “there is no such thing as an exemplary life,” but an unyielding regime of running and early nights is what’s enabled him to keep churning out critically acclaimed best sellers.
Murakami may be addicted to running, but hey, it seems a lot healthier than Mishima’s bodybuilding trip — and nothing about the book under review suggests that Murakami will disembowel himself and get a friend to cut off his head. Even so, aspects of his training involve such extremes of self-torture that even the most tolerant reader will find them questionable, for the unpalatable truth is that Murakami listens to Eric Clapton while running.
Is there any connection between the music Murakami listens to and his own prose? In races he is conscious of his fellow competitors’ running styles in the same way “two writers perceive each other’s diction and style.” Jogging alongside him we get ample opportunity to check out his literary style, at least as given to us in this translation from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel.
To characterize it as briefly as possible: easy on ear and mind alike, it’s the type of prose I would call sort of pretty poor. Running is “sort of a vague theme” (i.e., not just vague but vaguely vague), and the book is “a kind of memoir.” Murakami sort of likes this kind of thing, not just as an indistinct modifier but as a form of category-definition. He’s the “type of person,” “kind of person” — I lost track of the number of times this came up — who likes “sort of laid-back” music and is “sort of a brazen person” who sometimes has “a sort of arrogant attitude.”
I have not made a comparative study, but I suspect that the most tedious four-word combo in any language is “As I said earlier.” Murakami wastes no time demonstrating his mastery of all the variants of this heart-sinking turn of phrase. It first pops up on Page 12 — difficult to see how it could have come any earlier — and its cousin “As I mentioned before” appears five pages later.
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.
In an afterword Murakami explains that part of the motive for writing the book was “to sort out what kind of life I’ve led.” If he’d written “sort of sort out” I would have forgiven him everything, but instead, he goes in for further self-incrimination. Apparently, it took quite some time to “carefully polish and rework” the book, and he “needed to revisit the manuscript many times over a period of time.” So it’s a straight choice: either he’s the kind of writer who’s a pretty poor editor of his own stuff or this kind of lazy repetition is deliberate. But if it is deliberate, what conceivable purpose is being served? Thomas Bernhard uses incessant repetition to screw his prose into an excruciating ball of angst, and occasionally, Murakami’s short-order tics bunch up so close that they almost run away with themselves: “As I’ve said, I’m not a very competitive type of person.” The sloppiness reaches an anticlimax of sorts when, in the midst of a “pretty disorderly” swimming race, he becomes “kind of confused.” The rest of the time this accumulating cloud of imprecision, this lack of linguistic focus (one of his trinity of crucial qualities, remember), seems “kind of lethargic” and succeeds in making us identify closely with “the type of person who, once he gets sleepy, can fall sound asleep anywhere.”
Now, I don’t know how representative this book is of Murakami’s novelistic style, but I wonder: Is this low-maintenance, attention-deficit prose part of Murakami’s attraction, especially among the young? Do people enjoy reading him for the same reason they persist in listening to music as blandly familiar as Clapton’s? If Martin Amis is engaged in a “war against cliché” — a phrase in danger of becoming a cliché itself — then Murakami, on the evidence of this book, is a serial appeaser. How much does his thigh hurt? “Like crazy.” How do we know the weather is nice? Because — as he tells us (twice) — there’s “not a cloud in the sky.”
It’s not all bad, of course. There are flashes of quality, as when his muscles feel “as hard as week-old cafeteria bread,” but most of the time his prose, unlike those muscles, is so laid back that it can barely stand up (to even moderate scrutiny). As he imagines an editor saying about a memory evoked by another musical favorite, the Lovin’ Spoonful: “It’s not bad, but it’s sort of ordinary and doesn’t amount to much.”
Geoff Dyer’s new novel, “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi,” will be published next spring, this article published at nytimes