While not a full-blown literary recluse like J. D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon, acclaimed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami could charitably be called media-shy. He rarely gives interviews, and his surreal, dreamlike novels don’t offer much in the way of autobiographical insight, despite the fact that many of his narrators also happen to be middle-aged male Japanese writers who love jazz and pasta.
So Murakami fans will gleefully note that his new book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, is subtitled A Memoir. After decades of writing about haunted hotels and men made entirely of ice, has Murakami finally let his guard down enough to talk about himself?
Well, yes and no. The good news is that Running is indeed a memoir, where the author himself is firmly under the microscope. The bad news—and the title admittedly provides fair warning of this—is that all he wants to talk about is long-distance running.
Murakami has been a marathon runner for 25 years, having started in an attempt to stay fit after becoming a full-time novelist. Parallels between these two passions dominate the book, but somehow come across as stilted, even clichéd—particularly when coming from a writer whose style is usually no less than dazzling.
Running and writing novels are both largely dictated by internal goals rather than by simply beating others, which is a system Murakami likes because “[n]obody’s going to win all the time. On the highway of life you can’t always be in the fast lane.”
In his fiction, this layperson’s philosophy acts as a compelling argument for common sense in an increasingly irrational world; here, more often than not, it feels like the kind of wisdom you usually see on fridge magnets.
Occasionally, he does focus on his life as a writer, and these sections are more satisfying, although frustratingly brief. In addition to writing novels and running marathons, Murakami translates English fiction into Japanese and is a lecturer at American universities. We get glimpses of both of these, but nothing substantial.
With few insights into the art of fiction and even fewer into running, this memoir will likely be of interest only to Murakami completists.
Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel. Bond Street Books, 192 pp, $27.95, hardcover
(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, August 14, 2008)