TPR Challenge #4 - Haruki Murakami

Yesterday morning, at 7:45, I left my home.  1 hour and 40 minutes later, I returned, having run 10 miles.  On Saturday, I will leave a Nashville hotel room before dawn, stand outside the Country Music Hall of Fame, and wait for my wave to start on our 13.1 mile journey.  I'm running my first long-distance race, a half-marathon, and I started training for it back in mid-summer.  Prior to that, I hadn't run seriously since college, and serious might be an overstatement there.  Since we started training, I have run only one race, a 4.7-mile, hilly course in town, and I managed to come in 3rd in my age group.  Though I have no aspirations of awards on this one, I equally do not fear the distance.  I feel confident in my ability to complete it, and I have a time goal I would like to reach.  I am, essentially, racing myself.

I also feel confident it will not be the last distance race I run.  Some people do something like this just to say they have done it.  Mark it off the list; consider it a task completed.  I, on the other hand, rather like running.  I like the quiet company of my breath.  I like the clarity of my legs turning themselves over, my arms moving without effort, my mind a mere accompaniment.  I like the screech of the trains, the smell of the joint being lit across the street, the utility company graffiti on the sidewalks.  So, I know I will continue running even after those 13.1 miles are logged next week.  And I'm thankful for Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running for helping me see how relevant this act should be to my life and my writing. 

I've heard of Murakami as the buzz has risen over the years, but I hadn't yet read him when I saw his name among the collected The Paris Review interviews.  Though I still want to read some of his fiction (please make a recommendation below, dear reader!), the timing was too perfect to not take on this memoir/essay collection about distance running.  So, I downloaded the audiobook to my ipod, and on the occasions when my running partner and I were separated, I listened while I ran.  I do love audiobooks, but I rarely ever listen to them.  Typically, I'm not in the car long enough at any given stretch to give them proper listen, and when we go on trips, we listen to lots, but they are all for the 5-and-under set.  So, this was an unusual way for me to "read" Murakami, but his words were the perfect complement to my solitude. 

In fact, there were numerous coincidences that made the experience more than traditionally relevant.  He started running at 33; I've just returned to it at the same age.  He prefers Mizuno shoes; Mizuno is also my preference (although I'm wearing Brooks right now).  He is a Japanese novelist with worldwide acclaim; I - - - oh wait.  But similarities aside, I enjoyed hearing his thoughts on running, on becoming (and staying) a novelist, on living his life as he knows how to live it.  It resonated in me.

I'm not sure I would have appreciated it quite as much had I been reading the written text, but this medium and this time worked for me.  I don't have passages to comment on (as carrying a pencil and a Moleskine is particularly difficult in running shorts), but I can turn to the TPR interview, which was published in 2004, approximately a year before he began writing the essays collected in What I Talk . . .

A lot of the questions (and responses) pertained to craft, style, practice, and while I value those elements, I wasn't taken with them.  Like the Dorothy Parker, my paired reading actually revealed much about the author that was also handled in the interview.  So I had already been enlightened, I suppose you could say.  I already felt I knew this man as a person, much more than as an author, so the interview was just a continuation of that knowledge.  But a few points made me pause.

In addressing his readership in Japan, he says:
The average salaryman spends two hours a day commuting and he spends those hours reading.  That's why my big books are printed in two volumes: They would be too heavy for one.
I am just fascinated with the idea of the average person reading for two hours a day.  What a powerful wellspring for a society!  Can you imagine what it would look like in America if we all chose to read for two hours a day?  It would change the very fabric of our beings, I am convinced.  And I wonder how true it is.  It must be true enough to warrant the separate printings. 

Then, in discussing reality vs fiction, he responds:
I don't want to persuade the reader that it's a real thing; I want to show it as it is. . . .  In War and Peace Tolstoy describes the battleground so closely that the readers believe it's the real thing.  But I don't.  I'm not pretending it's the real thing.  We are living in a fake world; we are watching fake evening news.  We are fighting a fake war.  Our government is fake.  But we find reality in this fake world.  So our stories are the same; we are walking through fake scenes, but ourselves, as we walk through these scenes, are real.
I find this commentary so stunningly astute that the less I say the better.   And I want to see how he works all this out in his fiction, so I ask again:  when I return to Murakami, what should I read?  Do you have a favorite?


  1. First of all, well done on your training and your feeling of confidence about your upcoming half-marathon! I'm sure it'll be a great experience.

    Re: Murakami, I agree about that comment on Japanese commuters & reading. Makes me think of some friends of mine who moved to NYC and suddenly are asking me for book recommendations because they have so much more reading time due to their subway commutes. I was also interested in his comment in that interview about how the English translations of his books are very important because some smaller countries (Eastern Europe, as I recall) translate from the English, not the Japanese!

    As far as suggestions, I was particularly impressed with the Wild Sheep Chase/Dance Dance Dance pair of novels. Loved the translation job, loved the narrative voice, loved the commentary on war and capitalism. As in all his stuff, loved the similes - the man is just a master of the simile, in my opinion.

  2. Thanks, Emily. It should be fun. I suppose we'll see how I feel on Saturday afternoon, though. Thanks for the recommendation as well. Wild Sheep Chase was an early one, right? I'm interested in those, especially as he claims these were before he really "tried" as a novelist, before he sold the bar and chose his vocation. And really, anything that provides commentary on war and capitalism is good in my view.

  3. I read the Wind Up Bird Chronicles. It was good...but I felt like the ending fell kinda flat...but still worth reading!

  4. Thanks for the recommendation (sort of), Mollie. I am sure I'll return to Murakami at some point in the near future. I've heard mixed reviews (the good kind that indicate a complex read) about the Wind Up Bird Chronicles.