Review by Gabriel
Before Murakami became a full-time writer, he was running a jazz bar in Tokyo. While working long hours, he managed to have two novels published, and achieved some critical success and recognition. Not the type to do things by halves, he decided to sell his business to devote himself to writing full time.
At this time, he also took up running to keep fit, a habit he maintains to this day. But he doesn’t just run – he runs marathons. He runs for around three hours a day, between one hundred and fifty and two hundred miles a month. He competes in at least one marathon a year, and also trains for triathlons. As I said, he’s not the type to do things by halves.
Running is, not surprisingly, a large part of this book. Like most readers, I didn’t read it for the sports, but because I wanted to know more about the man himself, and also to pick up some tips on writing. And while Murakami offers both of these, he is a notoriously private person, and running is the window that he allows us into his life.
To Murakami, running, like writing a novel, is something that requires mental discipline and sustained effort. He doesn’t continue out of competitiveness, but to meet his own exacting standards. This is probably the main message of the novel – that achievements are a result of hard work and persistence. He describes himself as a “workhorse”, and while acknowledging the importance of talent, it is obvious what he considers more important to success. It’s not a revolutionary message, but an important one.
This book confirmed what I have long suspected – that the voice Murakami uses for his narrator’s is essentially his own. Despite their differing ages and situations, Murakami’s narrators are always world weary with similar senses of humour and casual, almost conversational, manners. This lack of variation isn’t bad thing – it is a style that is enjoyable, easy to read and works in a range of situations. His strong authorial voice is one of the main reasons for his fan base. When I read Murakami’s novels, I know that I can expect something literary, compelling readable.
When I first started reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I was thrilled to find so many ideas I could relate to – I always find it exciting to see my thoughts eloquently expressed by someone else in print. As time went on, however, I found my mind wandering when I was halfway down the page, so I would have to go back and re-read some sections. I feel a little silly making this criticism, since I probably should have expected it, but a lot of this book is about running. Yes, there are periodic insights into Murakami’s life, his philosophies and his attitudes. But the main narrative revolves around running. It’s a repetitive activity. While Murakami makes it sound about as interesting as possible, it’s just not that interesting to read about.
This memoir provides a portrait of a hard working author confronting aging, comfortable with himself and his limitations, yet continually seeking out challenges. I enjoyed it, but not as much as I enjoy his novels, and would only recommended it for fans of Murakami’s work. Or people who are super keen on running.