Haruki Murakami is one of our most outstanding writers today, a gifted Japanese storyteller whose books like Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore have won international audiences. The real world blends with a dreamlike, subterranean layer of mystery in his stories — but in his latest book, Murakami puts down the myths and picks up his running shoes for a nonfiction jaunt.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is quite different from most of Murakami's work — a straightforward memoir about his lifelong hobby of endurance running, and how he uses it to feed his creativity. "To write a novel I have to drive myself physically," he writes. And run he does — increasing his stamina to incredible proportions. Focus and endurance are what a writer needs, too, he points out.
Murakami often sounds a lot like one of his characters, such as the befuddled everyman Toru Okada in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. He's particular and capable of a regimented self-discipline many of us can't imagine — running a marathon is one thing, but running an ultra marathon, 62 miles nonstop — well, for this rather out-of-shape reviewer that enters the realm of superhuman. Murakami's crisp prose takes us with him on his travels — he writes of how he feels "like my body had passed clean through a stone wall."
Occasionally we see Murakami's tendency to be a little too self-effacing — "I'm not the brightest person" may sound humble, but considering the sharp and perceptive intelligence that blazes forth in his work, it's a bit disingenuous a statement. Sometimes, too, the writing just ends up repeating platitudes about running — i.e., "I give it everything I have." But Murakami can then quickly turn around and give you a particularly clever metaphor, such as writing about a triathlon switch from swimming to running that makes him feel "like a salamander that's evolved overnight into an ostrich."
But, generally, Murakami's genial, reflective voice in his travels is quite good companionship. Even if you're not a runner and have zero interest in becoming one, What I Talk About When I Talk Bout Running is about how to live your life, expanding your potential and your skills, and offers fascinating insight into how Murakami lives and works. And if you're a fan of his stories, Running pulls back the curtain to show how he does it. It's not quite a major achievement along the lines of some of his fiction, but a very good sidetrack.