Murakami is a Japanese author and one of the world’s most celebrated novelists. In fact, I’ve just started his magnum opus, 19Q4, and so far I’m hooked. His nonfiction work on running, however, left me wanting more. It’s a shame, too, because I had high expectations.

I love running. After several years off, I ran a half-marathon, and I’m keen to do more in the future. If that weren’t enough, I have a fiction project myself, in the back of my mind, about a runner, which was one reason I wanted to read Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

It had its moments. There were insights about running, scattered here and there, but I just didn’t really see much of an overarching narrative. I couldn’t find a story, and in the end I felt like I was reading over Murakami’s shoulder as he journaled about his day-to-day training and his responses to his marathon races.

There was one other thing. Murakami did sprinkle in some thoughts on writing, and as a writer I ever-always am extremely intrigued by what writers think of writing.  It redeemed the work, kinda-sorta, and on balance I’m glad I read it, but I can’t say that I’d recommend it. And with that, I return to reading 19Q4.

7 thoughts on “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

  1. Our next door neighbors in Boulder were three young fellows from Florida doing graduate work at the U. In discussions with one of them, who was working on his PhD in poetry, I was made aware that each of the three had his own copy of 19Q4. Though I’ve read several Murakamis, 19Q4 is not one of them. Similarly, I’ve read several DeLillo novels, but not Libra. Once, when submitting a proposal to a lit agent, I was instructed to indicate which writers I most resembled. DeLillo meets Murakami, was the gist my answer. In reply from this agent I heard nothing at all. Have you read about the epiphany when Murakami realized that he was destined to write fictions?

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  2. Either of us could track it down, but my recollection is this: Murakami was at a ballpark in Japan when the batter hit a double. At that moment Murakami realized that he should start writing fiction. So: jazz and baseball, two distinctly American imports that shaped his aesthetic.

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  3. It was something to say. “Get different” is the slogan of the fictional Salon Postisme in which my fictions unfold, so being in some ways the same as other writers is a violation of the Salon’s prime directive. Still, I admire them both, especially DeLillo. Both are engaged in popular culture from a kind of outsider’s perspective while not being bound by so-called realism, which I suppose is similar to my own M.O.

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  4. I thought Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore were good. Also Norwegian Wood, which is more of a traditional romance than Murakami’s other fantasies but is the book that put him in the spotlight in Japan. It sounds like you’re enjoying i9Q4. If I were to characterize Murakami’s fiction I’d say that it’s a plain-spoken style about seemingly ordinary characters who encounter somewhat random mystical-magical-religious events. Does 19Q4 fit that pattern? I read somewhere that when Murakami first started writing he would write in English — a language in which he’s competent but not fluent — then translate it into Japanese. I’d guess that keeps his prose pretty simple while also giving it a built-in American feel.

    I’ve not read the running boo, but I find that my own running doesn’t have much of an overarching narrative or story other than getting out there and doing the route, then doing it again the next day, etc. etc. Maybe it’s metaphorical for how Murakami writes: methodically, with discipline and persistence, day after day, year after year.

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    1. Yeah, that’s fair. Running does seem to have day-to-day texture to it. And as you know, lacking a narrative isn’t itself something I hold against an a book. It’s just the only thing that I could put my finger on, in terms of why I felt a little unenthusiastic about Murakami’s running book.

      I really appreciated Scott Jurek’s memoir, Eat and Run. Jurek is an ultra runner who overcame a good deal of personal issues and did so via running. He also converted to becoming a vegan, primarily because he believed it made him a stronger runner. I don’t know if it’s the presence of an overarching narrative or not, but I really felt like Jurek wrote a compelling story.

      So far 1Q84 seems to fit the stylistic pattern: realism that slowly opens up into something surreal/mythical/magical. I’m really quite drawn to that kind of a narrative, actually. I can sort of see Under The North Sun going down that road, at least a little. Once Jack is confronted with extended time, lost in the wild, things will get a little weird, mentally.

      Very interesting about Murakami’s approach, in terms of writing in English first. Maybe that’s part of what makes his writing appeal to an international audience?

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