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Onyx reviews: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Running is a common metaphor among authors: writing short stories is like sprinting; novels are marathons.

One thing writing and running have in common is that Haruki Murakami takes up both on whims. He decides to write a novel one sunny afternoon while sitting in the outfield at a baseball game, without any notion of what he is going to write about.

After modest initial success, he sells the successful jazz club he started and operated in Tokyo for years so he can write full time. The sedentary the life of a writer inspires him to quit smoking and take up running. He quickly disabuses the reader of the notion that he uses running as a way to concentrate on his current writing project. It's more primal than that, a way of keeping sane, he claims. "I run to acquire a void."

In this slim volume, a format usually reserved for inspirational books, Murakami reminisces about his 25-year obsession with running. Like many athletes, he is compulsive about keeping track of the number of miles he runs each week so he can see at a glance when he is improving and when he is stagnating. Besides tracking sales figures, there's nothing remotely competitive about writing, he concedes, though both of his avocations are solitary endeavors.

The title of his memoir is adapted from that of a story collection by Raymond Carver (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love), an author whose collected work Murakami translated into Japanese. Murakami's style is unadorned and conversational, though it seems at time he is talking to himself rather than a reader. For a man who lives by his words, he is often at a loss to explain why he does certain things.

He does nothing in half measures. His first major feat as a runner is a solo recreation of the original marathon (though he does it in reverse, leaving from Athens early in the morning and running to the eponymous village in the Greek hillside) as part of a junket paid for by a running magazine. (Writers who run are a relative oddity, he claims, so he has often written about his experiences as a runner over the years.) Even the journalist assigned to write about his run is amazed that Murakami intends to complete the whole course on this blistering August day rather than just performing for the photographer.

During this run, for the first time, he enters a trancelike state reminiscent of the surreal experiences some of the characters in Murakami's novels face. Then he hits the wall and gets angry at everything. Even the sheep chewing grass in the fields annoy him, he recalls.

Murakami starts the book in late 2005 while he's on vacation in Hawaii, running an hour every day in preparation for the New York Marathon. He allows for one day off each week in case of inclement weather or scheduling conflicts. Despite this rigorous schedule, he no longer considers himself a "serious" runner, though he still participates in one marathon and one triathlon every year, often in exotic locations.

As with running, Murakami believes there are certain muscles a writer has to exercise on a regular basis so he can complete a full-length manuscript. He also suggests that writers, like runners, burn out, reaching a point in their creative lives where they are no longer capable of improving. Perhaps there have been people who've experienced this, but to turn it into a generalization seems like he's stretching the running/writing metaphor.

Running opens doors for him that he might never have encountered otherwise. He runs in Hawaii and along the Charles River while teaching Japanese literature at Harvard. He meets fans while training in the streets of Tokyo and becomes familiar with a group of runners training for the Olympics who are killed traveling to an event before the games. He chides himself over past failings, unflinchingly recounting times when he forgets how to swim during triathlons, or stupid mistakes he makes while running.

This is hardly a memoir in the classical sense since most of his life—his writing, his family—barely enters into the picture. He mentions music he listens to while running, and his mania for collecting vinyl albums, but when he talks about running, it's like everything else ceases to exist. Most of the time he seems to be living completely inside his head. There is no void, just a kind of mental trance that allows him to get through to the end.

He loses his enjoyment for the sport after an ultramarathon, a 62-mile run that leaves him physically and emotionally drained. The perversity of the obsessed rears its head when he insists that he will keep running (Forrest Gump springs inexplicably to mind) until he regains that sense of pleasure again. He behaves like an addict—there's no reason to believe he will ever again achieve that level of enjoyment, and yet he pursues it relentlessly.

He expects to do well in the New York marathon, but the book does not have a happy ending. His performance is a personal disappointment. As is his next marathon after that. The memoir is tinged with the poignancy of a man who, at 56, is beginning to accept that he is past his physical prime. No amount of training is going to improve his performance. All he can do is try to find the enjoyment in running that captivated him in the first place.

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