Friday, October 10, 2008

Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Haruki Murakami is the kind of writer that will, I predict, win the Nobel Prize for Literature in the next decade or so. He meets the criteria: not American (the Nobel Committee, if you missed it, called American Literature "Insular and isolated" a few weeks ago, pretty much tipping their hand that they wouldn't, again, be giving the award to someone on this isolated little backwater of an island); he has a prodigious publishing record (12 works of fiction over less than thirty years); and, most importantly, he has a stripped but oddly lyrical style of prose, Raymond Carver crossed with Garcia Lorca. His closest American component would be Marilyn Robinson (of Gilead fame but, to this reader at least, of Housekeeping renown), whose prose is like clouds breaking up at the end of a rainy day: a dulled but lightening silver. Murakami's stories and books are oblique, mysterious. His characters talk around subjects, and his bailiwick is the juxtaposition of the boring everyday with the mystical. I can remember a period in the late 90s and early aughts when it seemed that every one of his stories revolved around a man, bored with his wife, who is shaken deeply when that wife disappears. And when I say disappear I mean disappear existentially. She doesn't just get on a boat and go, but every record of her vanishes. His work anchors in this bay: what holds us to this world, and how tenuously are we held?

So, when I heard he was publishing a book on running, I waited until the perfect moment to purchase it: an airplane trip, where I could devour the book in one sitting. When I flew to Austin last week I found the book in an airport bookstore and slid it into my pack, telling myself to wait to crack its spine.

The book begins auspiciously enough: "I'm on Kauai, in Hawaii, today, Friday, August 5, 2005. It's unbelievably clear and sunny, not a cloud in the sky. As if the concept clouds doesn't even exist." That parade of location in time and space is quintessential Murakami. He'll locate us now so, when he wants to, later, he can cut the cords holding us to the concrete, and drift us into his wonderful brand of abstract. Three sentences in he maintains this movement, grabbing a common metaphysical image: clouds. Clouds are the kind of thing that feel stale in a hack's hands (see my metaphor about Robinson, above) but ennobled in a real writer's pen. Here we go, I thought. This is going to be good.

Sadly, the book never rises again to the promise of its first few lines. Just a few words later, we get this: During the mornings, when it's cool, I sit at my desk, writing all sorts of things. Like now: I'm writing this, a piece on running that I can pretty much compose as I wish." Uh-oh, the breezy "I just tossed some ideas together for my talk today as I rode up on the train." Would he be so unprofessional? Sure enough, the answer is yes. What follows, for 180 pages, is a litany of "To Be" verbs and lots of telling instead of showing. This could simply be a translation problem, of course, but, in that case, Murakami has hired a freshman in high school to do his translating. Consider this particular passage, from page 95 (he's just been passed, while running, by some young women at Harvard):

Have I ever had such luminous days in my own life? Perhaps a few. But even if I had a long ponytail back then, I doubt it would have swung so proudly as these girls' ponytails do. And my legs wouldn't have kicked the ground as cleanly and as powerfully as theirs. Maybe that's only to be expected. These girls are, after all, brand new students at the one and only Harvard University.
Still, it's pretty wonderful to watch these pretty girls run. As I do, I'm struck by an obvious thought: One generation takes over from the next. This is how things are handed over in this world, so I don't feel so bad if they pass me. These girls have their own pace, their own sense of time. And I have my own pace, my own sense of time. The two are completely different,but that's the way it should be.

This passage not only manages to be ham-handed, trite, and borderline offensive, it trades in the kind of relativism that I'm constantly discouraging in my students, this message that we each have our own way of doing something, and each way is equally viable. I get this attitude from sophomore boys, in particular, who would rather not do the intellectual work to consider a new angle on something. "Great," I'm always telling them. "So why do you think large portions of humanity have decided to speak in languages that let individuals communicate? If doing things our own way were expedient, wouldn't we each be speaking with our own system of grunts and gestures?" I'm not arguing for absolutism, here, but I'm also not in favor of the excusatory power of difference. Things aren't so unnuanced, I hope.

The book is full of moments like these. It's as if Murakami, writing about his hobby and pastime, let his usual grasp on his prose loosen. His affect, throughout, is bemused. I wonder how long this book took him to write, because it still feels like a second draft. He takes us through his unnofficial Athens marathon (he just runs from Athens to Marathon by himself, unsupported), mostly telling us how hot he his, and how hard it is to run a marathon, particularly after 22 miles. Anyone who picks up this book, other than die-hard Murakami readers, know this fact, and it's a little condescending of Mr. Murakami to pass his difficulty off as readable or compelling. He traffics in this vein throughout, telling us how hard the swim leg of a triathlon is, or that getting old and slowing down are hard to handle. It is, in short, the least specific thing I've read all year, spouting vagaries and abstractions (and cliches!) throughout.

There are moments when the real Murakami stirs himself, like this moment when he describes, aptly, the semi-holy sensation of running along the Charles river:

"When I saw the Charles River again, a desire to run swept over me. Generally, unless some great change takes place, rivers always look about the same, and the Charles River in particular looked totally unchanged. Time had passed, students had come and gone, I'd aged ten years, and there'd literally been a lot of water under the bridge. But the river has remained unaltered. The water still flows swiftly, and silently, toward Boston Harbor. The water soaks the shoreline, making the summer grasses grow thick, which help feed the waterfowl, and it flows languidly, ceaselessly, under the old bridges, reflecting clouds in summer and bobbing with flows in winter—and silently heads towards the ocean."

That last, masterful sentence, which even deploys adverbs (something I'm always telling my students to cut away) perfectly, conveys that sense of timeless meditation Melville was talking about when he said his bit about man and the sea. The sentence literally trickles to its ending point, letting your attention waver and flow, inexorably, though, carrying you to its conclusion. There's even a bit of Matthew Arnold at the end there, a whisper of silent armies that clash by night, that takes the paragraph from the temporal and hurls it into the sublime. And again, on page 75, I met the Murakami I'm used to: "Even now, when I run along Jingu Gaien or Asakasa Gosho, sometimes I remember these other runners. I'll round a corner and see them coming toward me, silently running, their breath white in the morning air. And I always think this: They put up with such strenuous training, and where do their thoughts, their hopes and dreams, disappear to? When people pass away, do their thoughts vanish?" Here, I thought, was a passage worthy of Murakami: he marries the corporal with the incorporeal so easily, with that white breath symbolizing our daily thoughts, thoughts that turn white as ghosts and disappear into the cold air. It's a passage equally philosophical and mournful at the same time, and my hair stood on end.


amanda russell said...

oh my god! I haven't even read your post yet but I'm SOOOO excited. He's my favorite author and I didn't know about this book!! ROCK! okay...back to your post..

amanda russell said...

and i read the post.....bummer! got to read it anyway, of course.