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Review: Haruki Murakami's memoir shows his life imitates his art too closely

Haruki Murakami is a writer of Japanese descent, but he is not a Japanese writer.

That is, his books eschew the tatami mats, the bonsai trees, the tokens of Japanese culture that that nation's foundational 20th century authors (names such as Kawabata, Mishima and Tanizaki) embraced so fully.

In a Murakami work, the characters converse perhaps while sipping Chivas Regal and listening to Miles Davis. They live in Japan, but they lead lives as Westerners might — substitute Upper West Side studios for their apartments in Harajuku, and nothing changes.

The American novelist Jay McInerney once said that the narrator of a Murakami book is generally a "passive fellow who doesn't expect much out of life and who takes what comes to him with a jaded equanimity." Murakami's motto, McInerney concluded, "might be 'No big deal.' "

It is maybe too easy to apply Murakami's fictional predilections to his new memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. But this work — in which the author tells of his development as a writer but tells much more about his development as a runner — could easily have been subtitled No Big Deal.

Murakami has been writing for 29 years, running for 26. Both activities appeal to him, in large part, because they are pursuits undertaken alone and in which improvement arrives, in Murakami's estimation, in relation to one's past efforts.

"In the novelist's profession, as far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as winning or losing," he writes. "What's crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you've set for yourself. … In this sense, writing novels and running full marathons are very much alike."

Readers of What I Talk About cannot escape Murakami's belief that externally generated, unfortunate occurrences require nothing more than a sigh and a shrug. The solipsism he relates is at times overwhelming. And yet it is precisely that which has made Murakami a bestselling novelist; his particular brand of egoism is adored by many.

At times What I Talk About is truly bracing. The thoughts are like a crisp spring. When the exterior world creates difficult situations, it's best to overcome them by ignoring them, by isolating oneself, by going for a very, very long run.

But as adults, we know better. As we age, we learn that not all of life's inconveniences — and certainly not its mysteries and contradictions — are usefully solved, or even addressed, by allowing people to do what they will while we simply retreat into ourselves.

What I Talk About is worth reading, and, taken in bits, its lessons are worth heeding — many of us do tend to ascribe importance to items better met with a wry shrug. But besides the author, What I Talk About introduces no other significant character, and that indicates the fateful flaw of its message.

Liam Julian, a St. Petersburg native, is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

By Haruki Murakami; translated by Philip Gabriel

Knopf, 192 pages, $21

Review: Haruki Murakami's memoir shows his life imitates his art too closely 08/08/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 17, 2008 10:41pm]
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