What I talk about when I talk about what Murakami talks about in “What I talk about when I talk about running”

14 Sep

If you’ve read the previous two posts you’ll see pretty clearly that I’ve forced myself into a logical corner.  I might want to carry on with my initial focus on the manifold faults and myths of ‘the market’, but I’ve reached the point where some engagement between lived experience and the theoretical explanation (and therefore modification) of it is inevitable.

Or, as my friend Shady would put it, “shit just got real”.

This is where Murakami comes in.  What I talk about when I talk about running is predicated on a lie.  The lie is either that he’s going to spend the book talking about running (as you might expect if you were reading the title too literally), or that he’s going to talk about writing, love, alcoholism or lung cancer (as you might expect if you’d noticed the resemblance  to Raymond Carver’s book What we talk about when we talk about love, and knew something about Raymond Carver.  If you didn’t, don’t feel alone.  You’re not alone).

Or, possibly, that he’s talking.  He’s obviously not, however hard he works at putting the words together so that we have the illusion of listening directly to his voice.  He does this so well that one blogger is driven to addressing precisely the ‘voice’ of the book in order to explain its appeal:


But, just ’cos there’s a reference, that doesn’t mean it’s true.

It isn’t.

The hesitations and distractions and obstacles to clear  communication that characterise everyday speech are missing, and we are left with a clarity like mountain air.  He is open about this trick, writing about a speech he’s going to give at Harvard, the partly non-verbal way that he intends to connect with the audience, and the simplicity of words he will work with because he is working in a second language.  Obviously, speech is different.  The perfection of writing as opposed to speech is fascinating in itself – and has been instrumental in helping more than one minority language to survive past its destiny.  But it’s not what I want to talk about, write about, here.  At least, not now.

Because I think the most useful generalisable lesson that can be drawn from What I talk about when I talk about running is about the centrality of conscious discipline, and its co-constitutive relationship with social awareness in cultural production.    Let’s boil that bit after the last comma down a little –  discipline is made out of an understanding of how the social world helps and hinders being disciplined, whilst stuff in the social world is made by people creating stuff out of organisation and discipline.

Note I don’t say indiscipline.  Murakami and I are pretty much at one on this one.  There may be talented individuals who are simply geniuses and do not need discipline.  But more often – I believe this is my thought rather than Murakami’s, even if it is implicit in his riffing on the theme of his lack of ‘natural talent’ for writing – these are individuals who have created a myth of spontaneity and inspiration around themselves and the things they make.  Or nearly make.  Or would make if they just got round to it.  Or made during the time that they were working on both their technique and the myths that they needed to build in order to make their technique invisible.

Murakami lays out an obsession with routine and preparedness that is quite the opposite of the one-time picture of the writer as an habitue of cafés and taverns, throwing down thousands of words in fits of manic inspiration squeezed between lifetimes of lassitude and indulgence.  (We should have known the older picture was a filthy lie.   Kerouac, after all, died on his mother’s porch, and at his height was observed to be the fastest and most practised typist anyone around him had ever seen, with a daily word quota that he refused ever to fall short of.  This is why, you’d presume, he became readable after his dire early work.  ‘Dean Moriarty’, on the other hand, wrote nothing anyone remembered, despite – because of – embodying that wild-eyed spirit that the Beats sometimes wanted you to think embodied their spirit).   Our Haruki, on the other hand, is open about having lost friends simply because there is not the time in life to meet every invitation.  Especially those invitations that disturb the sleep, dietary requirements and sheer repetition that is required to sustain a life based around running and writing.

Or writing and running.

The two activities are inseparable for him, although there is no accessible physical or mental nexus that he can explain to us as the connection.  I’m not about to attempt to supply one for him either.

I’m not that talented.

I will try something less ambitious, and suggest two.

Firstly, both writing and running for him are profoundly concerned with the concrete and true.  If you’ve ever been struck by the astonishing power of his authorial imagination, you were wrong. Virtually nothing in his work is imagined. The jazz club owner  who recurs throughout his work?  It’s Murakami. The writer  of adverts and technical manuals? Murakami. The unikely investigator of religious cults?  Murakami.  The twin moons of 1Q84?  A staple of science fiction, and one of the better lines to feature in the lyric writing of Michael Stipe.  The frighteningly self-disciplined female assassin?  Come on. She’s Murakami more than anyone.

It isn’t because he couldn’t imagine anything – it’s because he has an aversion to lies.  Not the intriguing little stylistic lie of the title or a nice linguistic touch that we noted already, but the lie that exposes the hypocrisy of a life.   This jumps off the  page in What I talk about when I talk about running when he expresses genuine shock that someone might be interviewed for a running magazine without doing the run that they were interviewed and photographed for.  Indeed, he couldn’t even grasp how anyone could contemplate it.   If only we were all so honest.  Although, if that was how the world operated, then every novelist would be running marathons or cycling forever or telling the taxi driver to shut up or watching dozens of televisions simultaneously so they could begin to see truth in all its infinite detail.  Instead, perhaps as a substitute for the work involved in those things, they imagine.

Second, I’d suggest, it appears that Murakami has hit upon what you might call a binary mode of life.

He has made his existence revolve around two poles and they are dependent upon the mutually reinforcing forms of discipline in running and writing, as well as in the small details of everyday life he obsesses over which provide the material for both.  For mindlessness and void, run.  For thought, write.  For both, have the right shoes (pen), the right room (route), the right research, and the right nutrition.  And let the people and places you pass as you run be the people and places you write from, without some long and conscious effort, but in whatever way it is that your brain feeds back what you have seen into the story you write of what you have seen.  The material becomes the ideational.

There’s two more (obviously, what other number was I likely to use there?)  little points to note about this binary obsessiveness in a life.  One is that it avoids the dread ‘multitasking’ illusion that it is possible to do everything.  It isn’t. As is noted here:


Not even the things that need doing are now necessarily possible.  But it does guarantee doing something, which is of far greater importance, and that thing will be what the doer chose, rather than a random item on an enormous list selected by the external structures of power.  Or, which is the same thing, selected by “the market”.

Another, almost the opposite point, is that it avoids the trap of single-mindedness.  Nobody is truly capable of sustaining a singular obsession without some time out.  If you attempt simply to hammer through your plans without some constructive pause, without achieving something else, then ominous feelings of desperation and failure already hang over them.  Remember all those times in your life when that thing you wanted didn’t work out because you were “trying too hard”?

I wouldn’t want that to happen to us.  You’re a good listener.  Reader, that is.  Come round again in a week or so.  It’ll be fun.


Before I go, though, here’s some pointers – or maybe teasers – on where we’ll be going on future visits:

  • Discipline and enlightenment in Zen, Murakami, and the work of the RZA.
  • On faith and the potential for invisibility.
  • The possibility and impossibility of Marxist music.
  • Musical gravity and the feeling of home.
  • Moral and logical problems in  Murakami’s binary ethic.
  • Ghetto logic and the meanings of Manchester.



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