Sunday, June 14, 2015

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running - Haruki Murakami (2008)

There are less than 3 books that I have read since April 1, 2008 that have not subsequently appeared as reviews on Flying Houses.  Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is the quintessential example.  I cannot think of the other 2 books, but they may exist.  I read HBWATEOTW in early 2008 and found it so-so.  After about 100-150 pages, I started to "get it," and found some parts fantastic, but on the whole found it a bit overrated.  Seven years later, I have absolutely no memory of the story, except that there is some sort of tower or castle in it, or "two worlds" (and this is why I maintain Flying Houses).  Later on I would realize that it is generally not a good place to start with Murakami.  I've heard that Kafka on the Shore and Norwegian Wood are better options.

I signed up for the Chicago Marathon on May 5, 2015, exactly one month ago today.  I have logged just over 100 miles on MapMyRun, but that does not include treadmill workouts, or a few along my usual route (which is almost exactly 4.20 miles, and my goal is 4:20 for the 26.2).  I am not keeping a running journal or a blog of my marathon training, though I have thought about it.  This is because I have never been a good runner and I am afraid that I will fail to finish, or worse, may die on October 11, 2015.  Other people may call BS on that and I say I am a good runner, as I've been doing it pretty consistently for 9 years.  But I've never done anything longer than a 5K.  I did Cross Country in high school, but consistently finished at the back of the pack (dead last, several times).  Right now I feel that I am in the best physical shape of my life, but I rarely break 10 minute miles.  I remember when I used to give tours of my high school as my "work job," and once shepherded a potential X-C recruit through the campus.  He asked my PR and I said it was about 23 or 24 minutes and he laughed at me.  So I am wary of looking like a charlatan.  But the wonderful thing about What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is the feeling that nobody should ever be ashamed of their speed.  Running is a competitive sport, but it is mostly a competition with yourself.  Murakami understands this and writes with such modesty and good humor that almost any reader (whether a novice or non-runner) may develop the confidence to run their first marathon.

Murakami wrote this book between the years of 2005 and 2006, and it centers around his training for the New York City marathon in November 2005,  He opens the book by describing his original motivations for running.  He used to run a jazz club in Tokyo, near Sendagaya Station, which was actually quite successful.  Before he decided to start running, he decided to write a novel, and he pinpoints the exact date and location (April 1, 1978 at a baseball game at Jingu Stadium) of his inspiration to beautiful effect:

"Hilton got a hit down the left field line.  The crack of bat meeting ball right on the sweet spot echoed through the stadium.  Hilton easily rounded first and pulled up to second.  And it was at that exact moment that a thought struck me: You know what? I could try writing a novel.  I still can remember the wide open sky, the feel of the new grass, the satisfying crack of the bat.  Something flew down from the sky at that instant, and whatever it was, I accepted it." (27-28)

So this book is not just about running, but also Murakami's writing career.  He doesn't mention HBWATEOTW but he does say his career took off at Norwegian Wood and that his first "big" novel was A Wild Sheep Chase.  He eschews specific plot details from these works in favor of his general creative process.  His output, as he approaches his late 60's, remains most impressive, and his status as a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize puts him on a similar playing field as Philip Roth.  Now, Murakami's output is not quite as prolific as Roth's (his turnaround time is closer to 2 years rather than 1), but his books seem to carry more weight.  Roth "retired" around the time he turned 80.  One expects Murakami to achieve a similar longevity,  No predictions on the Nobel Prize for either, except to say that our last author (also foreign, and currently at 75, right in the middle of these two) was recognized for a much more streamlined oeuvre.  While Murakami's novels may elevate him into the category of the greatest writers of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, WITAWITAR (great acronym) is the sort of gift to humanity that should carry weight in gaining membership to such prestigious pantheons.

I have not personally reviewed a Murakami novel on Flying Houses, but the incomparable Emily Dufton has reviewed his two most recent ones, 1Q84 and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, on this site.  Both reviews reference WITAWITAR, and the former even suggests that it may be his strongest work (or at least the most enjoyable).  On this basis, as well as the enthusiasm I have for it (particularly its willingness to "unlock" the secrets of running), it deserves recognition as one of the Best Books of Flying Houses.  It may be a slight volume, but since Points of Rebellion makes the list (certainly an idiosyncratic choice), this does too.

When he decided to start running, he was 33 and smoked 60 cigarettes a day.  By the time he started writing WITAWITAR, he had completed 20 marathons in 20 years.  After the inspiration to write a first novel (Hear the Wind Sing) has passed and bloomed, with a prize from a literary magazine, he decides to quit his day job, and to begin running:

"A problem arose, though, with my decision to become a professional writer: the question of how to keep physically fit.  I tend to gain weight if I don't do anything.  Running the bar required hard physical labor every day, and I could keep my weight down, but once I started sitting at my desk all day writing, my energy level gradually declined and I started putting on the pounds.  I was smoking too much, too, as I concentrated on my work.  Back then I was smoking sixty cigarettes a day.  All my fingers were yellow, and my whole body reeked of smoke.  This can't be good for me, I decided.  If I wanted to have a long life as a novelist, I needed to find a way to keep fit and maintain a healthy weight." (33)

Before running with all of the other usual competitors in a race, Murakami went to Greece in 1983 and ran the original route from the town of Marathon to the city of Athens.  He does this in part for a men's magazine article, but also to see the original route and convince himself that he can do it.  It is actually about a mile shorter than the standard 26.2, but this trip took place during the hottest part of the summer.  For me at least, anything between 75 and 80 degrees is perfect weather for running.  Anything over 90 tends to exacerbate exhaustion, and I felt as if I were "dying of thirst" once when I went about 10 miles in 95 degree heat.  As one might guess, the description of this fun event is brutal.

But nothing is more brutal than the description of the ultramarathon.  He ran this in 1996.  It took place in Hokkaido.  It is not 52.4 miles, as one might expect, but 62 miles.  Now in my opinion the human body is not meant to go this far in a single day, and it is around this point in the book that Murakami appears totally insane to the reader.  Certainly, there is much personal satisfaction that comes with finishing a marathon, but I just can't see why going an extra 38 miles would do anything for you.  It's like by that point, you've become more alien than human.  Regardless, this is the most compelling portion of the book to describe the physical act of running, and perhaps the value in the ultramarathon is the confidence that it might instill in first-time marathoners.  If Murakami can do 62, then you can probably do 26.

One example from this chapter is necessary, because it probably contains the most hilarious and gut-wrenching prose in the book:

"Even though my legs were working now, the thirteen miles from the thirty-four mile rest stop to the forty-seventh mile were excruciating.  I felt like a piece of beef being run, slowly, through a meat grinder.  I had the will to go ahead, but now my whole body was rebelling.  It felt like a car trying to go up a slope with the parking brake on.  My body felt like it was falling apart and would soon come completely undone.  Out of oil, the bolts coming loose, the wrong cogs in gear, I was rapidly slowing down as one runner after another passed me.  A tiny old lady around seventy passed me and shouted out, 'Hang in there!' Man alive.  What was going to happen the rest of the way?  There were still twenty-five miles to go.
As I ran, different parts of my body, one after another, began to hurt.  First my right thigh hurt like crazy, then that pain migrated over to my right knee, then to my left thigh, and on and on.  All the parts of my body had their chance to take center stage and scream out their complaints.  They screamed, complained, yelled in distress, and warned me that they weren't going to take it anymore.  For them, running sixty miles was an unknown experience, and each body part had its own excuse.  I understood completely, but all I wanted them to do was be quiet and keep on running.  Like Danton or Robespierre eloquently attempting to persuade the dissatisfied and rebellious Revolutionary Tribunal, I tried to talk each body part into showing a little cooperation.  Encouraged them, clung to them, flattered them, scolded them, tried to buck them up.  It's just a little farther, guys. You can't give up on me now.  But if you think about it--and I did think about it--Danton and Robespierre wound up with their heads cut off." (109-110)

Later, Murakami details his efforts at completing triathlons.  He writes about the madness of cycling, but not derisively enough for me:

"It's the same movements, repeated over and over.  You go up slopes, on level ground, and down slopes.  Sometimes the wind's with you, sometimes against you.  You switch gears as needed, change your position, check your speed, pedal harder, let up a bit, check your speed, drink water, change gears, change your position...Sometimes it strikes me as an intricate form of torture.  In his book the triathlete Dave Scott wrote that of all the sports man has invented, cycling has got to be the most unpleasant of all.  I totally agree."  (141-142)

There may be another section in the book where he references the psychological torture that comes from sharing a path with bikers, and this is the best I can find:

"Yesterday I listened to the Rolling Stones' Beggars Banquet as I ran.  That funky "Hoo hoo" chorus in "Sympathy for the Devil" is the perfect accompaniment to running.  The day before I listened to Eric Clapton's Reptile.  I love these albums.  There's something about them that gets to me, and I never get tired of listening to them--Reptile, especially.  Nothing beats listening to Reptile on a brisk morning run.  It's not too brash or contrived.  It has this steady rhythm and entirely natural melody.  My mind gets quickly swept into the music, and my feet run in time to the beat.  Sometimes, mixed in with the music coming through my headphones, I hear someone calling out, 'On your left!' And a racing bike whips by, passing me on the left." (95)

But when I write my running memoir, I will be sure to mention one of my old running routes--down the Brooklyn Bridge, through the World Trade Center and back--as pure psychological torture, due to the speed of bikers on the bridge.  And the rudeness.  These experiences gave me a very negative opinion of bikers, but also of families walking three or four abreast, creating additional anxiety vis-a-vis bikers.  Lately, I have been running on the newly-opened 606 Trail in Chicago, and I love it.  There are many bikers, but the anxiety is nothing compared to the Brooklyn Bridge, even though my elbow has already made contact with one biker.

Murakami also does not discuss the psychological torture that comes with running in large groups in races.  For me at least, I think I am a worse runner in a race than on my own during an afternoon workout, because the despair kicks in when a bunch of people pass me.  This happens on the 606 with some regularity, and is unusual for me on almost all of my previous efforts (including the lakefront trail in Chicago, which I must be wrong about), and it tends to destroy my confidence.  Like, I believe I am the best runner out there when I'm alone, but when I'm surrounded by others passing me by, leaving me in the dust, I realize I am nothing special, and am in fact mediocre (or worse than mediocre, as Murakami describes himself as being--which is just wrong, considering his regimen and professional accomplishments).  This feeling needs to be addressed somewhere in this book, and though one of the passages above does reference feeling bad about getting passed, the phenomenon is unexplored.

I loved this book, in any case.  Murakami may be one of the world's greatest living writers, but he gets down to such a human level in this book that you love him even more:

"Sometimes when I run, I listen to jazz, but usually it's rock, since its beat is the best accompaniment to the rhythm of running.  I prefer the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gorillaz, and Beck, and oldies like Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Beach Boys.  Music with as simple a rhythm as possible.  A lot of runners now use iPods, but I prefer the MD player I'm used to.  It's a little bigger than an iPod and can't hold nearly as much data, but it works for me.  At this point I don't want to mix music and computers.  Just like it's not good to mix friends and work, and sex." (14)

I would like to ask him if he runs with his phone now or not.  There are lots of things I want to ask him, but probably more things about running than writing.  Writing is so abstract, and you can say anything you want about the process.  But running is something you can talk about in very concrete terms.  It may seem like most other people are "super runners" and that you can't identify with anything they're going to say because they're just on a different level, but Murakami really subverts this fear.  Whether you are a novice or an expert, I think you will find pretty much the entire thing to be absorbing.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Disgrace - J.M. Coetzee (1999)

Oeuvre rule: the only other book I have read by J.M. Coetzee is Foe.  Foe is not generally referenced as one of Coetzee's major works--those would probably include The Life and Times of Michael K., Disgrace, and perhaps Waiting for the Barbarians--but I read it in 2003 for a class taken at the University of Paris - Nanterre, on pluralist readings of texts inspired by Freud, Marx and Derrida.  Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in Literature on October 2, 2003, but I do not recall our French professor (who taught in English) mentioning that fact.  Foe is basically the story of Robinson Crusoe, told from the perspective of a woman, whose name is Susan Barton.  Ironically, about three years after reading on this, I would work on a house that was owned by a woman named Susan Barton, but I never mentioned the coincidence to her (nor did I have the chance to tell another homeowner named Thomas Mann that I loved his work).  Essentially, Susan Barton is shipwrecked and marooned on an island with a native, Friday, who becomes her manservant.  But she survives and is rescued and returns to England, where she meets and copulates with Daniel DeFoe, inspiring the novel.  We read it and attached Freudian symbols to everything in the text.  It was a reasonably entertaining novel, but in hindsight it appears to me as extremely allegorical, like there is a second layer to it and the plot is ultimately secondary.  Disgrace is similar in this respect, but since I do not have the advantage of reading it in the classroom, the symbols and metaphors that may be present were not apparent to me.  Even without this potentially deeper significance, it was an enjoyable read and I recommend it to everyone, particularly those that enjoy The Stranger by Camus.

Basically, while the plot is not exactly the same as The Stranger, the whole style and tone of the novel renders it a spiritual sequel to that classic.  It seems like it's easy to spoil this book, but I think most will agree that the plot can be spoiled up to a point.

Professor David Lurie teaches at a university in Johannesburg, South Africa.  He is twice-divorced, and as the novel opens, he is detailing his trysts with a prostitute.  Soon thereafter, he becomes smitten with a student in one of his classes (Melani) and they enter into a sexual relationship, though he is more than 30 years her senior.  It falls apart after a short time, and almost immediately he is reported to the university.  He is given the chance to repent for his actions and take a leave of absence, but instead he chooses to resign permanently.  He then goes to visit his daughter (Lucy) in the countryside.  His daughter sells crops at a sort of farmer's market on Saturdays, and cares for dogs at a kennel on her property.  She sometimes volunteers at an animal welfare hospital, which is where her friend Bev Shaw works.  Bev Shaw is a sort of unlicensed veterinarian who euthanizes most of the sick or unwanted animals in the area.  Care and compassion for animals is one of the major themes of Disgrace, and it seems like this theme operates on a deeper metaphorical level, though in actuality it may just be a message unto itself.  Coetzee has recently spoken out on animal rights and it is not surprising given how heart-wrenching many of these scenes are.

Not long after he arrives to stay with his daughter, there is an incident.  I will not spoil what happens, but the incident itself is quite reminiscent of The Stranger.  What happens afterwards is not.  I believe this story is meant to symbolize the transitional period after apartheid in South Africa in the early 1990's, but I am not enough of a student of history to remark more specifically upon it.

Apart from the potential allegory, the novel itself is enjoyable and something of a page-turner.  It reads very quickly and is quite short at 220 pages.  The prose is very matter-of-fact, though because David Lurie is an academic that has studied the art of poetry, there are several "deeper" moments.  Lurie is obsessed with Lord Byron, and hopes to write an opera about a certain affair from the poet's life.  To a certain extent, I've never understood poetry, and the English courses I've taken have never properly instilled an appreciation for it.  I've written in the past about my problems with interpreting Donne, so some of Lurie's "mini-lectures" were illuminating:

"Look at line 599.  Wordsworth is writing about the limits of sense-perception.  It is a theme we have touched on before.  As the sense-organs reach the limit of their powers, their light begins to go out.  Yet at the moment of expiry that light leaps up one last time like a candle-flame, giving us a glimpse of the invisible.  The passage is difficult; perhaps it even contradicts the Mont Blanc moment.  Nevertheless, Wordsworth seems to be feeling his way toward a balance: not the pure idea, wreathed in clouds, nor the visual image burned on the retina, overwhelming and disappointing us with its matter-of-fact clarity, but the sense-image, kept as fleeting as possible, as a means toward stirring or activating the idea that lies buried more deeply in the soul of memory." (22)

Because this novel feels shorter than 220 pages, and restricts itself to such limited subject matter, there is not much else I can say.  I was going to excerpt a passage where David tells the story of a next door neighbor's dog (in the town of Kenilworth--presumably not the one outside of Chicago) who relentlessly humped every "bitch" he saw, and was beaten for it by his owners.  David says that a dog will accept the justice of a beating for having chewed on a slipper, but no animal will accept the justice of being punished for following its instincts.  The dog grows to hate itself, and David reflects that it would probably have preferred to be shot rather than "fixed."  Yet he feels the opposite--that desire is a burden we could well do without.

I've essentially paraphrased a page of the text in that paragraph, but this one particular anecdote feels meaningful.  There are a handful of moments in Disgrace that operate in a similar manner, and while David may appear at times to be a despicable figure, there is clearly "redemption" in this novel.  There was one moment near the end where I was struck by how beautifully his character had been developed.

Overall, this is a very fine novel that is subtle, yet occasionally overpowering in its raw imagery.  It is a pretty quick and easy read, and may nourish the reader through the method by which it analyzes humanity.

"It happens every day, every hour, every minute, he tells himself, in every quarter of the country.  Count yourself lucky to have escaped with your life.  Count yourself lucky not to be a prisoner in the car at this moment, speeding away, or at the bottom of a donga with a bullet in your head.  Count Lucy lucky, too.  Above all Lucy.
A risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes.  Not enough to go around, not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes.  Too many people, too few things.  What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day.  That is the theory; hold to the theory and to the comforts of theory.  Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant.  That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect.  Otherwise one could go mad.  Car, shoes; women too.  There must be some niche in the system for women and what happens to them." (98)

In short, while this book should not be forgotten, it may be best appreciated by those who are familiar with recent South African history.  Apart from that, I am pretty sure that readers from any social milieu will find something worthwhile in it.