Haruki Murakami What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Knopf, 2008)
The long slogs, the solitude, the monkish routine: such is the stuff of writing and running. Haruki Murakami does both in this first-person chronicle of miles covered and races run and limped through. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is its own sort of hybrid, a training-log-cum-memoir that mixes musings on life with the ephemera of the jog.
The book spans a year and several continents, tracking the author as he treks through Hawaii, Cambridge, Tokyo, and beyond. The chapters often turn from diary entries into running-related recollections: There is the first marathon Murakami ever ran, from Athens to Marathon, on a highway strewn with dogs struck dead by the heat. There is the sixty-two-mile ultramarathon on Japan’s northernmost tip. And there is the light-bulb moment when he decided to write a novel, during a 1978 baseball game in Tokyo. Murakami’s story connects only indirectly to the act of running, but as he remarks in the foreword, “One thing I noticed was that writing honestly about running and writing honestly about myself are nearly the same thing.”
Murakami is on familiar ground in these anecdotal flashbacks, which transport the reader with the same lucid physicality of his fiction. Less successful are the passages on the finer points of running—training times, breathing modes, and metabolism are all discussed with surprising cliché. Murakami readers will recognize such parentheticals as “Not to brag, but…” or “Come to think of it…” as his usual brand of comic shrug, but their frequency nearly chokes the life out of the language. Murakami’s talent is his ability to evoke the mundane, then twist it into some other, parallel universe; here, the mundane is merely mundane.
Still, there is something mesmeric about a narrative voice that channels the mixture of prophet and slacker. The title itself is a tribute to Raymond Carver, whose spare prose plumbed “the strangeness behind the banal” of blue-collar America. Murakami spends much of the memoir training for the New York City Marathon, and the race is an appropriate (if anti-climactic) endpoint in a volume saturated with American culture. He listens to Otis Redding, drinks Samuel Adams draft beer, cites Rocky and The Great Gatsby, and writes about it with customary sensitivity to surface detail and its quiet, ineffable effects. The book plods when it gets bogged down in truisms, but at its best it is as rhythmic and absorbing as a good run.
Robert Goolrick The End of the World as We Know It: Scenes from a Life (Algonquin Books, 2008)
Robert Goolrick’s heartbreaking memoir, The End of the World as We Know It, is a story of the emotional disrepair that eats away at a family behind a pristine façade. The book reads as a litany of misfortune; it’s tempting to call it a cathartic exercise on the author’s part. However, Goolrick’s light touch and his unwillingness to give in to histrionics lift his subject above the level of the merely pathetic or pathological. At the same time, he maintains an incisive clarity of tone throughout that cuts to the heart. As Goolrick discusses his upbringing and coming of age in an apparently perfect but inwardly diseased Southern family, his voice remains insistently clear, levelheaded, and honest. The effect is an unexpected element of humor that lightens and accents this long journey through sexual abuse, alcoholism, and depression.
“We are never where we meant to be,” Goolrick writes. He takes this as his theme, further exploring the impossibility of autonomy and the abiding and inescapable presence of family—a presence that is both haunting and comforting. His parents are portrayed as monsters, but still recognized as human beings, worthy of forgiveness. “For some,” he writes of his mother and father and their frequent parties, “there was nothing to celebrate, only the monotony of making do, of going with it, of boring themselves to death.” In passages such as this, the book echoes Beckett in its combination of humor and unrelenting adherence to the truth.
The End of the World as We Know It is not a book for the faint of heart. The psychic and physical trauma suffered by the author at the hands of his parents (and his own) is vividly rendered and indelible. In his muted, lucid prose, Goolrick forces the reader to recognize the ways in which family abides, for better or worse. Yet as bleak a vision of family life as Goolrick presents, he is never out for revenge. He never loses sight of the fact that the family that caused him so much pain is the same family that is the source of his identity and strength.
Hannah Tinti The Good Thief (The Dial Press, 2008)
The term “cinematic” has lost some of its potency as a descriptor, but it applies to Hannah Tinti’s adventuresome first novel, The Good Thief—that is, action trumps exposition, sights and sounds are consistently vivid, and quirky surprises abound. The good thief is Ren, an eleven-year-old boy rescued from Saint Anthony’s Orphanage. Ren’s new guardian digs up graves for a living (to sell for medical research) and so the drudgery of beatings and prayers with the priests gives way to a life of crime and pursuit with an ex-soldier called Benjamin Nab.
The time is vaguely “olden.” (A list of things to be bought with expendable income includes “new clothes and peaches and horseshoes and lumber and books and ribbons and frying pans.”) Historical accuracy becomes less important than the delight Tinti takes in her characters, particularly those with physical oddities: a giant, a girl with a harelip, a near-deaf boarding house mistress, and a dwarf. Ren, delivered to the orphanage with only one hand, becomes their de facto leader.
Readers familiar with Tinti’s debut story collection, Animal Crackers (where giraffes stage a protest and a rabbit bears the brunt of domestic angst), will recall the author’s penchant for inventive, startling turns. In The Good Thief, Ren gets stuck in a chimney (twice), throws a jar of urine in the face of a villain, and discovers that one unearthed body is very much alive. A stolen pocket watch bears the inscription, “The Souls of the Just are in the Hand of God,” the appendage ominously singular, and it’s hard to tell if this maxim is meant to be a comfort or a threat to Ren. The nagging question of Ren’s parentage is solved by the novel’s end, although the answer isn’t completely comforting to the boy. (When it isn’t what you want to hear, says Benjamin Nab, “that’s when you know it’s the truth.”)
Blurbers have aptly compared Tinti to Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens—The Good Thief is Oliver Twist with more dead bodies and “missing parts.” Tinti also emulates the works of Roald Dahl and Steven Millhauser, where children are permitted to absorb both gruesome and lovely details. Yes, Ren sees a hacked-up cadaver preserved in whiskey, and dentures made of real human teeth. But a “paper sack the size and shape of a human head” is actually filled with candy; an orange makes the orphan’s “jaw [ache] with happiness.” In this way, The Good Thief reveals the worst and best things a child can imagine.
Tao Lin Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (Melville House, 2008)
In Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Tao Lin purposefully and skillfully uses current urban/internet language—terms such as “Whole Foods,” “energy drink,” “EBay,” “Gmail,” and “vegan”—to set his stage. For several pages, his language weaves in and out of today’s understated, jaded, and abbreviated tone. This is an asset to the book’s subject matter and humor: Lin’s use of these highly available, familiar terms contributes to a subtle contrast between inner complexities and the everyday. Several of his poems spend a page discussing the psychology of emotion and politics only to end, “i’ll be right back.”
His humor is self-deprecating as well as society-deprecating. It rings out the literal meaning of confessional poetry buzzwords, for fun. For instance, he hilariously writes about emptiness, “a kind of emptiness existed in the center of my bagel; really / it was just a hole that’s in the middle.” Here, Lin pokes fun at what might be a forlorn New York City hipster.
Lin’s more sincere poems about politics and culture are not so heavy that they weigh down the rest of the book. They are pleasantly and gently sobering in comparison to his sardonic lines. They simply and insightfully explain the complicated economic and social problems that we face: “a human being can be conditioned by professional rewards / to ignore intellectual contradictions and the suffering of others.” At times, he simultaneously achieves both humor and seriousness: “small feelings of permanence later get wrapped and sold on amazon.”
Readers should expect such surprises in this book. The line “[E]bay is incredible” jars the reader—such a casual, literal observation could taint the book’s hypothetical exploration—but Lin contextualizes it with the next line, “three word sentences console me.” In these two lines, the tone shifts from conversational to confessional, a common trend in this collection.
On top of that, Lin manages to include a small, unabashedly allegorical hamster narrative in a series of short prose poems. Switching from first person to third person omniscient, he introduces a homeless hamster in conversation with another hamster (without an adjective). The hamsters try too hard to be politically correct, so much so that they become obnoxious, further fueling the book’s comedy. Another hamster—“a recent college graduate”—steals from Virgin Megastore and Whole Foods, and decides against suicide.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is worth several readings by anyone currently living in New York—especially young vegans who shop at Whole Foods and use Gmail.
Harold Jaffe Jesus Coyote (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2008)
Harold Jaffe’s docufiction Jesus Coyote explores the media mythos surrounding Charles Manson and his followers to intriguing and compelling effect.
Jesus Coyote begins with lurid Tate/LaBianca massacre headlines, mining the sensationalized media reports of the Hollywood murders. Jaffe then quickly establishes characters and events via a series of plundered transcripts; this material is handled deftly and without pretense. Of note is the interview with film director Jaroslav Hora (Jaffe employs fictional names), husband of slain actress Naomi Self. Jaffe notes parallels between Hora and Jesus Coyote: physical similarities, occult interests, sexual preferences, and criminal acts. He indicates a constellation of extremity—cultural, criminal, and by extension, political.
In the “Tribe the Coyote” chapter, Jaffe changes registers. This series of first-person narratives resembles a sort of testimonial literature; the stories of the women members of the Tribe in particular cover a vast experiential range, which makes for a compelling, often moving read. As the pace slows, we come to understand that the members of the Tribe see themselves as much more than criminal co-conspirators: their relationships are extraordinarily intimate and complex, and are charged and informed by the socially transgressive nature of their associations.
The section “Head Games,” which concerns Hedda Hayman, might be read as emblematic of Jaffe’s core concerns in Jesus Coyote. Of course, a broader cultural and social critique is implicit in all of Jaffe’s recent docufictions. But it’s interesting to note the ways in which at key junctures the utterances of Jaffe’s characters take on a heightened immediacy, manifesting (despite their abject condition) a sense of immanence through discourse. And Hayman is in subtle and important ways transported and transformed during her detailing of the despoliation of rural San Diego (she has a deep feeling for nature, for animals) and particularly during her description of her first meeting with Jesus Coyote in a neglected San Francisco park.
The interview that concludes Jesus Coyote, with a shackled Jesus Coyote imprisoned at Pelican Bay, is a tour de force. Coyote is savvy, defiant, and manipulative, with an unerring sense of human weakness which he uses against his unctuous interrogator to sometimes amusing effect. Finally, one comes to realize that Coyote simply exists as he is, unapologetically beyond social norms, and that we accept or revile him on his own terms. This is perhaps the source of his fascination, after all these decades.
Stephanie Kuehnert I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone (MTV Books, 2008)
Stephanie Kuehnert’s first novel, I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone, showcases her passion for punk music and her knowledge of the ingredients for a successful 1990s punk rock band. Her descriptions of songs’ components, influences, and resulting impact on life are intricate and authentic. Kuehnert’s depiction of several drug-saturated lifestyles is also effective, though she does not go into enough detail to churn one’s stomach or to glorify drug use; this is not a Chuck Palahniuk or Aleister Crowley novel.
Perhaps Kuehnert avoids crossing this boundary because this is a novel for the most recently acknowledged Young Adult subdivision, the “older young adult.” This is the group whose previous generations read Go Ask Alice (Anonymous/Beatrice Sparks), Forever (Judy Blume), and Crank (Ellen Hopkins) as stepping stones into the adult literary world. The older young adults are worldly enough to handle Kuehnert’s drug references and descriptions of (often disappointing) first sexual encounters, and she tailors the exaggerated emotional outbursts for her hormone-driven readers without insulting their intelligence. I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone’s unexpected ending is a refreshing twist to Young Adult literature, and the juxtaposition between how Emily envisions her mother’s current life and how we the readers actually view it is a testament to the willing suspension of disbelief of adolescence.
I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone deals with the period of teenage confusion about finding one’s self and one’s place in the world, with all the disappointing, humiliating moments we later try to forget, but perhaps should instead embrace.
Kuehnert’s novel takes the issues of today’s inevitably confused young adult, adds some heavy riffs, coats it in a grimy layer of beer and cigarette smoke, and leads us through the true hell of adolescence once again.
—Tatiaana L. Laine
Amanda Petrusich It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music (Faber and Faber, 2008)
It Still Moves, by Amanda Petrusich is part travelogue, part scholarly inquisition into the history of American Music. Beginning and ending in New York, Petrusich loops through Memphis, Nashville, a chunk of the Appalachian mountain range, and Washington D.C., visiting significant places and people that helped shape and preserve American Music. The result is an admirable topology of history and geography.
It Still Moves is full of detailed histories of niche genres like alt-country, but it is also interspersed with personal episodes that balance out its hardcore audiophile appeal. While Petrusich charts the lineage of movements like freak folk, and bluegrass music, she also records what she eats (often some kind of indigenous fare), her musings on the more bizarre locations she encounters (see Chapter 4: I’m Going to Graceland) and her insights into the complex personalities she examines (Woody Guthrie, Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter). The interplay between the two sides of It Still Moves is accommodating without sacrificing a sophisticated, comprehensive presentation of its subject matter.
Though the final section, “The New Weird, Hyphenated America” eschews the in-depth examination found in earlier chapters for a more truncated overview of contemporary music, Petrusich gives the strong impression that American Music is alive and well and propagated by its ever-evolving adherents and genres. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the book is that it locates the roots of bands and musicians such as Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart, and Will Oldham in a tangible past, illuminating a subset of music seeking authenticity against a backdrop of increasingly derivative noise.
It Still Moves is a testament to Petrusich’s earnest desire to chart an otherwise labyrinthine history for a generation of new and seasoned music lovers. Anyone who considers himself or herself a fan of “American Music” stands to benefit from her passionate rigor and insight.
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum Ms. Hempel Chronicles (Harcourt, 2008)
With her nomination for a National Book Award for 2004’s Madeleine is Sleeping, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum joined the ranks of a select few young writers anointed as the next potential up and coming genius. Ms. Hempel Chronicles, Bynum’s follow-up, is a “novel in stories.” These eight exceptionally good stories are an intertwined, multi-layered, and provocative fiction. The collection affirms Bynum’s place as recognized four years ago. She is, indeed, a good writer.
How does a reluctant adult, twenty-four years old and newly at the helm of a seventh grade classroom, answer her students’ questions about life? The students, themselves on the cusp of transition towards adulthood, look to their teacher for access to the knowledge of grownups. Though they see her as their insight to authority and mystery, she sees herself as closer to them than she does to the adults with whom she now works.
The opening story, “Talent,” establishes Ms. Hempel as this girlwoman suddenly ensconced in responsibility. She is sincere and accommodating, sometimes naïve and often sad, as when she laments the possibility that a precocious seventh grader named Harriet may be gay, “Not because [Ms. Hempel] had any misgivings about gayness, she just didn’t like to think of Harriet becoming a grown-up.” “Talent” concludes in an exhilarating way, yet it leaves the reader asking, in an echo of David Byrne, how did Ms. Hempel get here? Equally important, what will her future life hold?
Cue the following seven stories, advancing back and forth in time from this twenty-four-year-old as starting point. With each successive story, we are introduced to new, different, and sometimes surprising aspects of Ms. Hempel. Her background details are introduced only as needed. We don’t, for instance, learn Ms. Hempel’s first name until the third story, “Sandman.” Farther along still, we begin to get clues as to her cultural background. This restraint creates a voyage of discovery that leaves the reader asking questions about the very perception of identity. Bit by bit, story by story, Ms. Hempel eventually comes through in whole: her formative experiences, adolescent struggles, parents and siblings, lovers, aspirations, foibles.
The majority of these stories have previously appeared in periodicals. Most recently “Yurt” was featured in the New Yorker’s July 21 edition. As a collection, the tales work together to show a complex and memorable character, while also revealing the staying power of a young, extraordinary writer.
Mirov is editor of pax americana. He is also poetry editor of LIT Magazine.Tatiaana Laine
Ken Murray is an author and contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.Gary Lain
Lara Tupper is the author of A Thousand and One Nights.Clinton Krute