Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Murakami and Running

When I picked up Haruki Murakami's most recent book, I was giddy for a continuation of some post-modern experience--elephants vanishing and all that. The English title seemed promising in this regard, "What I Talk About When I Talk about Running." The cognitive compounding of thoughts and actions appeared to point to a comically twisted, self-reflexive tale of one sort or another.

Before cracking the volume in front of our crackling fire, I admit that I had already known a little bit of Murakami's life and habits. Last semester I was given the task of teaching a course on the Introduction to Asian Literalture and in my haste to suture my own syllabus out of a pile of colleagues' old ones, it just so happened that some of Murakami's 's short stories found their way into my curricural Frankenstein. Of course, before I taught the class (more precisely, a week before I lectured on him) I hadn't the faintest idea what kind of writer or person he was. Some days before I had to tell my students something significant about him, I started flipping through his short story collections and surfing the web. Wikipeida is always a great place to start. I finally came to find out that he lived a very interesting and enviable life. At least, that is how I feel about it.

His dual-life as an athelete and artist stirred something in me that I had burried long ago and that graduate school was at present stamping further into my depths: the prospect of a creative and physically engaging existence, one balanced by the body and the mind. The two things I absolutely loved to do throughout childhood and adolescence was to write, paint and play soccer and ski. Strictly speaking, this doesn't make me compatable to Murakami, not by any stretch of the imagination. For one, he writes well and continues to race in marathons. I, on the other hand, as any of my advisors can tell you, am no paragon of the pen--seriously lacking in substance where I attempt to be most influential and earnest. Not to mention, I've practically given up on soccer and skiing (permanent injuries, money issues, blahblah). These are the shortcomings that prevent any sort of direct correlation between me and the famed author I'm referring to (and secretly envying). However, the dual-desire to exercise the mind and body is certainly kindred, and Murakami's life and writing inspires me to dust off my tired and buffeted dreams to live healthily and creatively. He was thirty-three, a ripe old Dantean age, when he launched his habits as novelist and runner. Having just turned thirty-one, I aspire to make similar adjustments for my own good. Maybe it won't be a novel and a marathon...At the very least, it has to be an engaging dissertation and the occasional lap around the tredmill.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter Break

We are privileged every now and then to get a glimpse of who we are. Like a flash of clarity we stumble over an epiphany of ourselves. It's always brief. And because the object that trips us into revelation is, in fact, us, it's usually painful too. Arguing from the analogy, it may just be the treading of the self by the self that raises consciousness. At any rate, I kicked myself today.

Sophia had just cried herself to sleep giving me a chance to finally visit the bathroom. I pushed the flimsy wood-panel door in. It floated slowly into the room oblivious of its own weight, warm billows of air cushioning its swing. Oddly enough, the bathrooms in my parents house tend to be the warmest. As I stepped in puffs of dry heat stuffed my nostrils. The sensation sent me reeling back to my childhood when I would race around our small L-ranch home in West Kingston looking for an open heating vent that wasn't occupied by a sibling (particularly an older one who couldn't be pushed around). If I were so lucky to find a vacancy, I'd plop down in front of it with a blanket slung over my shoulders and pitch a make-shift tent, letting the warm air thaw out my tummy and roll over my puckered face. Sometimes I'd bring a book along and read it shifting my weight to expose new flesh to the subtly, singeing heat. Eyeing the toilet I saw something awkwardly jammed into my toiletry bag next to the sink. It was a book that I'd recently been given by my mother-in-law that Jenny had crammed in there--who knows why. A rare gift of leisurely reading. Leisure reading--a rare gift, indeed! I'm a fourth year PhD student in Comparative Literature and can count on two fingers the one book I've read in the past few years that could qualify psychologically as a leisurely read. I pawed the glossy black cover and scanned its art: a cinematic shot of what looked to be a scruffy-looking Christian Bale being hugged by a child (I love Batman). The title read, "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy, apparently "Now a Major Motion Picture" and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Promising. Besides, everyone had been saying it was a must read. When I'd asked them why, though (I like to have explicit reasons), all I got was a pocked plot rehash. But excitement translates even better than reasons, so imprecise reviews of the novel posed no injury to its promise.

I bent the book back to the first page of the story, skipping as I usually do the title and acknowledgment pages and began to read. "When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him" (4). I squinted after the third alliterative liquid: when, woke, woods. Hmmmmm..."In the dark and the cold of the night" began to stoke the fire of my suspicions. Finally the estranging conditional "he'd"! All this ambitiously crammed into the first sentence ushered an immediate verdict: yikes. I ventured above all good reason a quick look at sentence dos and was horrified to have the verdict glaringly upheld: "Nights dark beyond darkness." The nocturne cliche sent me reeling a second time, though, in this instance into a discomforting epiphany instead of into the past. In sync with the swirling water, I experienced an actual vertigo as a I realized that against all opinions and best intentions, I couldn't even enjoy an enjoyable book. I instantaneously reviewed the pleasure I'd got out of my recent light, vacation reading, Lu Xun's Nahan, Laoshe's Camel Xiangzi, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar (highly recommended), and saw what I'd become. I felt it like I saw it as if my chest had emptied momentarily transparent. What I saw haunted me as I sensed that there was no respite for me. Welcome to my winter break.

(I've since turned back and tried reading The Road again. This time I purposely let the particular stylistic issues slide by and surprisingly finished the book. It was actually quite a good story. McCarthy may not be the consummate stylist but he does have a knack for a gripping tale.)