Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

            Up until roughly one month ago, my sole experience with running included running late to things, running out of money, and running out of patience. My workout philosophy sounded something like this: unless a man with a functioning chainsaw is literally pursuing you, there’s no good reason to be running. However, recently, I’ve experienced a personality shift (something possibly akin to maturation) that has led me to up the exercise ante. I’m almost 25 and I’d like to challenge myself more, mentally and physically. I want to set actionable goals and achieve them. I want to do more than run until I burn 300 calories just so that I feel less guilty about my craft beer indulgences. Instead, I’d like to run until I burn 500 calories so I also feel less guilty about my baconator. *Growth*.

            So, Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running* fell into my lap at a pivotal time. This book is concerned with the physical and psychological elements of long distance running. Murakami is a well-known and respected novelist—best known for A Wild Sheep Chase, Norwegian Wood, and Kafka on the Shore—who attributes a portion of his writing skills to his workout regimen. Thus, the memoir is a laidback approach to exposing his marathon-training process and how that discipline intertwines with his ability to uniquely put words on a page. I hope to become a capable runner; moreover, I’m paralyzed in the incipient stages of discovering who I am as a writer and what bearing that holds on the future. Talk about a match made in heaven. Of note, this memoir is based on What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver that inspired the play in Birdman. Birdman is a 5-hump movie that I recommend you see.
            Before all of you non-runners and non-writers check out, I must note that this work reads surprisingly universal. While the content is specific, his message is generally (and perhaps even unintentionally) inspiring. Murakami started running at age 33, and at the time of publication (age 58), he had completed 24 marathons, several triathlons, and one ultramarathon (62 miles)—not to mention all of the half marathons and smaller races in between. THAT IS ABSURD.  Is he a goddamn robot? This is clearly a man worth paying attention to. Because his running and his writing go hand in hand, he also carves out 3-4 hours each morning to focus exclusively on writing. It's impressive that he can manage to discuss such a vast catalog of incredible feats and give you a sense that your life has meaning, rather than leave you feeling like a worthless piece of shit.
            I had never really considered the profound parallel between writing and long distance running before cracking this open. Both require a degree of innate, foundational skill, as well as the potential to stretch your abilities through practice until you hit a fragile peak. Finishing is important—so honing your expertise incrementally creates endurance that upholds a lasting quality to your craft. If you ever feel a talent drought, you can in some ways supplement it with your reservoir of concentration and stamina built by the demands of running every day. Novelists thrive on creative energy which is in part supported by physical energy. Murakami’s chief “goal of exercising is to maintain, and improve, [his] physical condition in order to keep on writing novels” (Murakami, 177).
   Additionally, writing and running are very self-centered practices that rely on inward motivation—“the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be (Murakami, 10). Consistent, disciplined activity gives that inner voice a much needed microphone. Because pain—physical and emotional—is a crucial component to personal growth, forming meaningful habits in the form of regular exercise can seep into overall self-improvement. It’s all about increasing your potential as a person, the bar rising almost imperceptibly. While that might seem self-evident, it’s easier said than done. The idea is to not get burnt out and kill yourself like some of the great writers who led licentious lifestyles (Hunter S. Thompson, Hemingway, Kerouac—in his own way, etc). But let me be clear—I’m still gonna get my drank on sometimes. Currently plotting whether I want to go the beer or liquor route for my Modest Mouse concert tonight.
             I don’t know about you guys, but lately I’m struggling with prioritizing my desires. I love my friends/family/significant other—they make me laugh and keep me sane, I have a job with responsibilities so that I don’t end up smelly on the side of the road, I enjoy being social—I’m young in an amazing, thriving city that’s always poppin off, I put in time at the gym because like metabolism and stuff, and I need my alone time—I get my introspective swag on and I’ve gotta do me. I also require 9 hours of sleep a night to avoid being a huge bitch, plus dreams are tight. Ain’t nobody got time for all of that. Learning how Murakami deals with similar time-constraint struggles illuminated my own understanding of the rhythm that I want for my life. He emphasizes how indispensable it is to concretely determine how you wish to distribute your time/effort in order to reach a balance that has focus and is true to your self. If you abide by a clear-cut philosophy, you can make the most out of your precious few years of existence. He says, “it’s far better to live with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that” (Murakami, 83). It’s really an inadvertent self-help book.
            That being said, Murakami and I are not the same (duh). I spent some of my reading time lolling at how far I am from his legendary level. There are some minute differences. For instance, he usually runs empty-minded, creating a meditative, mental void. When, I run, I listen to raunchy rap music and picture myself looking fabulous. I’ll run through dance routines in my head and tell myself that I’m really good at certain moves. Usually, I look something like this:
               There are also some larger differences. He has an incredibly strong sense of self, while I’m stuck somewhere between *I wanna get my shit together and life’s too short so whatever*. He is confident in who he is, which creates a comforting clarity to his daily actions. The memoir is nothing flashy; it is written with poise rather than pretentiousness. It also contains an ongoing reflection on aging that inspired me to take advantage of my own youth and vitality. As he gets older, he is discovering his own pace—and not just how many minutes his miles are. Retaining his workout regimen with age has been a challenge, but he accepts it with grace and honors his physical decline. Bow to your shin splint sensei.  
   Overall, I give the book 4 out of 5 camel humps. His writing is lucid and compelling and I can’t wait to read his other novels. There is always a thrill when you come into contact with a new author—a dialogue where you figure out how their particular voice speaks to you. He has proven to me that he writes well in a relatable way; soon I’ll discover if his running routine has helped fill his wellspring of creativity, evidenced in his fictional narratives.  
*Murakami, Haruki. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. New York: Vintage Books, 2008. Print.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

As I Lay Dying

        As I Lay Dying* is a title all too fitting for its contents. It describes verbatim how I personally felt while reading it prostrate. This was my first Faulkner read and I desperately wanted to like him. A name like his appeals to my obnoxious side because it affirms that I’m reading “one of the greats”—a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winner no less! I was instantaneously disappointed. I dove in to his literary waters so sanguinely and emerged horrified, as if I’d been pushed into a crocodile-infested swamp. I kept thinking get me the hell out of here as I dejectedly trudged through all 267 pages.

        The story centers on a Mississippian family of seven which quickly becomes six when the matron, Addie Bundren, passes. To fulfill her dying wish that she be buried in Jefferson—a city far from their own—the children accompany their father in a wagon journey beset by physical and emotional obstacles. Just as Addie confronts the Great Unknown, her family faces unfamiliar territory while they get her earthly arrangements in order.
         One redeeming quality of this novel is its range of narration. Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different character. For instance, “Darl” is told by Darl, “Cash” is told by Cash, “Vardaman” is told by Vardaman, “Anse” is told by Anse, etc. Most of the time, the characters get more than one chance to express their POV. I think we can all agree that Southern names in the early 1930s are ridiculous and that the diction is generally bleh. Then again, nowadays there are children named Apple. Nevertheless, depicting the same scene from a multitude of angles unlocks a deluge of juicy family secrets. As the novel progresses, a back story develops and certain suspicions piece together nicely. The chapter expressed from Addie’s own perspective after her death was by far the most articulate and entertaining.
       This potential face-saving structure is rapidly overthrown when you find out that the majority of the characters suck. They are simpletons with an unwavering trust in God and a completely impractical self-righteous sense of duty. Their stubbornness annoyed me to no end and the fact that everyone was putting themselves at risk of dying just to bury someone who was already dead was something that I couldn’t get behind. Somebody get this lady in the ground STAT.
Of course, although their actions bothered me, they were tied to some heart-tugging themes. There was a recurrent emphasis on self sufficiency and superfluous struggle—a mentality of not being beholden to others. I would have swallowed my pride hella fast if it meant I could sleep in a bed rather than a barn—I’m not Jesus in the manger last time I checked. An extension of this belief is that a hard life filled with diligent, patient work is divinely rewarded. But overall, “the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead for a long time” (Faulkner, 169). That sure makes me want to go to work every day!
         Without giving too much away-- because the faint, sporadic surprises are really all this book has going for it—there is also a concern with loyalty, both in death and in life. When someone dies with guilt and lies, do those untruths linger and haunt or do they disappear with the body? There is a delicate balance between both sides of existence and impermanence is not easily accepted. Faulkner embodies this notion concretely in events and more subtly when he plays with words like “is” and “was” to experimentally toy with states of being. It is worth noting that the book contains some profound insights into human nature. The conception that people are “built” just like things is driven home by the wood motif. Additionally, eyes are a repeatedly stressed symbol. His character descriptions revolve around eye movements and optical imagery. As windows into the soul and gatekeepers of secrets, they both divulge and witness incidents that they should not.
         To be fair, there are moments of dazzling eloquence in this work. Here are two examples:
·         It is as though upon a face carved by a savage caricaturist a monstrous burlesque of all bereavement flows” (Faulkner, 78)

·         We go on, with a motion so soporific, so dreamlike as to be uninferant of progress, as though time and not space were decreasing between us and it” (Faulkner, 107)
         I enjoyed reading that. That was nice. But it’s fluff. You can’t just have a shitty story with a few beautiful sentences littered throughout and expect me to walk away focusing on the bright side. His words have a Joseph Conrad flair, and sure enough, the back of the book likens Faulkner to his Polish contemporary. My reservations with As I Lay Dying and Heart of Darkness are striking similar. Consider this passage instead:
·         “Cash tried but she fell off and Darl jumped going under he went under and Cash hollering to catch her and I hollering running and hollering and Dewey Dell hollering at me Vardaman you vardaman you vardaman and Vernon passed me because he was seeing her come up and she jumped into the water again and Darl hadn’t caught her yet He came up to see and I hollering catch her Darl catch her and he didn’t come back because she was too heavy he had to go on catching at her and I hollering catch her darl catch her darl because in the water she could go faster than a man and Darl had to grabble for her so I knew he could catch her because he is the best grabbler even with the mules in the way again they dived up rolling their feet stiff rolling down again and their backs up now and Darl had to again because in the water she could go faster than a man or a woman and I passed Vernon and he wouldn’t get in the water and help Darl he wouldn’t grabble for her with Darl he knew but he wouldn’t help…” (Faulkner, 150).
          No, I didn’t fall asleep with my head smashed on the keyboard… that’s how the novel was actually written. I get that Faulkner was trying to muster up an image of chaos through his speech pattern, but that is not enjoyable to read. He takes stream of consciousness too far—beyond the realm of tolerability. Moreover, his unusual use of punctuation—especially with dialogue—struck me as bewildering rather than inventive. And that’s precisely how I’d sum it all up: terribly confusing in a feeble attempt to be early-20th-century-edgy. There are so many amazing books out there with fabulous writing that are simultaneously sensical. Read those!
          Clearly, I’m not crazy about this overly revered garbage. I don’t appreciate having to brain-strain to get through bulky, uninhabitable sentences just to reach the stunningly beautiful ones. Please convey your story to me in a less brutal way. I always rate with the act of recommendation in mind. If I graciously bestow a book 3 humps or more, that means I would recommend it. If it’s a 3, it might not be for everybody; if it’s a 5, I think that everyone should read it at some point. As I Lay Dying gets 1 out of 5 camel humps. Truthfully, I would not suggest reading this to my worst enemy. I’m more intrigued by the metal band named after the book, pictured below.
*Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage Books, 1930. Print.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Breakfast of Champions

            Breakfast of Champions*. I experienced one of these winning meals only two weeks ago--when I went temporarily insane and voluntarily ran 3 miles before bottomless brunch. Things were poppin off for the LGBT pride parade (woop woop), so I heartily downed several mimosas while we waited 2 hours for our food. I’m too little for that nonsense, so I ended up like this:


            This Vonnegut novel turned out much better than my embarrassing afternoon.  Published in 1973, it emerged after his acclaimed works Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five. As such, he ingeniously capitalized on his previous fictional characters that readers already knew and loved. For instance, Kilgore Trout is a minor character in Slaughterhouse-Five who I found endearingly nutty and unsuspectingly wise. I was disappointed that he wasn’t more in the forefront; so, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter him as a B-of-C main character. Trout is a profuse writer, though not successful by conventional standards, who creates outlandish science fiction tales strategically imbued with currents of deep-thinking. These stories usually describe the customs and belief systems of alien races on far away planets. For example, “Gilgongo” is an anti-conservation story about a planet with a creation problem. Every single hour, new species come into being, which is overwhelming and unpredictable for the planet’s residents. Consequently, they try their best to systematically eradicate whole species. In the end, the planet is suffocated by a blanket “composed of passenger pigeons and eagles and Bermuda Erns and whooping cranes” (Vonnegut, 89). Like I said…wacky but thought provoking. Trout eventually collides with another main character—Dwayne Hoover, a wealthy Pontiac dealer who loses his marbles. Not in the sense that he’ll have a difficult time playing Mancala… he literally becomes deranged.
            While these two characters are certainly a large focus, Vonnegut emphasizes that even the seemingly insignificant peripheral ones hold key roles. He does this implicitly, by intricately weaving everyone in and out of each other’s lives and connecting them by ties, both loose and tight. He also conveys this message explicitly, when he explains, “I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order…If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead” (Vonnegut, 215). Additionally, his several allusions to communism help bolster this notion of shared significance.

            The excerpt above uses the word “I”, openly offering the author’s perspective, which is one of my favorite aspects of this novel. Vonnegut himself is an actively involved character who comically interjects himself into his own book! Towards the end of the story, he announces to readers, “I had come to the Arts Festival incognito. I was there to watch a confrontation between two human beings I had created” (Vonnegut, 197). In past novels, he consistently mockingly refers to “the Creator of the Universe”. Here, in a *meta* sense, he is the Creator of the Universe, acting as a puppeteer to guide what characters do and say. Yet admittedly, the characters sometimes shock him and don’t act exactly according to plan. SoOoOoOo we have the ingredients for a deep discussion on determinism. Hook me up with some philosophical soup.

In veritable Vonnegut fashion, Breakfast of Champions is in many ways concerned with free will or lack thereof. Some of those ways include:
  • The notion of human beings as specifically programmed machines. We might all just be complex compilations of chemicals/molecules trying to interact with other chemicals/molecules of varying assembly. Our history of slavery reflects the idea that humans are machines that can be employed for physical labor. Perhaps, though there is a sacred part in each of us that is not dictated by machinery—our individual awareness. But perhaps not! 
  • The belief that humans are controlled by consumerism. In the name of “progress”, we are inevitably bombarded by advertisements, which we use to navigate life. He repeatedly reminds us that the name of the book “is a registered trademark of General Mills, Inc., for use on a breakfast cereal product” (Vonnegut, 1). As machines, we take in this data (the cereal box says the cereal tastes good) and spew out formulaic responses (this cereal tastes good).
  • The impression that ideas are transmitted, augmented, and belittled not by the basis of their merit, but because of friendship/enmity. Truth becomes relative because friends agree with friends and enemies disagree with enemies, thus rendering certain ideas “common sense” in some circles and their opposing ideas “common sense” in others. 
  • Echoes of recurring sentiments found in his other novels. In reference to Trout, Vonnegut says, “But his head no longer sheltered ideas of how things could be and should be on the planet, as opposed to how they really were. There was only one way for the Earth to be, he thought: the way it was” (Vonnegut, 106). How very Tralfamadorian of him.
  • Vonnegut’s use of foreshadowing. As the Creator of the Breakfast of Champions universe, he knows how the book is going to end and he repeatedly tells us what will happen before it actually does.
  • The erratic nature of his text, with page breaks and intermittent drawings. This novel is laden with felt-tip pen illustrations—a style that I find unique, relevant, and sometimes even impressively skillful. The aforementioned quote in which Vonnegut strives to “bring chaos to order” is expressed even in the atypical presentation of words on a page, fragmented by his artwork  (Vonnegut, 215). For your viewing pleasure: 

  •         The possibility that Vonnegut, like Kilgore Trout, is writing this novel for an alien race. He often refers to “planet Earth” or “the wrecked planet” in a detached manner that implies he is speaking to an audience unfamiliar with the world’s structure. Just like we find Trout’s stories of alien activity slightly ridiculous, viewing our planet from an outsider’s perspective sheds light on our more peculiar habits and how we view ourselves as “free”.

These metaphors and themes unload a series of questions on readers. Are we unknowingly squandering our free will? Does embracing the concept of free will lead to constructive activity or demise? Is there space for individual creativity in a world devoid of free will? Can alcohol as both a social and private lubricant change our machinery or chemical composition such that it enables or inhibits autonomy? What is the appropriate role of government and environmentalism in a universe dictated by determinism? As usual, Vonnegut leaves me with more questions than I have answers. While I’m tempted to demand that his grandiose ideas need more elaboration, he himself confesses that writing this book simply helped him “clear [his] head of all the junk in there” (Vonnegut, 5). He might have some well-articulated opinions on the subject but that doesn’t necessarily lead to concrete solutions. For instance, I love (and this is often a turning point where Vonnegut-haters vehemently disagree) when he forces readers to deal with the ugly facts of life by framing situations in pure, simplistic terms. He satirically strips away all of the frivolity so common in literature and reaches the core, nagging concern behind a phenomenon to expose its absurdities. At one point, he states, “Viet Nam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes” (Vonnegut, 88). This is a perfect example of how Vonnegut addresses intense subjects—usually involving oppression—without directly giving us “the answer” to the problem. Instead, he equips us with ways of thinking; he arms us with a manner of seeing the world that makes it tolerable to live in a place where oppression exists.

This is all to say—don’t read this book if you don’t want to think. If you get on your summertime carefree grind, by all means, turn to something less intellectually exhausting. But I feel quite strongly that everyone at some point should read Vonnegut in some form. Just like the last two, I give Breakfast of Champions 5 out of 5 camel humps and I find the three Vonnegut novels I’ve read equally compelling in their own way. He is refreshingly capable of probing larger-than-life issues head on while maintaining an entertaining plot. His writing is intricate and intentional—with carefully placed symbolism and themes that continue to pleasantly haunt you well after you’ve put the book down. He is full of the good kind of surprises—the ones that don’t piss you off—and I’m excited for what else he has in store for me. Next up: Player Piano.

*Vonnegut, Kurt. Breakfast of Champions. New York: Dial Press Trade Paperbacks, 1973. Print.