Book Review: Birthday Stories by Haruki Murakami
The name Murakami invokes a certain feeling. Surreal landscapes, fish falling from the sky, the slow peeling of a tangerine, clouds floating across rural Japan.
Despite the word "birthday" (and the pomp and show that usually accompanies it) in the title, I knew better to expect something from Murakami to be anything as such. And I was right!
Birthday Stories is a set of 12 stories curated by Murakami and published in both Japanese and English. With stories by Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace, Lynda Sexson, and more, it encompasses all types of feelings - nostalgia, anger, contempt, and disdain. In the end, Murakami has added a short story penned by himself, which concludes the series wonderfully with a final feeling - acceptance and gratitude.
The book opens with an introduction from Murakami himself, narrating the queer experience of hearing his own birthday being announced on the radio - and feeling that the event was now something public. He doesn't himself sees birthdays as a grand event. However reading 2 consecutive haunting birthday stories led him to compile this anthology - one filled with all kinds of birthdays.
Of course, there isn't a single story in the book that resonates with what the word 'birthday' naturally ignites in the mind of a normal person. The characters in these stories are twisted, crotchety, mysterious, or simply insane.
Murakami himself questions us - why are these stories so melancholic?
"I suspect it is because the overwhelming majority of novelists are, by nature, incapable of taking the world at face value."
So here's a short introduction and rating for each, and you can decide for yourself if you would like to spend your birthday with this book!
1. The Moor - Russell Banks
The story of two lovers meeting on a wintry night at a bar - bittersweet, nostalgic and I'll leave you with its parting lines:
Time's come, time's gone, time's never returning, I say to myself.
2. Dundun by Denis Johnson
Denis Johnson's works can take time to get used to. But I absolutely loved Dundun as the story of a man with little means, literacy (and brains) surviving on a farm by a gun and something else. Dundun accidentally shoots a man on his birthday and so follows the story. The language is dry, violence is glossed over. This factual voice may not be for all - but Dundun does leave much food for thought.
3. Timothy's Birthday by William Trevor
A story about parents celebrating their son's birthday - who lives a life different than one they can understand. You begin the story feeling bad for the way Timothy treats his poor, old parents. However, can ignorance be reason enough for not accepting one's sexuality?
4. The Birthday Cake by Daniel Lyons
Touching on topics of racism, treatment of the elderly, and one's own ego - The Birthday Cake is a layered story with no villains and only people plagued by their circumstances and unable to see beyond the walls they have created. A great story, and certainly very reminiscent of the type of stories one would see in a school curriculum.
5. Turning by Lynda Sexson
A child is visited by 3 elderly ladies on his birthday who take turns narrating an extremely bizarre tale. What was the purpose? What does it mean? I'm afraid I am none the wiser. Still, it did make for an interesting read.
6. Forever Overhead by David Foster Wallace
On his birthday, a child climbs the jumping board of a swimming pool. The story follows his thoughts as he climbs overhead and onto the edge. Dreamlike and surreal, the story moves like a sensory overload of everything he thought, felt, wished for, and crashed on. It certainly could've been a tad shorter for me.
7. Angel of Mercy, Angel of Wrath by Ethan Canin
Eleanor's 81st birthday and a flock of crows enter her apartment. What is the elderly lady with a son living hours away to do now? I loved the story with its tiny Easter eggs. The way her son regards her, her slow exaggeration of facts, the short bond between two women so far in age - everything screams the bittersweetness of young adult and old age to me.
8. The Birthday Present by Andrea Lee
The introduction to an odd marriage, and the wife's idea to gift her husband something special (read: girls) for his birthday. The writing is unsympathetic, but it's really the ending that haunts me. So many stories end with minute connections - a fleet of merging emotions between people vastly different.
9. The Bath by Raymond Carver
Certainly the saddest of the lot and a reminder of our frail lives. A child meets with a small accident on his birthday, and we follow the rest of his family as they realistically deal with the mess. Office leaves, the chores at home, the avoidant doctor - life is uncertain, and that ending is the opposite of closure.
10. A Game of Dice by Paul Theroux
Reminiscent of The Birthday Present, A Game of Dice tells the story from a bar owner's point of view about a couple who gamble at his club. Was it new and haunting? Not particularly. Did I still enjoy it? Yes.
11. Close to the Water's Edge by Claire Keegan
Family can mean a lot of things. Close to the Water's Edge tells the story of a young man who may have everything it seems. An entrance to Harvard, a mother who has married rich - a whole gateway to a better life. But sometimes, the burdens we shoulder are invisible to others.
12. Birthday Girl by Haruki Murakami
Murakami mentions that he wrote this story (mildly inspired by real events) to match a final vibe that the rest of the stories lacked. And I must say, overall the story is very reminiscent of how I see birthdays. Not as something full of balloons and pomp and grandeur - but as a simple, personal acknowledgment and quiet going on about my tasks. Birthday Girl is the story of a girl who works a restaurant shift on her birthday and happens to witness a special event. In rue Murakami fashion, the ending leaves you with more questions than answers.
And so the book ends
Birthday Stories: Hit or Miss?
As with any collection of stories, some stay with you longer than others. As Murakami wishes, perhaps, you will find one "that gives you real pleasure and makes you want to spend part of your next birthday re-reading it."
For me, Birthday Stories was definitely a HIT. It introduced me to some great writers who I will be on the lookout for.
Overall rating: ✰✰✰/5
I got this book as a birthday gift and it certainly makes a good gift for someone who likes to read. But I did take many breaks in between (especially after The Bath) as the overall nature of the book was quite gloomy.
Let me know how you found this book!