Birthday Stories ed Haruki Murakami

An un-happy birthday present - thanks a lot!
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By far the most compelling sections of Murakami's new Birthday Stories anthology are the short biographical sketches that preface each contribution. Instead of the expected talking-up one might imagine from a conscientious editor, Murakami offers an anxious summary of each writer's strengths and weaknesses, like a host worried about whether his party will be a success. These introductions betray the book's origins as a collection for a Japanese audience, and along with an amusing (but slight) opening essay and a new short story, are the main inducement to buy a anthology of stories that have all appeared in print before and include at least two that are already well-known.

As Murakami makes clear, the selection of authors was not of prime importance. Instead he started with the "birthday" theme and then tried to find stories that fit. Stuck at seven, he turned to his agent, his editor and a friend who came up with three more. While it is honourable of Murakami to reveal their assistance, it doesn't help that these three stories (by David Foster Wallace, Ethan Canin and Andrea Lea) are the best in the collection.

Murakami's original selection is further weakened by the fact that one story is an early (and, as he admits, inferior) version of Raymond Carver's famous "A Small, Good Thing", and another, "A Game of Dice", by Paul Theroux, is actually an extract from his recent novel, Hotel Honolulu. When you read Murakami's wish that the reader finds at least one story that "gives real pleasure and makes you want to spend part of your next birthday re-reading it", it becomes impossible to escape the conclusion that this is little more than an upmarket gift-book.

While he encourages the reader to treat the book as a light entertainment, Murakami acknowledges that most of the stories have a depressing edge. "Why should so many birthday stories be this gloomy?" he asks, before answering: "I suspect it is because the overwhelming majority of novelists are, by nature, incapable of taking the world at face value. If most people imagine candles on a cake and the singing of 'Happy Birthday', conversely, a novelist who hears the word 'birthday' is probably going to think, 'Let me give them an un-happy birthday'." Which is an astute analysis of the psychology of authors, if not a very good reason for giving this book as a present. As might be expected, the content of several stories is also extremely similar, with stories about birthday cakes, lonely old ladies and two (from Andrea Lea and the incorrigible Theroux) about giving a "lover for a night" as a present.

Even the lure of an original Murakami story, which to this die-hard fan would be more than enough reason to hand over £12, is tempered by his admission that "writing 'Birthday Girl' was more fun than work, and I hope you will read it with the same easygoing attitude." Fortunately, the story doesn't need such indulgence and is better than anything in Murakami's recent collection After The Quake. A 20-year-old waitress seems all set to have a lonely birthday serving in a restaurant when she is summoned to take the reclusive owner of the restaurant his dinner in his hotel room. After doing so, he discovers it is her birthday and offers to fulfil one wish for her. Murakami never reveals what she asks for; as with his very best work, the story is filled with a strange mystery that borders on surrealism without ever losing its naturalistic edge. Nevertheless, rather than shell out for this disappointing collection, many readers may wish to hold out for Murakami's long-awaited new novel, Kafka on the Beach, scheduled for the autumn and, according to Japanese reviewers, his finest novel since Norwegian Wood.