Birthday Stories, edited by Haruki Murakami

An elegant parcel of gift-wrapped surprises
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The Independent Culture

"I myself had one very strange birthday experience - though it was strange only for me," Haruki Murakami admits in his introduction to Birthday Stories. The Japanese novelist was pottering in his kitchen, making morning tea before sitting down to work, when his birthday was announced on the radio, which shocked him into nearly knocking the kettle over. Quotidian routines blooming into strange experiences, a private life shaken by public forces: for his fans, these are hallmarks of Murakami's odd world in which the mundane barely conceals the unusual.

Birthdays are the one day when one might expect to be made a bit of a fuss of, and the best stories in this collection catch the awkward tension that surrounds wanting to be noticed. Ethan Canin's fine contribution reflects Murakami's own tastes for the plausible yet bizarre. A flock of rare birds streams into a New Yorker's kitchen window on her 81st birthday; phone calls demanding that her son in Denver (who, of course, does not care enough for her) solve this problem share an absurd quality worthy of James Thurber.

David Foster Wallace's "Forever Overhead" is a superbly controlled meditation: a 13-year-old tests his pubescent mettle on the high diving board, until all eyes follow his trajectory into manhood. "Birthday Girl", Murakami's own coda to the collection, finds a waitress working through her 20th birthday and being granted a wish by the restaurant's mysterious owner. It is good, and distinctly (if unremarkably) Murakami, but lacks the sudden lurching surrealism that makes his finer work sing.

The idea for Birthday Stories sprang from Murakami's consecutive reading of two "outstanding" short stories on the subject: William Trevor's "Timothy's Birthday" and Russell Banks's "The Moor". He began searching for other stories, written in English, which he could translate into Japanese and publish with one of his own. These proved harder to find than he anticipated. More than half this collection stems from pure chance - his own discoveries, or friends' recommendations - which gives the project a haphazard feel.

If not "outstanding", the Trevor and Banks stories are good; Paul Theroux's piece is an excerpt from his novel Hotel Honolulu, which Murakami happened to be reading at the time. It isn't a particularly good scene, and Andrea Lee, one of only three female writers in this volume, provides a much snappier take on the notion of weird sexual birthday gifts.

Lynda Sexson seems to be included only because Murakami had already published his translation of her story. But, overall, the quality of these narratives justifies the whimsy of Murakami's selection. More Japanese writers treating the theme might have added greater depth to this British publication (although that would run counter to Murakami's original rationale of translating works into Japanese).

While most of these stories are strong, it remains true that few writers or editors besides Murakami would either dream up, or have the stature to carry through, so pleasantly self-indulgent a project.