These reminders of our mortality come faster the older we get, yet we look forward to them like no other, our heart beating a secret rhythm as they approach, keeping a mental checklist for all who call to wish, and another for those who don't – the ingrates! The nature of birthdays is as a rite of transition, from one year to the next, at certain points, from one phase of life to another, and sometimes, a rite of initiation, and for a few, of departure. Smart as unbirthdays might seem, they never have achieved the acclaim of the one day in a year when all is bright, or dark, as the case may be.
Haruki Murakami, the Japanese baby-boomer novelist whose characters are prone to spend so much time at McDonald's, lighting up Marlboros, listening to Bruce Springsteen records and watching Woody Allen movies and who shares his birthday with Jack London (January 12th), recently edited an anthology of birthday stories for his own delectation, and fortunately, for his readers. He found it a difficult task; he asks in the introduction, "Could there be something innately difficult about using the subject in fiction?"
He also found that most stories about birthdays are, contrary to expectation, dark and cynical. He believes this is because "most novelists are incapable of taking the world at face value," preferring to see the darkness beneath the whoopee cushion, the hot melting wax on a birthday candle, or in the memories of happy days a reflection of others less bright. This is not a book to be given lightly as a birthday present, it carries enough weapons of emotional destruction to shatter the naive, not-yet-cynical heart, and yet, that is the function of art – to break down the barriers and fictive constructs we build to interpret reality, and to show us the holes, and then it is for us to peer through them, or to achieve catharsis, or to go on blindly.
Murakami, who won the 2006 Franz Kafka Award, contributes one story himself to the collection, "Birthday Girl," a tale about a waitress who gets her birthday wish granted on her 20th birthday – a wish that takes a whole lifetime to realize. Life is indeed about living through it, and the birthdays along the way.
In "The Moor," by Russell Banks, a middle-aged white Freemason is reacquainted with a woman who was his first, tender love, and those are the ones we never really forget. He gives her a birthday present too – the treasure of remembering, and of the memory of a betrayal, not unlike that of Othello, yet more tender and precious.
Denis Johnson's "Dundun" is a vignette of bone-hard and bone-brittle violence, of the burnt-out heart of middle America, and of a birthday where "all the false visions had been erased."
"Timothy's Birthday" from William Johnson captures the bleakness of the Irish countryside, of old-age, and of children turned sour. It also reflects a 'lifetime celebration of love', between parents more than for children.
They were not bewildered as their birthday visitor was: they easily understood. Their own way of life was so much debris around them, but since they were no longer in their prime that hardly mattered. Once it would have, Odo reflected now; Charlotte had known that years ago. Their love of each other had survived the vicissitudes and the struggle there had been; not even the bleakness of the day that had passed could affect it.
"The Birthday Cake" by Daniel Lyons is a tale about a birthday and a weekly unbirthday. An old woman makes her weekly trip to purchase a birthday cake for her darling Nico, and insists on having it despite it being a little girl's birthday, who would so enjoy the cake. All the better to demonstrate the depths of her suffering and devotion and loneliness, perhaps.
In Lynda Sexson's "Turning," three old ladies visit a young boy, whose birthday it is, and tell him a collaborative story. It's an old one, about "The Emperor Who Had No Skin" and about three princesses who came to answer his riddle and hopefully be his wife. The little boy fathoms the riddle, and wishes he had a tail, which I'm sure you agree would be a grand thing to have.
The excellent David Forster Wallace contributes "Forever Overhead", a tale of rites of transition, of diving boards, and of the relativity of time outside versus time inside.
So which is the lie? Hard or soft? Silence or time?
The lie is that it's one or the other. A still, floating bee is moving faster than it can think. From overhead the sweetness drives it crazy.
Ethan Canin's "Angel of Mercy, Angel of Death" is another look at old age – birthdays then are more about loneliness, it seems, and of occasional visitors who enliven the day.
Andrea Lee's "The Birthday Present" reminds one of a Tinto Brass film, and not merely for its Italian setting. Flavia, a transplanted American housewife decides to give her husband an unusual present for his birthday. The story is an exploration of uxoriousness.
When has Ariel ever moved through the house in such freedom? It is exhilarating, and slightly appalling. And she receives the strange impression that this is the real reason she has staged this birthday stunt: to be alone and in conscious possession of the solitude she has accumulated over the years.
Raymond Carver's "The Bath" is tragic, about the birthday parties that never happen. It is somewhat incomplete, having been hacked away at by a "minimalist" editor, and was later expanded by the author as "A Small, Good Thing." But given the bleakness of this story, it is hard to imagine any redemption in a longer work.
"A Game Of Dice" is a chapter from the "Hotel Honolulu" by the very skilled Paul Theroux. It explores "the sadness of games" and of the nature of victors.
Claire Keegan's "Close to the Water's Edge" is an atmospheric, edgy piece, as only a 19-year-old could visualize the world. The period between 19 and 26 is a dangerous one to inhabit, and this story gives a glimpse why.
Lewis Robinson's "The Ride" is about bonding between absent fathers and sons, the maturity of men, and of the loneliness of growing up.
The collection provides a good example of the power of the short story to encapsulate life in all its evanescence and glittering danger, much like a Mikimoto pearl, perhaps. Savor these pearls well, and happy birthday.