Murakami’s birthday girl

birthday girl‘The Birthday Girl’ is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. Published initially in the Guardian in 2006, Haruki Murakami’s story tells of a girl who made a wish when she was twenty, working her shift in a restaurant.

I loved it when I first read this story, and to tell the truth, a few years had gone past and it has grown on me ever since. I feel that it is about what we really want to make out of life, the spontaneous choices or decisions that somehow made us. The girl refuses to reveal what she wished for. She says only time will tell whether the wish has come true. There is a deliberate contrast between her current and past life. Now a mother and housewife with a seemingly comfortable lifestyle as opposed to the poor waitress who worked her long evening shift on her 20th birthday, the girl tells her tale in an unaffected, self-absorbed tone, and there is no letting on whether she is happy or not. This is precisely the magic of the short story – the briskness of it all, the enigma, the uncertainty as to whether one has attained what one has set out to do. Tobias Hill describes it as the refusal to reveal.

The story speaks to many because it is a question on everyone’s mind: if you were to be granted a wish, what would you wish for? What do you want to do with your life? I find it irresistible, the imagery of ‘the dent’ in the front of their car – that imperfection in life that you have to put up with, that stays no matter what. I am impressed that Murakami can crystallise this idea of helplessness in life in a poetic and cinematic way. I am touched to see many readers ponder about the same puzzle in the narrative. There are various websites and dialogues on this. An example is the wiki dialogue (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_was_the_wish_in_birthday_girl_by_murakami).

Like many others, I identify with his writing a lot, and I always have the image of him writing away at the kitchen table, daily, in the wee hours after his work at the jazz bar in Tokyo. It left me such a strong impression. In spring 2008, when I was in Tokyo, I went to a bar in Ginza, where a friend used to work and manage the bar business. Many Japanese businessmen went to the bar to chill out after work. In that quaint bar there were posh leather sofa chairs and a long, elegant, dimly illuminated bar where the bartender stood and mixed drinks behind the counter. And I had imagined that it would be similar to what Murakami’s life used to be, managing the bar business, working till late, clouded in that lazy music and dim lights. If he had not become a serious writer instead. If he had not gone back home those nights to scribble down what was swimming in his head. According to what Murakami told the papers, when he was 29 he realised he could become a writer.

In the story, I think the girl wished to become a different person.

Now that Norwegian Wood is going to be out soon across London’s cinemas, I have this longing to reread all his books again. That story still kept me thinking on some nights.

Xiaolu Guo’s UFO in Her Eyes

I have enjoyed Xiaolu Guo’s storytelling style: crisp, bold, full of humour.

UFO in her eyes
UFO in her eyes

The disjointed narrative and peasants-speak in UFO in Her Eyes serve a purpose. A record of a series of investigation reports centering on the appearance of a UFO above Silver Hill Village’s sky, Guo highlights the disinterested attitude of some individuals towards the UFO happening, each being too caught up with their own daily struggles. In the narrative, the mystery lies not only in the appearance of the UFO, but in the strange ways this UFO incident impact on the lives of the villagers, bringing progress and at the same time a new form of existential angst, and the nostalgia for a self-sufficient, idyllic China.

Initially celebrated as an event that brought unexpected windfall to the village, the discovery of the UFO and Kwok Yun’s rescue of the American catalysed the change of the village and soon led to problems: the uprooting of traditional values, the clearing up of farmlands for industrial and commercial developments, the rise of pollution and the artifice of technology.

Half way through the story, we catch a glimpse of the super-structure, the invisible hand in the socialist regime, shadows of doubt and hidden motives: even Chief Chang and the investigation officer are questioned and put under secret surveillance.

The characterisation in the novel, however, is slightly disappointing. There is not a conscious effort in differentiating the voices to convey different messages, and sometimes it seems that all of the characters are there simply to participate in the collective tragedy of industrialisation. There remains so much unexplored in the protagonist, Kwok Yun. In the previous Guardian book review, Maya Jaggi describes the form, hovering between novel and screenplay, as somewhat frustrating (click here), while Neel Mukherjee points out that the book is undermined by the disproportionate weighting given to the formal high jinks and the elaborate design of documents, lists, investigations etc (click here).

Moreover, while being semi-tragic and a suggestion that socialism has backfired against itself, the sexual incident between Kwok Yun and Headmaster Yee can only at best be seen as a titillating episode that distracts the reader as to what role Kwok Yun plays. Or perhaps we simply find it unsatisfying that Kwok Yun does not end up the heroine we expect her to be.

Personally, I would prefer that the ending be more ambiguous. The over-conclusive clash between socialist ideals and industrial progress, as well as the evident unhappiness of the Kwoks and the villagers, have undermined the poignancy of the plot. Compared to the refreshing dialogue and characterisation in the earlier book The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, here no real risks are taken. Perhaps this has partly to do with Guo’s identity as a writer as well as a film producer: the highly cinematic quality of the work is both its strength and weakness.

A marathon of rejection slips

Rejection is a common encounter for most people: your budget plan or business proposal gets abandoned by the seniors, or a designer’s brightest idea is rejected by the client after many nights of hard work, or a man of quality turned down by a girl he loves.

For a writer, rejection slips are a part of writing life. The more you write, the keener you are to submit, the more you are likely to receive rejections. I haven’t worked out yet the mathematics behind all this, but presumably it is also counter-balanced by your talent, your relationships or connections with the publishers (not many writers are that connected with the publishers), the marketability of your texts or writing style, and the moods of the editors. Often, seeing publishing from a consumer’s point of view, gives us the illusion that bestsellers are a product of creative genius (alone).

Stephanie Meyer Twilight

If we take a step back, there is a value in collecting rejection slips: it is a testament to your perseverance and passion. There is a Chinese legend about an old man who struggles to move a mountain. Despite the folly of the idea, he manages to live up to his conviction, and his passion has touched the gods.

I have always admired people who manage to get to their destinies or goals in the shortest time feasible. I once came across a boss who said to me that he could easily change the colours of all his retail stores, if he wants to, overnight. Sometimes, it’s all about speed. However, I also feel that it is not always the case nor is it in a man’s best interest that a goal be best achieved as quickly as possible. As one collects more feedback along the way, there is the chance to create and revise, to take a step back and appreciate what one has produced, to reaffirm its worth and to keep going.

Sometimes one gets a line or two of handwritten notes from the editors, pinpointing what they like or not like, or comments on the styles. These are very hard to come by and they are treasured like limited edition books or stamps. Believe me, most of the editors are kind and even though they do not accept your work, they tend to give constructive advice that goes a long way in helping you sort out your weaknesses.

While I cannot speak for others, I have benefited from the marathon of rejection slips more than going to masterclasses or going on writing ‘holidays’, because the rejection comments are much more focused and relevant to my work, and are directly from the editors and publishers themselves (or at least, their editorial interns and assistants).

Of course, there are always the sweeter moments, an acceptance here and there, somewhere far off a victory won.

And if you think that this principle of rejection or managing rejection only applies to writers, you are quite mistaken. I have found a site (click here) which summarises the unpredictability in life and points out the ultimate value in hard work, especially in consistently hard work, no matter which field you are in. In an article published by New York Times in 2007, we can see that even literary heavyweights such as George Orwell, Nabokov and Kerouac had been repeatedly rejected: so why not you and me?

Remember, it took Edison 1,000 unsuccessful attempts before he came up with the perfect light bulb that brightens up our world.