Tuesday, May 26, 2009

More Stories from 2009 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories

I am sorry to be away from this blog so long, but I have been on the road with family. We stopped a few days ago in Jackson, Mississippi to visit the home of Eudora Welty, one of my favorite writers. What impressed me most about this lovely Tudor style home just across the street from Belhaven College was its unpretentiousness, just like its wonderful former owner. The kitchen looked right out of the late forties and there were books stacked in every room.

I have been reading more stories in the 2009 PEN/O. Henry Prize stories and have the time today to make a few comments, which hopefully will stimulate some discussion among the readers of this blog.

“Uncle Musto Takes a Mistress” by Mohan Sikka—The story is told from the point of view of a man who is recalling when he was ten and living with his grandparents. I am afraid I am not familiar with the changing values of the Indian family that Sikka says is the background fro his story. What I like most about the story is the way Sikka develops the character of the conniving grandmother, who feels that by destroying the relationship of Uncle Musto and the younger Rose, she can make her husband pay for an indiscretion in the past when such relationships were more tolerated. What leaves a sour taste for the grandmother at the end and for the reader also, at least this reader, is how ultimately the servant class pays the price for the crime--based on the lingering assumption that two years in jail is something the servant can more easily bear than members of the military class to which the grandfather and grandmother belong.

“Kind” by L.E. Miller—I was not really engaged by this story. The central interest seems to be Edith, the kind of woman who has chosen a life of “voluntary poverty,” which I assume refers to the emotional poverty of her life. I guess I don’t really see the relationship between the narrator Ann and Edith. What is Ann’s stake in the story?

“Icebergs” by Alistair Morgan—What Morgan calls the main themes of his story—loneliness and isolation—come through very strongly for me. I am engaged by the narrator who has lost his wife and is losing his daughter. But what Morgan calls the peripheral context for the story—the real events of an African finance minister stealing money from his country—seem to me to have no relevance to those themes. Morgan says the back story “moves the plot,” but if the plot has nothing to do with the themes, then what is the point of the plot except merely to be plot—stuff that happens? If it is not meaningful stuff, then why is it in the story?

“The Camera and the Cobra” by Roger Nash—I like this story, but then I am a sucker for a story that is so tightly wound with imagery that it seems more a poem or a picture or a parable than a narrative. I like the image of the ants in the camera. I like the imagery of things appearing and disappearing, of alternating moments of uncertainty and clarity. If you did not suspect that Nash was a philosopher after reading this story, you would know it for sure when you read his discussion of the background for the story—a discussion as dense in its way as the story itself.


Charlene said...

After reading a few more stories in this collection, I’m going to take back my earlier statement from the Lunstrom post that I have no interest in how a writer came to write a particular story. Maybe because so many of these stories take place in locations and within cultures I’m not as familiar with, I found myself quickly flipping to the back to read about the author and how the story came about.

I was engaged by “Kind.” I liked the frame of the story. I felt it was indeed Ann’s story. Years earlier, she had turned away from Edith who had made overtures at friendship. Ann’s own guilt about being attracted to the husband caused her to avoid/hide from Edith. Now Ann is “graced by the gift of a second chance.” I think the relationship was about Ann's avoidance of intimacy/friendship,which left her feeling guilty and possibly set up a pattern on how she chose to live her life.

It’s interesting reading a collection with different authors and questioning why I like some stories over others. “Kind,” worked for me, yet “The Nursery” and “The Bell Ringer” were interesting and quite well written but didn’t resonate. On the other hand, “Uncle Musto…” and “Purple Bamboo Park” were fun to read but also quite poignant. I suspect I like active, colorful characters, which is interesting since I struggle in my own writing with characters who are passive observers.

Lee said...

Re Icebergs: I disagree about the backstory, which I consider essential for understanding the nature of the characters, the underlying tensions, the subtle implications of their choices. But I lived for 18 years in Zimbabwe, so perhaps this is why I can picture it all so vividly.