I just received The O.Henry Prize Stories for 2009, which has been renamed The PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories this year to signify the series’ new relationship with the PEN American Center. The volume includes twenty stories chosen by Laura Furman. The prize jury this year--A.S. Byatt, Anthony Doerr, and Tim O’Brien—comment on their favorite story in the collection.
I will be reading the stories and discussing them this month, and I invite you to pick up a copy and join me. This is not a challenge, nor a contest, an assignment, nor a race. It is an invitation. A joint reading of these stories seems especially appropriate with Larry Dark’s recent promotion of a National Short Story Month and Dan Wickett’s unofficially naming May as a National Short Story Month on his blog at emergingwriters.typepad.com
The “winner,” as it were, of this year’s O. Henry Prize is “An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen” by British writer, Graham Joyce, which was chosen as “favorite” by both Byatt and O’Brien. Joyce won the World Fantasy Award in 2003 and the British Fantasy Award four times. He teaches creative writing at Nottingham Trent University.
It’s a three-part story in first person POV. Part I introduces us to Seamus Todd, a British Color Sergeant, who has seen service in Northern Ireland and the Falklands. At the time of the story, he leads a small group of young soldiers in the Gulf War. The first part is characterized by the voice of Todd, who is a typical, or maybe not so typical “ordinary soldier” who emphasizes that they are engaged in a paid job and that you don’t argue with the Queen: “You form up. Move out. Press on.”
Part II focuses on Todd’s experience after stepping on a spring-release mine while separated from his men. He knows if he steps off it, he will die. Hours pass and finally an Arab shows up. I really don’t want to tell you what happens next, for some people read fiction primarily to find out what happens next. I read stories so I can read them again. It may be hallucinatory; it may be supernatural. It may be, as critic Tzvetan Todorov has defined the term, “Fantastic,” at least as long as we hover between making a decision as to whether it is hallucinatory or supernatural.
I don’t know if A.S. Byatt and Tim O’Brien picked this story because they think it is the best story or because they like it the best. Those two responses do not always have to be the same. It is the only story I have read so far, so I cannot respond either way. However, it should be noted that Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is one of the most respected collection of war stories to come out of Vietnam, and that A.S. Byatt’s The Black Book features includes several hallucinatory or supernatural stories.
Byatt says “An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen” is the story that most haunted her from the book, a story whose rhythm runs in her mind. Byatt suggests that what this story and the stories of Rudyard Kipling (who she thinks is the greatest English short-story writer) share is the seamless mixing of genres—combining the daily and the strange.
O’Brien calls “An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen” a “superb ghost story, a wonderful story about war, in exactly the same way that “Bartleby” is a wonderful story about office life. O’Brien suggests that many war stories merge with the world of magic and ghosts, for the systematic butchery of war does not always feel “real” and that sometimes a realistic story can seem to demean the essential unrealistic reality of war.
I hope many of you pick up the 2009 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories. You can get it in paperback very cheaply from Amazon. I am glad that Anchor Books continues to publish this volume and that Houghton Mifflin continues to publish The Best American Short Stories. I know that neither of them make a great deal of money, but they help to keep the short story alive.