Friday, June 19, 2009

Completing PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories: 2009

Well, my “road trip” with family has now ended—after 34 days and 15 states on the road in a big RV with in-laws and an aging dog. I did not have time to do blog entries on the road, but did finish reading the PEN/O. Henry Prize stories: 2009. The more stories I read, the less impressed with them I was. I began to wonder if the editor and the publishers were more interested in creating a politically correct mix of cultural and ethnic stories than in choosing the “best stories of the year.”

I am, of course, interested in the trials and values of cultures other than my own. But if my primary literary interest were in cultural “information,” I could get that from a variety of other sources. Surely, we come to good fiction for more than that. Manuel Munoz’s “Tell Him About Brother John” creates an interesting character and an engaging voice, but it seems primary about the cultural difference between “here” and “Over There.” Viet Dinh’s “Substitutes” consists primarily of interesting information about how those who stayed after the fall of Saigon, especially children, have fared under the Communists. Paul Yoon’s “And We Will Be There” seems to fall into the same trap of other stories of Chinese and Japanese characters in this collection—presenting characters as simple, childlike figures. I wish someone would explain to me why authors so often present Asian people in this way.

Another issue I would like to raise in this post is how stories “illustrate” certain ideas. Judy Troy’s “The Order of Things” seems so purposely calculated to illustrate the St. Thomas quote--“The important thing is not to think much but to love much”—that the initial interest I had in the two characters is obliterated when, at the end, I realized that they are only two dimensional illustrative figures. Nadine Gordimer’s “The Beneficiary,” on the other hand, is so complexly woven around the complex ideas of “acting” and “being” that when I get to the end and read the punch line—“Nothing to do with DNA”—I don’t feel that the characters are reduced to mere illustrations. I am engaged by the complexity of Charlotte’s position between her actor father and the man who has acted as her father.

I liked Paul Theroux’s “Twenty-Four Stories,” for each one of them was so filled with thematic or dramatic potential that they illustrated the central short story characteristic of “much in little.” But then I have always liked Theroux’s work.

I have never cared much for Marisa Silver’s work, however. One of the most important aspects of the short story to which I am always sensitive is whether the author seems to really care for his or her characters. The brilliance of Chekhov, for example, is that he never condescended to the people in his stories, regardless of their background or weaknesses. Silver, in my opinion, does not seem to care for her characters, merely using them for her own narrow purposes.

I enjoyed “Darkness,” even though I thought the question/answer technique was aggravating. I liked it for the same reasons I have always liked fantasy fiction. It illustrates an interesting idea, while allowing a little escape from everyday realism.

Finally, there is Junot Diaz’s “Wildwood,” which is actually the second chapter of his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for 2008. The central character and point of view is Oscar’s sister, who is locked in a battle of wills with her dominating mother. Laura Furman, the editor of the collection, obviously likes stories of mother/daughter conflicts, as this is not the only one in the book.

I liked the chapter. I cannot really call it a short story, even though The New Yorker paid Diaz a lot of money for it as a short story. Perhaps I should say that while it is not a very good short story, it may indeed be a pretty good chapter of a longer work. I am currently reading The Brief Wondrous Life and find myself caught up in the life of Oscar—an overweight DR nerd and social misfit. I must confess, I was not a great fan of Diaz’s first book, the highly praised collection of stories entitled Drown. The book created a great cultural buzz when it was published several years ago, and everyone eagerly awaited Diaz’s first novel, which was a long time coming. According to the critics, it was worth the wait. I don’t know yet. As I read it, I like the voices I hear, but it has all the characteristics of the novel as a form with which I get impatient—it is just filled with “stuff.”

I did my duty and read all the stories in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories: 2009 collection. But I was disappointed. Surely of the hundreds of stories published in English each year, there are better ones than these. I am hoping for better when Best American Short Stories comes out in early October.

I promise to be more regular on this blog now that my summer road trip is over. Thanks to all those who read it.I hope it is both interesting and helpful.

1 comment:

Melissa said...

Great post! I completely agree on many of your very well-articulated points. This collection left me a little (OK, more than a little) lukewarm and the multiculturalism aspect seemed too heavy-handed. I was beginning to think it was just me ... so I was very glad to come across your review. When I'm finished writing mine, I'll link to yours on my post.