Saturday, July 23, 2011

PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories: 2011--Part I

Laura Furman says that every year she is asked what trends are revealed in short stories published during the year, noting that the question does not have anything to do with aesthetics or literary technique but with subject matter: “What do this year’s stories show about our world.” Furman responds that although in the past many writers, such as Dickens, Melville, Dos Pasos, and Margaret Atwood have a social vision, “for many writers, an explicit social agenda and social commentary—even contemporary life itself—are of limited interest. The relevance of a good writer transcends time and place.” As her examples of writers with social vision suggest, novelists are more apt to have a “social agenda” than short story writers.

In her brief essay on her favorite story, A. M. Holmes says, “The short story has always seemed to me the perfect medium, the manageable masterpiece… What makes a successful story is very different from what makes a successful novel—characters that are not sustainable for the duration of a novel, styles of telling, tones, narrative constructions that are perfect for a story but crumble or bore the reader is carried on for too long.” Holmes says she noticed something about the twenty stories chosen by Laura Furman for this year’s collection; “many expressed an outsider’s point of view… I was struck by this sense of ‘otherness’.” Of course, this aspect of the short story was emphasized by Frank O’Connor in his valuable little book, The Lonely Voice, many years ago.

In his comment on his favorite story, Manuel Munoz, who says he reads both the O. Henry Prize Stories and the Best American Short Stories every year, recalls 2004, when the National Book Award nominations chose five little-known women writers for their short list—Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Christine Schutt, Joan Siber, Lily Tuck, and Kate Walbert—best known for their short stories—all of which stirred up a critical snobbery that Munoz rightfully resented. The New York Times stuck its nose in the air, complaining that the five shortlisted authors shared a “short story aesthetic” and that none of the selected books had a “big and sprawling scope.” Munoz thought, “What the hell is wrong with such an aesthetic?…. And since when are stories not “big.” He says he still seethes about that article six years later.

Well, good on Holmes and Munoz, I say. Sometimes I feel that the only ones who remain champions of the short story are writers themselves.

Of the twenty stories that Furman picked this year, the choices of the guest judges were as follows:

A. M. Holmes chose Lyn Freed’s “Sunshine”; Manuel Munoz chose Matthew Neill Null’s “Something You Can’t Live Without”; and Christine Schutt chose Jim Shepard’s “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You.”

I have chosen nine as my favorites--four that I have read previously and have commented on in this blog:

Jim Shepard, “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You”
David Means, “The Junction”
Lori Ostlund, “Bed Death”
Brian Evenson, “Windeye”

The five stories new to me that I liked best are:

Kenneth Calhoun, “Nightblooming”
Lilly Tuck, “Ice”
Mark Slouka, “Crossing”
Lynn Freed, “Sunshine”
Matthew Neill Null, “Something You Can’t Live Without”

For me, all five of these stories illustrate Laura Furman’s judgment: “The relevance of a good writer transcends time and place.” They also represent my continued conviction that it is style, not “stuff” that make for a good short story, although I must admit I responded positively to the subject matter of these four stories.

After reading through all the stories in the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, I found these stories to be the ones that I wanted to return to and read again. Rather than try to analyze the five stories in detail, I will simply talk a bit below about why I liked them.

Kenneth Calhoun’s “Nightblooming” is about a young man in his early twenties who joins a group of elderly men in a small jazz group. I admit I like it partly because I love traditional jazz and partly because it focuses on old guys, because I enjoy reading about men near my own age who continue to find meaning and pleasure in life doing what they like to do. Just because I am seventy does not mean I am ready to lapse into lassitude. I don’t think “Nightblooming” requires a young man appreciating the old guys to give them cache, but it is kind of nice to think that a young guy can see the significance in what these musicians do. “We’re just a speck in the grand whirling scheme, but at least we’re making noise.”

One of the old men says, “It’s a crazy thing to say you’re going to stick with something until you die. You pick two or three things you feel that way about and life organizes itself for you.” The style of the story is casual first person, and the narrator’s account of being hit on by a good looking eighty-year old woman is a hoot, and not at all condescending.

And the story has a theme that underlies its surface casualness. Kenneth Calhoun says that as a drummer throughout high school and college, he was especially interested in patterns and beats and that he got it in his head that everything that seemed random “could in fact be the articulation of a grand, overarching rhythm, but that the count hadn’t yet been revealed because we hadn’t reached the end of the measure.” He says that while writing “Nightblooming,” he begin to think “this could be a comforting religious sort of idea, not just a whimsical speculation.”

In my opinion, it is indeed a religious speculation that seems most appropriate for the short story, a form that creates meaning by means of a pattern that only becomes manifest when the story reaches its conclusion. The narrator in the story says his father only said one religious thing to him—that people like beats because they tell you what’s going to happen next. The narrator says he has thought about that a lot: “I think he was talking about patterns, about loops. And it’s true that once you hear a measure or two of the beat, you know what’s going to happen next and what to do when it happens. And the part that makes me think everything still has a chance—always has a chance—to work out is that you never know when the beat has completed a full cycle. This means that everything in life that seems so random could actually be part of a beat. We just don’t know yet. The full measure hasn’t been played.” I like the way the story embodies this theme, which applies to the short story as a form and life as an adventure.

Lily Tuck’s story “Ice” also embodies a universal theme. Once again, it is about older people. Yeah, yeah, I know. This time it is a married couple, in their sixties--still handsome, vital, active—on a cruise to Antarctica. In her commentary on the story, Tuck, who is seventy-two, says she and her husband did take a cruise to Antarctica, and that being a pessimist, she imagined the worse: the boat hitting an iceberg, sinking, her husband falling overboard. Nothing bad happened during the cruise, but she was struck by how stark and desolate Antarctica is—how insignificant and intrusive human beings are in such a landscape of ice. “I wanted to try to describe how this strange and vaguely hostile environment might affect a long-married couple.”

The perspective in the story is that of the wife, Maud, although the story is told in third-person. There is no indication that her marriage to Peter is in any particular trouble—it’s just that they have been married for forty years. He is a lawyer; she is a speech therapist who still works part time. They are a “handsome couple.” Maud feels anxious about the trip and about Peter. At the very beginning of the trip, just when they lose sight of land, she loses sight of him on board and begins to panic. When she finally finds him, “her relief is so intense she nearly shouts as she hurries over to him.” Maud feels Peter is hiding something or is depressed—which makes her feel all the more separated from him and all the more clingy. They know each other so well it is almost as if they can read each other’s minds.

The theme of the story is introduced by Maud’s recurring dream or nightmare about numbers. The numbers always start out small and manageable, but soon they multiplied and became so large they became so “unmanageable in incomprehensible that Maud was swept away into a kind of terrible abyss, a kind of black hole of numbers.” It has been years since she has thought about the dram, but Antarctica, “the vastness, the ice, the inhospitable landscape” reminds her of it. When she tells Peter about the dream, he says that many others from Aristotle to Pascal have had such dreams—that it suggests the “terror of the infinite.” Peter, who Maud says is the smartest man she knows, says the Greeks did not include infinity in their mathematics, for their word for “infinity” was also their word for “mess.”

I do not know if Lily tuck has read Frank O’Connor’s famous little book about the short, The Lonely Voice, but Peter’s response (and the theme of the story) is an echo of the following passage from that book:

“There is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness. Indeed, it might be truer to say that while we often read a familiar novel again for companionship, we approach the short story in a very different mood. It is more akin to the mood of Pascal’s saying: Le silence eternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie.” (The silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.)

“Ice” is about Maud’s fear of being alone—a universal fear not unique to her. When Peter seems to be flirting with a somewhat younger woman on board, she accuses him and they have a confrontation about it. She recalls twenty years before when Peter had an affair, and the argument had turned violent with them throwing things at each other and his storming off for three days: “What Maud remembers vividly is her panic. During the time Peter was gone she could hardly breathe, let alone eat, and she could not sleep.”

At the end of the story, during the night Maud wakes up and finds Peter gone from their stateroom, and once again she panics, running throughout the ship looking for him. As she hears the pilot shouting out numbers, coordinates, compass points while the ship tries to navigate past a huge iceberg larger than the ship itself, Maud stands motionless, not daring to breathe. When she gets back to her room, Peter is there, saying he had merely been on deck watching the icebergs. “All that uninhabitable space. So pure, so absolute,” he says. When she goes to bed, Peter switches off the light and says, “Sweet dreams, darling.” But as Pascal says, and as we all feel at times, perhaps often at 2:00 in the morning, our dreams are not always sweet, but may be haunted by the silence that surrounds us.

I will comment on Mark Slouka’s “Crossing,” Lynn Freed’s, “Sunshine,” and
Matthew Neill Null’s “Something You Can’t Live Without” in my post next week.

If you have read the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories and have a favorite story of your own, please let me know in the “Comment” section.


Anonymous said...

Hi - I'm reading PEN/O.Henry 2011 now. I've only read through "Alamo Plaza" but so far my Favorites list would be pretty close to yours. "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You", "Nightblooming", "The Restoration of the Villa where Timor Kalman Once Lived" would be at the tippy top. "The Junction" and "How to Leave Hialeah" would be in the really good range.

I was very, very disappointed with a couple of early entries, including "Diary of an Interesting Year" and "Ice". The former, I just felt like it was something a bright high school kid might write. The second, it was beautiful, but it just felt like much ado about nothing. A good enough story, but a prize winner? Not for me.

Overall, I'm enjoying this collection (so far) much more than the BASS 2010, which I read earlier this year. I only found one tippy-top story in there ("Further Interpretation of Real Life Events").

I just started following you a couple of weeks ago, nice to meet you!

Charles E. May said...

Thanks to sloopie72 for taking the time to leave a comment. I guess we agree to disagree about "Ice," which I found to be about something quite significant--loneliness.