Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 O.Henry Award Stories--Part II

Laura Furman, the series editor for the O. Henry Prize Stories (formerly, and temporarily, the Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories {What was that all about?}) is, as far as I know, solely responsible for choosing the twenty stories that appear in the annual volume. I have no way of knowing if her choices are influenced by editorial pressures from the publisher to assure an overall attractive (i.e. profitable) volume. However, three writers are asked each year to read the twenty stories and to "write an appreciation of the story they most admire." According to Furman, the three writers receive the twenty stories in mss form with no identification of author or publication.

This year, the three are Lauren Groff, author of the collection Delicate Edible Birds, Edith Pearlman, author of the excellent collection Binocular Vision, and Jim Shepard, author of, most recently, the collection Like You'd Understand, Anyway.  Groff chose Deborah Eisenberg's "Your Duck is My Duck." Edith Pearlman chose Kelly Link's "The Summer People." And Shepard chose Andrea Barrett's "The Particles."

Groff has some good things to say about the short story as a form, noting that when it is done right, it is a "ferocious creature," adding "A reader, finding herself alone in a room with a great short story, should feel thrilled, unbalanced, alive." But Groff recognizes that such intensity is not for everyone, that many prefer the "long, slow waltz of the novel to the story's grapple and throw."  True that! Several people have said they do not like the 2013 Best American Short Stories volume; I suspect that those folks just don't really like short stories—merely my opinion, of course.

Groff echoes my own insistence that the short story is "not a lesser form" than the novel and suggests that maybe readers just have not been exposed to the "short story geniuses rampant on the earth these days, people like George Saunders and Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant and –cripes almighty!—William Trevor," or for that matter, Deborah Eisenberg."

Groff admits that although she was given the stories to read blind, "if you love short stories passionately, you read them passionately and in great quantities, you begin to be able to see the individual writer's imprint on her story from the very first words." She says she knew "The Summer People" was by Kelly Link after only a few words, that the "The Particles" just had to be by Andrea Barrett, and that "Leaving Maverley" was obviously by Alice Munro.

Groff's choice of Eisenberg's  "Your Duck is My Duck" is a writer's choice of a writer's writer, for it is the unerring rhythm of Eisenberg's sentences that catches her, concluding that it is the kind of story you want to press into the hands of short-story doubters, because it is its own best defense of the form." Although I do not think this is one of Eisenberg's best stories, and it is not my favorite in the book, I do understand why it is Groff's choice.

Edith Pearlman, one of my very favorite short-story writers, says she has a "taste for the inexplicable and the semisurreal in literature and in life."  She found she could not resist Kelly Link's story "The Summer People," a fairy tale which she says "supplies Whys, not Because; endings, not wrappings-up; and it dispenses with that sine qua non of realism, motivation." This is a wonderfully compact definition of what the short story does so well, especially the form's dispensing with motivation, what Flannery O'Connor once called "what some folks would do, in spite of everything."  Pearlman quotes the poet Amy Clampitt who wrote, "who knows what makes any of us do what we do," an insight Pearlman says writing workshops should keep in mind. Amen to that.  Again, I would not have chosen "The Summer People," but again, I understand why Edith Pearlman did choose it.

It is certainly no surprise that Jim Shepard would choose Andrea Barrett's "The Particles."  Both are meticulous writers who scrupulously research their stories in books on history and science.  In answer to an interviewer’s question about whether “historical short stories” provide readers the pleasure of both fiction and nonfiction, Shepard replied:

They do feed the hunger that readers have for nonfiction in fiction. When I first started reading literary fiction, I was struck by how much I was learning – not only about the human heart, which is traditionally what literature is supposed to be about, but also about how the world worked and the way the world was. So when I read Ernest Hemingway’s [short story] “Big Two-Hearted River,” I felt I was learning not only about Nick Adams’s interior but also about fly fishing.”
Although Hemingway always creates such particularized experiences that he does indeed make me want to go fly fishing, I think the fishing information in “River” is only as good as for what Hemingway uses it—a means by which Nick tries to deal with the implications of his war experience.  Indeed, when one gets intrigued by mere “information” in a story, one runs the risk of neglecting the complex human experience the language of the story attempts to create.

In my opinion, Andrea Barrett, Shepard’s colleague at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.,  does a more convincing job of integrating historical context into a complex human story than Shepard does. Barrett understands some basic similarities between science, history, and storytelling.  She knows that all three construct narratives—whether they are called scientific theories, historical accounts, or fiction--to reveal connections, relationships, the interdependence of all things; all are human efforts to understand, or perhaps construct, what makes life meaningful. Barrett once told an interviewer that after doing graduate work, first in zoology in the late seventies and then in history in the early eighties, she began to see a way to weave science and history together with her love of fiction.

What Shepard likes about "The Particles" is how the story "renders unforgettably that experience of falling in love with experimental science, as if 'tumbling down a well.'"  He also is quite taken by the fact that the story "pulls off the nearly impossible feat of seducing us into imagining fruit flies as fascinating." And within this context of science, there is the human story of the character Sam's inextricable relationship with his old friend and teacher, Axel. Again, although I have always admired Andrea Barrett's stories, this is not, in my opinion, one of her best—failing to hold together in that admirable way that many of her other stories do.  But, I am certainly not surprised that Jim Shepard chose it as his favorite in this collection; I can't imagine him choosing any other.

            I apologize for taking so long to get back to my discussion of this year's O. Henry stories, and for not getting to all of them that I read but, it is December, after all, and I have been blessed with visits from my three children and three grandchildren, and there were, you know, cookies to bake and candy to make, and a turkey to stuff, and, well, you know.  And truth to tell, I just was not as impressed with the O. Henry collection as I was with the Best American collection this year, so was not compelled to get right back to writing about it. You understand.  Tomorrow begins a new day and a new year, and, as my father always said, "If the Lord is willing and the creek don't rise," I will be back at my blog post in January 2014 to talk about the stories I am reading.  I just finished reading a fine little collection of stories by A. E. Coppard that I received from an editor recently.  A pleasure that I am pleased to discuss next week.  Have a safe and happy New Year's celebration and a new year that is everything you wish it to be.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

2013 O. Henry Prize Stories: Part I

During the past week, I have been reading the twenty stories in the 2013 O. Henry Prize Stories collection. Although there are stories by writers I have always admired—Deborah Eisenberg, Anne Beattie, Andrea Barrett, and Alice Munro--I have not enjoyed this collection as much as I did the 2013 Best American Short Stories, which I read in November. So forgive my lack of enthusiasm in what follows.

I won't comment on Jamie Quatro's "Sinkhole" or Alice Munro's "Leaving Waverly," since I posted blogs on both those stories on April 22 and Jan. 12, 2012.  I will comment briefly on the others in no particular order, discussing ten this week and the remaining eight next week..

Polly Rosenwaike, "White Carnations"
Rosenwaikie's Notes at the end of the book indicate that this story is part of a collection in progress about pregnancy and new motherhood.  I am always a bit suspicious of stories cold-bloodedly written to fulfill a scheme, preferring rather stories that seem to spring from something obsessive that the writer discovers in the process of writing. This story begins a bit too cutely-smart for my tastes, with some women meeting regularly on Mother's Day at a pub frequented by gay men and regular drunks although the narrator pointedly notes that they no longer have mothers and are not mothers themselves. The  narrator is pregnant after a one-nighter, and has decided not to have an abortion. Much of the story focuses on the narrator's summary of her mother's own pregnancy and her thoughts about her pregnancy; it ends with an image of two pregnant women—one eager and one reluctant—sharing their news.  It's not the subject matter that fails to interest me here, but rather the flat, self-centered and self-conscious, way that the story is told.

Derek Palacio "Sugarcane"
This is about the experience of a doctor in post-revolutionary Cuba who has an affair with a seamstress and who mentors the son of a plantation manager, in return for extra sugar, which—both sweet and bitter because of regulation--becomes the central  of the story. Although ostensibly the story is about the doctor being torn between a desire to leave and a desire to stay, it really centers on the political/cultural context of Cuba at this particular time in its history.  The long dialogue section between the doctor and the seamstress and the prolonged child delivery scene witnessed by the boy seem more filler than thematically essential.

Tash Aw, "Sail"
The story centers on a Chinese man who has been involved in a minor way in the Tiananmen Square protests and wants to be a political writer; however, he  has instead become a wealthy businessman. He is married to a successful woman who seems more businesslike than passionate and has an affair with an English woman he has hired to help him improve his English.  The story seems inconsequential until a surprising final scene when the man is on the verge of killing his mistress; up to that point, it has no real significance except some vague connection between the man's minor political experiences and his current sense of purposelessness.

Donald Antrim, "He Knew"
This  is one of those sophisticated New York yuppie  stories that usually fail to involve me. Stephen and Alice, a married couple, are taking a walk up Madison Avenue, passing lots of expensive shops, taking prescription drugs for depression and anxiety.  He is an actor who specializes in comic roles, but not getting much work. She has suffered a breakdown.  They walk and talk and take their meds in what is basically a great stylized exercise about the life of two people who are bound together in a fragile yet inescapable way.  I suppose I should care about them, but I just don't.

Asako Serizawa, "The Visitor"
The story takes place on an afternoon in postwar Japan, when a middle-aged woman is visited by a soldier who claims to have known her son during the war. The encounter is fraught with some tacit tension, partially because the woman is afraid of the man and partially because she dreads what he has to tell her about her son, who went missing during the war and has never been found.  I found the story too easy and predictable—both in the writing and in the plotting and characterization. Take the following bit of what seems to me to be careless prose: The woman pours the man some tea and offers him food, saying she "nudged the noodles toward him." Then a few lines later she wonders how she might "nudge" him out the door. I know that might seem minor, but two "nudges" in a row seems careless to me. The story ends with a revelation about her son that makes a "sharp chill snake up her spine."

Joan Silber, "Two Opinions"
At over thirty pages, this is the second longest story in the collection and is perhaps the most "novelistic," for it is something of a summary of one woman's life.  Although ostensibly the story centers on the theme suggested by the title—Louise's ability to hold two opposing opinions at once—it actually focuses on her life in the shadow of her war-protester father and the ghost of her husband, who departs for a teaching job in Okinawa and basically never really returns. Her two opinions—that she is against war like her father, yet at the same time approves of the end of the Nazi persecution—is not really thematically relevant to her life with and without her husband. She is a woman of relatively simple animal and domestic pleasures, not an ideologue like her mother and father, although her mother scolds her, "You think you can do without ideas but you can't." Too novelistic for me.

Melinda Moustakis, "They Find the Drowned"
This is a modular story, written in several short sections.  But for this kind of story to work, there has to be some cohesion. The pieces alternate back and forth between scientific observations about a river and its inhabitants and the experiences of a woman living in the wilds of Alaska. The title sentence is from one of the scientific sections: "They find the drowned don't have liquid in their lungs—they gasp in the cold water until their tracheas collapse."  Although the individual sections are tightly written, lyrical prose poems, this is less a story than a poetic rhapsody about the natural world and those that live in the wilds.

George McCormick, "The Mexican"
This short, simple story about a boy who works during the summer on refrigerator train cars would not be a story at all without the final paragraph, when the boy has become a man and tells his own boys a different story than what actually happened. When a huge block of ice falls through a rail car on to a load of oranges below it, the boy is told to go down and open the boxcar from the inside to get the ice out. When he does so, he sees a Mexican man hiding in a small space beside the door, who walks past him and disappears into the oranges "like a snake into a river." In the final paragraph he tells his boys a story without ice and no Mexican, but rather about Mexican steers breaking loose from a boxcar and running out into the plains. The story ends: "I tell them this story because in the West what we love most are lies.  What we love are images of a stampede, of animals running; of what we think are the right stories of stealing away." This is a nice example of the importance of endings for the short story.

Nalini Jones, "Tiger"
Jones says in the Writing Notes at the end of the book that she wrote this story to try to discover something about  the mother Essie, who is a character in a novel she is writing. Eventually she said she discovered  it was not part of a novel at all,  but was becoming something entirely different.   I like this story precisely because it is a story, not a chapter in a novel, because it seems self-sustaining and complete in itself, not requiring anything else at all to make it whole. Essie's discovery of the lump in her breast and her use of this to try to bind her daughter closer to her and keep her home all seems entirely believable because Jones's telling of the story is appropriately restrained. The mother is the tiger in this story, using whatever means possible to take care of her young and keep them close. Her lies to both daughter and granddaughter seem entirely justified and understandable.

Lily Tuck, "Perou"

This is a delicate story told in the risky point of view of a small child, beginning with her infancy in a pram, up to age five, when she and her mother were living in Lima, Peru, having escaped the Nazi invasion of France during World War II.  The story primarily focuses on the child's perception of her nanny, a 19-24-year-old French girl, compelled to leave her family to care for the child.  The story is really about the child's sympathetic identification with her nanny Jeanne, with whom, of course, she is much too young to identify. The adult teller of the story sympathizes with the loneliness and exploitation of Jeanne, who seems destined to remain an exile from her homeland in Perou or Peru.