Tuesday, November 18, 2014

O. Henry Prize Stories 2014--Thumbnail Comments

I have been living with the 2014 Best American Short Stories and the 2014 O. Henry Prize Stories for the past several weeks, and I am sorry to say it has been a lackluster relationship. Of the forty stories in the two collections, I was impressed by very few. I don't know why the stories seem so ordinary this year.
Are the hundreds of stories that the two editors, Laura Furman and Heidi Pitlor, had to choose from really so bland and predictable that these are the "best" they could find?  Were the editors restricted by editorial decisions to make the two collections as bland and "readable" and "accessible" as possible?  Have I read so many stories over the years that I have become crotchety and hard to please? I don't know.
Whatever the reason, here are my thumbnail comments on the twenty stories in the  O. Henry Prize Stories: 2014. I will post my comments on the twenty stories in Best American Short Stories: 2014 next week.

In "The Gun" by Mark Haddon, two young boys—one somewhat passive, one somewhat aggressive--sneak out of the house with a gun and encounter a deer. You can pretty well predict this is going to be an initiation story involving violence, death, and coming of age—although it is never clear why coming of age has to involve violence and death.
Although Stephen Dixon's "Talk" is a story about a man coping with the death of his wife, it is actually a story about point of view, in which Dixon alternates between the man using "I" and "he" to refer to his thoughts and actions. There's also some literary allusions to Gilgamesh, that iconic "oldest literary work." I suppose one could make something of how we "objectify" ourselves, shift outside ourselves to become an "I" observing our self as a "him," but I am not sure the story makes the effort worthwhile.
Tessa Hadley's "Valentine" is about two 15-year-old British girls with breasts—one small, one luscious—whose talk is "rococo with insincerity." Into their lives comes a boy named Valentine with a swaggering walk and a chin like a faun. The narrator, the one with the small breasts, says his proximity "licked" at her "like a flame." I almost stopped reading at that point. And almost stopped again when she says she read Plato about two souls divided at birth and thinks of herself and Valentine. There's some hot hands-in-the-pants sex, a jealous English teacher, some poetry allusions and a bit of a portrait of the artist as a young woman.  All very predictable teeny-silly romance.
Olivia Clare's "Petur" is mainly about "place," in this case a particularly ghostly place in Iceland when the volcano erupts and scatters ash all over everything. It's a mother/son story (she is 61; he is 36)—he gets older and she seems to get younger. There are references to a "land of ash" or "ashland," and being trapped in a volcano. And then she meets a man named Petur. The story exists primarily for the setting of ashland; indeed there would be no story without it.
David Bradley, "You Remember the Pin Mill."  This is a second-person "You remember" story—a phrase which begins most paragraphs. Most of the "you remembers" are about the narrator's childhood living in the country with his grandfather, who says such things as "And they found a beloved country, rich with game and fish and timber…" There's some mother/son conflict, some race issues, some lost father problems; but mainly it is about "remembering," which is all well and good, but does tend to get a bit tedious over and over and over and over again.
Kristin Valdez Quade, "Nemecia" is a better "two young girls" story than Tessa Hadley's.  But I have already posted a blog on this story, which you can find, if you are of a mind, by doing a search here.
Dylan Landis, "Trust."  Still another "two young girls" story, this time a chapter from Landis's Rainey novel. There is also a gun in this story, but the violence so foregrounded in Mark Haddon's story exists here as ominous threat that plays out as a dangerous game. There is kidnapping, intimidation, swaggering, posturing, etc., but since this is a chapter from a novel, you are mainly interested in what shenanigans that rascal Rainey is going to be up to next.
Allison Alsup, "Old Houses" is a sort of ghost story about a killing that took place in one of the houses 30 years ago in this peaceful neighborhood; it haunts the narrator because it is still unsolved. It's a short, lyric story with an evocative tone of mystery and fascination. But about what? Other than the puzzle of how such a thing could have happened here.
Halina Duraj, "Fatherland."  The place is Poland, and the time is that of the Nazi persecution of the Poles.  The story is about memories of growing up in that context.  No tricks of "remembering" as in the David Bradley story—just the marvel at how the father, who suffered the labor camps and the mother who was hit by a truck survived all that and raised a family.
Chanelle Benz, "West of the Known." The interest here is the voice of the 15-year-old Lavinia who tells the story, who moves from saying such things as "disremember" and "brung" to uttering such poetic lines as "The dark of the Texas plain was a solid thing, surrounding, collecting on my face like blue dust." She and her brother rob banks, and she shoots a young teller. It ends in an abandoned stable with a noose thrown over the rafters.
William Trevor, "The Women."  Now finally here is a story with some seriousness.  But I have already written a blog about it, which might interest you. Do a Search over on the right.
Colleen Morrissey, "Good Faith." Snake-handling and religious fervor in mid America in 1919.  The central first-person voice is that of a 20-year old woman who has a momentary faltering of fear and gets bitten. It's primarily a period piece about faith and fundamentalism.
Robert Anthony Siegel, "The Right Imaginary Person." A love story, which, like most love stories, involves one who loves and one who does not.  Here, the lover is a young American man in Japan, who becomes involved with a young Japanese woman who writes. He is relatively straightforward; she is relatively conflicted and complex. The relationship will never work.
Louise Erdrich, "Nero." This is a "I remember" story combined with a bit of doggy violence. It's a more complex story than Joyce Carol Oates' dog story in BASS. The first-person narrator is a 7-year-old girl. The dog's name is "Nero," and he is a mystery of lust and hunger, which echoes the violence and desire that the young girl witnesses in humans as well.  It is all pretty predictable.
Rebecca Hirsch Garcia, "A Golden Light." The extended metaphor of this very short, lyrical story is that when a young woman's father dies, she shuts down her responses to the world—first by being unable to talk, and then having difficulty moving. We don't know how old she is, but the many references to "when she was a child" suggest she is a grown woman, although her thoughts—"I've misplaced my ears, she thought, and tried to remember if she had put them on that morning or had simply gone out without them"—suggest a child's response.  This autistic withdrawal—a sort of "Sleeping Beauty" syndrome"—suddenly ends one evening—"the magic hour" of sundown—when her room is bathed in a mysterious flickering light—which turns out to be a child next door with a mirror.  A story about the reaction to grief. For a more powerful one, read Chekhov's "Misery" or Mansfield's "The Fly." This one is too easy and too predictable it seems to me.
Chinelo Okparanta, "Fairness"—Another obvious metaphor, this time of young African women bleaching their skin to become "fair," for all the young women want to look like the models in Cosmopolitan. One of the young women uses the ordinary household bleach, with painful results. The social commentary is underlined at the end when the young first-person narrator is envious of her sister's burned skin, because beneath the scabs she is pinkish and thus has wound up with fairness after all, "if only for a while."  Social message, too easy.
Kristen Iskandrian, "The Inheritors." The narrator of the story volunteers to work in a thrift shop and meets another woman who interests her.  And it is the nature of this interest that constitutes the reader's interest in the story.  If I were still teaching, my students would think this is a story about latent homosexuality (whatever that is).  But it is not as "simple" as that;  the narrator's attraction to the other woman is not merely sexual or merely "romantic," but something else. The narrator says the woman reminds her of a painting she remembers from her childhood of a woman waiting for a train.  Since her face is not seen in the painting, the narrator is fascinated by the painting. The narrator says she wants to "unravel" the woman she has met, find a loose thread and pull at it. I think this story has something to do with the mystery of relationships between women, and because I  think I understand it only inchoately, this is one of my favorite stories in the O. Henry  collection this year. This is James Lasdun's favorite story also. I would like to think that is because he is the best short-story writer of the three judges this year.
Michael Parker, "Deep Eddy."  This is a "short short"—only a couple of pages long and therefore by necessity lyrical, compressed, suggestive, and perhaps a bit pretentious. A couple go park at a legendary lover's rendezvous after seeing the Meryl Streep movie of a dingo dog carrying off a baby. The "piece" ends with a montage image of swirling water to suggest the mystery of love and sex. It's carefully done, as such small things must be, but not particularly poetically profound, as such things should be.
Maura Stanton, "Oh Shenandoah"—The gimmick is that a woman and a man with whom she is involved search through Venice--that romantic city of old, valuable, artsy things—for a toilet seat for her apartment. You realize pretty quickly that the story's human plot/theme is the woman's gradual discovery that the man, Hugo, is not only a pretty nice guy, but also a real romantic in a corny ordinary way.  All wired together in a predictable, old-fashioned Collier's fashion.
Laura van den Berg, "Opa-Locka."  This is judge Joan Silber's favorite story, and I'll be darned if I know why.  Silber says what she likes about it is that kept surprising her, that it gave her great pleasure to follow the story down several different paths.  But I don't see any different paths, except the most obvious kind of plot paths in this story of two sisters who play detective, all the while trying to come to terms with the relatively simple mystery of their father. Silber says it is deceptively skilled. If so, it deceived me.


K. Sokol said...

I am not surprised by your comments on the O. Henry 2014 collection. When I looked at the table of contents, I only recognized 2 or 3 names, and since I had already read the William Trevor story in The New Yorker (and what a gem that is), I decided not to buy this edition. My guess is that most of the writers are newly-minted MFAs from various creative writing programs who all write in the same bland, flat, boring style, with little of interest to say. What a shame. I usually find several gems in this collection each year, but will have to content myself with re-reading some of my favorite stories from earlier editions.

Pearl Street said...

I continue to appreciate this blog as a rare useful tool for identifying short stories and authors worth reading. This has become an almost insurmountable challenge today.

The selected stories certainly include several from the "usual gang of suspects" when it comes to authors who get selected for these types of things - Tessa Hadley, William Trevor, and Louise Erdrich.

I will only comment on Kirstin Valdez Quade's Nemecia which I had read recently. I agree that it was for the most part lackluster, but I came upon it after I read Quade's Kidline (Mississippi Review, No. 42, 1&2) and went searching for more of her stuff. Kidline did cross my threshold for a story worth multiple reads. Among other things, she beautifully captured that precarious stage at the cusp of puberty (nominally age 11-14), which is a rich source of story material but also difficult to authenticate.

As a passionate reader and writer of short stories, Quade is on my radar. But as I pointed out in a panel discussion I recently organized on the short story, a contemporary author who has in my opinion written a great short story is not necessarily (and in fact rarely) a great short story writer. I consider this a measure of how so difficult it is to write a great short story.

Most collections I have purchased, reviewed, or read have one or two that stand out, and the others are also rans. The problem I believe is that the literary fiction publishing "industry" is not set up to reward readers (who you would think would be the customers), but instead reward writers with publishing credits to satisfy the ever expanding numbers and therefore quests to publish rather than perish.