Thursday, February 25, 2016

The O. Henry Prize Stories: 2015: Thumbnail Notes: Part I

I have been reading the 2015 O. Henry Prize Story  collection this month, and, although the subtitle of the collection is The Best Stories of the Year, it has not been an invigorating experience. 
As you probably know, the twenty stories are chosen solely by Laura Furman (albeit with some help from a couple of editors at Anchor Books). Furman teaches creative writing at the University of Texas, Austin, and has been the series editor since 2003. Each year three other writers are asked to blindly pick the story they "most admire" from the group and write a brief appreciation of it.
What follows are some brief thumbnail notes of my own opinion of half the stories in the collection. I have not read all the stories Professor Furman read, from which she chose these twenty stories as the "best of the year," so I cannot challenge her comparative choices. However, I am not sure I understand by what criteria these competent but ordinary ten stories constitute the "best."
 I will try to post some comments on the other half—some of which I "admire"-- next week.

Percival Everett, "Finding Billy White Feather"
You know what kind of story you are in for in the third paragraph when, after Oliver Campbell finds a note on his back door from Billy White Feather, announcing that twin Appaloosa foals are for sale and scolds his dog for not being much of a watchdog:
"The dog said nothing."
Campbell has never met Billy White Feather, so he goes looking for him and gets conflicting reports about what White Feather  looks like. The first person Campbell queries says he is a tall, skinny white boy with blue eyes and a blonde pony-tail. The second person tells him that White Feather is a big guy with red hair and a huge mustache. Another says he is an Indian with a jet-black braid down to his narrow butt.  Still another says he is very fat. Everybody agrees that White Feather is an asshole.
Obviously Campbell has nothing else to do, so he continues to search, even though he has no real interest in Billy White Feather. It is just a mystery he wanted to solve (that is, a picaresque story Everett wants to tell). He finally learns that this "tall, short, skinny, fat, white Indian with black blond hair" is in Denver, so he drives all the way there from Wyoming just to see what he looks like. Why? Because the story demands it.  He doesn't find Billy.  The twin horses die. The end.
This is less a Big Sky Wyoming story with Annie Proulx characters than a sly Native American story with a Sherman Alexie aspect.  Fun, but surely not among the year's best.

Lydia Davis, "The Seals"
Lydia Davis is right up there with Alice Munro for being one of the most honored short-story writers practicing that much neglected art form, having won a McArthur Prize, a Man Booker International Prize, etc. Many of her pieces are quite short and elliptically cryptic.  This one is longer than most of her stories and more a meditation than an anecdote—a story about the narrator thinking about her dead older sister on a Christmas Day train trip to Philadelphia. The story intersperses recollections of her sister with observations on what she sees out the train window. An added complication to her meditations is her recollection of her father, who died the same summer her sister did. The "seals" of the title refer to little white seals filled with charcoal her sister gave her—stuff  you put in your refrigerator to absorb odors. The meditations are the usual ones a person might have after a loved one dies—the difficulty believing the dead person is really gone, grief that one can sometimes ignore but that comes flooding back, the philosophical question about whether it is all over when the body is finished or whether we live on in some form.  The feelings are sincere and the writing is honest, but there is nothing extraordinary about this meditation, nothing to make it stand out as one of the best stories of the year—except that it is by Lydia Davis.

Lionel Shriver, "Kilifi Creek"
This is a concept story to illustrate an irony, which a summary of the plot will make clear: A young American woman is travelling in Africa, bumming off whoever will put her up.  She goes swimming one day and almost drowns. Several years later she is living in New York and accidently falls off a balcony to her death. In her comments at the end of the book, Shriver says she has always keep a list in the back of her head about times she almost died, e.g. a bike accident, and has always wanted to write a story about such moments. Then when she read a story in The New York Times about a young woman who fell to her death when a balcony collapsed, she decided to write that story--which, of course, is this story.
What makes it a not very pleasant story is that Shriver makes Liana, the young woman in question, an unlikeable exploitation artist who somehow deserves what she gets. She laughs at the couple who she exploits, is arrogant about her swimming ability and goes out too far, does not seem to have learned from her exploit, or any other near deaths she experiences later. Shriver does not like her very much and perhaps is just a bit too sardonically gleeful at the end when she describes Liana's descent from the balcony, as if from the perspective of the young woman herself:
"She fit in a wisp of disappointment before the fall was through. Her eyes tearing, the lights of high-rises blurred. Above, the evening sky rippled into the infinite ocean that had waited to greet her for fourteen years: largely, good years, really—gravy, a long and lucky reprieve. Then, of course, what had mattered was her body striking the plane, and now what mattered was not striking it—and what were the chances of that? By the time she reached the sidewalk, Liana had taken back her surprise.  At some point there was no almost. That had always been the message. There were bystanders, and they would get the message too."
This is just pulp writerly exploitation of the reader's emotions, it seems to me.  No message, except you live, you die. And you ought to be grateful for what lies in between those two facts.

Manuel Munoz, "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA"
If you know that old country song written and sung by Donna Fargo, you may read this story, waiting for the allusion to appear.  It is the song of a woman so happy to be married to the man she loves, singing: "Thank you, oh Lord, for making him for me. And thank you for letting life turn out the way that I always thought it could be….Now shine on me, sunshine, Walk with me, world, it's a skippity-doo-dah-day. I'm the happiest girl in the whole USA."
This is a story of a sad situation in which Mexican immigrants illegally in the US to work on farms in central California are routinely reported by the farmers to the Mexican border patrol, who take them back to Mexico.  In this story, the narrator is a woman who is travelling south to Los Angeles hopefully meet her husband who once more must cross the border back into the US. She befriends a young woman on the bus who is new to all this. When they reach LA, the young woman's man is not there, and she has no money, so the narrator buys food for both of them and gets them into a motel. She also gives her her own comfortable shoes in exchange for the young woman's painful high heels. The story ends when the narrator meets up with her husband and they get on the bus for the long trip back home, perhaps to repeat the whole process all over again. She sits in the bus watching the other women in the rows in front of her:
"Ahead of me, the other women and their men face forward, together and stoic, all of them alert to the city streets, to what's passing by and what's coming. It's still love, the back of their heads seem to say to me. Not one woman is resting her head on her man's shoulder, so I sit upright and look straight out into the distance."
It's a touching story of one woman's strength and the difficulties facing Mexican immigrants—a rebuke to Donald Trump's proposed silly wall.  It is honest and straightforward, but it is not a great story, just a simple narrative depending on a sad cultural/economic situation for its emotional impact.

Russell Banks, "A Permanent of the Family"
Banks says in his end-of-the-book comments that this story actually happened pretty much as he tells it here, but that he had to wait until the principals of the story had forgiven one another "before I could subject the material to the pressures, needs, and requirements of fiction." Indeed the story begins with the narrator admitting that he is not sure he wants to tell this story on himself, even thirty-five years after it happened. He says his main motivation in telling the story, which has become a family legend, to tell it truthfully, even if it reflects badly on himself.
It is the story of a man wo has separated from his wife. Property has been settled and they have agreed on joint custody of the three children, but the issue to be decided is the care of the family dog, Sarge.  Although the wife insists on keeping the dog, the dog keeps slipping away to the narrator's house. "No one blames Sarge, of course, for rejecting joint custody," the narrator says.  What makes the story a story is the writerly urge Banks has to make Sarge somehow symbolic of the breakup, of what he calls the couple's lost innocence.
Then he accidently backs up over the dog and kills it--which leads to a mythic response: "All four daughters began to wail.  It was a primeval, keening, utterly female wail….Their father had slain a permanent member of the family. We all knew it the second we heard the thump and felt the bump.  But the girls knew something more. Instinctively, they understood the linkage between this moment, with Sarge dead beneath the wheels of my car, and my decision the previous summer to leave my wife.
He tries to dig a grave in the yard to bury the dog, but the ground is frozen. He swings a pick at the rock-hard ground, while the girls stand frightened by his wild swings, "as if watching their father avenge a crime they had not witnessed, delivering a punishment that exceeded the crime to a terrible degree."
And this is what a writer does—make meaning out of an accidental event—elevate a mere event into symbolic and representative meaning.  It is all just a little too self-conscious and self-serving for me. Nothing really "best" about it.

Dina Nayeri, "A Ride Out of Phrao"
This is the story of a forty-five-year-old Iranian woman named Shirin who has been living in Iowa and joins the Peace Corps to teach  in Phrao, a village in northern Thailand because she has had to declare bankruptcy, and Iran is not on the  Peace Corp list. We get details of her new life in the village, e.g. culture, superstitions, and her background, e.g. marriage, life in Iowa, birth of  her daughter.  She befriends one boy named Boonmee, who puts his hand on her breast and startles her. Her 20-year-old daughter comes to visit from America, but she is the typical "ugly American" who scorns the people and their traditions. She cannot tolerate the food and soon leaves. Shirin, who has been a doctor in Iran, is much more accepting of the people, and the story ends with the young boy who touched her breast mildly rebuking her for her suspicion of his motives by saying, "This is how we touch mothers."
It's a decent story about cultural differences and cultural acceptance, and generation differences, but just an ordinary story, competent but pedestrian in style and narrative structure. This is Tessa Hadley's favorite story, but her justification for her preference is generalized and impressionistic.  But then Tessa Hadley has never been one of my favorite writers either.

Becky Hagenston, "The Upside-Down World"
A parallel story of two couples who are destined to intersect.
First there is Gertrude and Jim, middle-aged siblings in the South of France in late August. Jim has responded to a call for help from his sister who is off her meds.
Then there is Elodie, a seventeen-year-old runaway whose mother has recently committed suicide, and who meets Ted when she tries to pick his pocket
And we bounce back and forth between their actions as Jim helplessly and haplessly tries to watch over crazy Gertrude, and as Ted colludes with an amoral Elodie.
The title comes from a line from a museum brochure describing the "topsy turvy" or upside down world of Marc Chagall.
But there is no Chagall magic in this story.

Brenda Peynado, "The History of Happiness"
Another young woman picking pockets while on the road, this time in Singapore. Her boyfriend left her to join Hindu monks while they were in India.  She meets two Indian men in a bar and they go to the beach to talk.  It could end in assault, she thinks, but it turns out they are both very nice guys, so all is well, that is, after she steals one's wallet, only to get it back to him later when she has a change of heart and a fear of getting caught. It's a first-person narrative, and we listen as the narrator/young woman undergoes  a shifting view point.  She finally sees "the hunger of the abyss was my own hunger."  Whatever that heavy ominousness means is left for the reader to guess.

Naira Kuzmich, "The Kingsley Drive Chorus"
The culture this time is Armenian neighborhood in Los Angeles.  The focus is on immigrant mothers whose sons are not adapting well.  The narrator says "something doesn't translate." There is Carmen and her son Zaven, who it seems is often in jail.  Then there is Mariam and her two sons, Robert and Vardan, who Carmen says have lead Zaven down the wrong path.  And the problem, it seems, is drugs, mainly marijuana.  We learn about Carmen's life and Zaven's life and Mariam's life.  It all ends inevitably badly, with a confrontation between Carmen and Mariam, with Mariam calling her boys criminals, and Carmen slapping her.  Then, Mariam finds Carmen at the end of a rope in the laundry room, and we see her holding Carmen in her arms as if she were still alive. Zaven serves six years and then gets married and lives happily ever after.  The other women in the neighborhood go to sleep at night beside their husbands wondering: "If all it took was them to see us dead, we too would've have done it ourselves."  And that's the story—a domestic, cultural drama suitable for television.

Lynn Freed, "The Way Things Are Going"
This is a short piece about a South African woman who has and her mother's home invaded by black policemen in post-Apartheid South Africa. She gets hit on the head, urinated on, and almost raped. So the two of them move to America with her older sister. Furman pretty well sums up its only interest—which simply cultural/political: "a country develops from unjust tyranny to lawlessness.'

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