Wednesday, September 28, 2016

O. Henry Prize Stories 2016--Part 2

Well, I have spent the last couple of weeks rereading the rest of the stories in O. Henry Prize Stories: 2016, in the hope that I would find something in them I missed the first time around—something that would make me like them better.  But, alas! I did not.  I just don't find the stories in this year's O. Henry compelling; they seem, well, just ordinary. And perhaps much of that is due to the fact that I just don't like the central characters.
I know, I know, I don't have to like the characters.  I just finished reading and reviewing the new novel by Ethan Canin, A Doubter's Almanac—admittedly at 576 pages, a far different experience than reading short stories.  And the central character, mathematician Milo Andret, is a thoroughly unlikeable character.  But I understand Milo; he is a complex character who is the way he is and does the things he does for complex reasons.  I just don't perceive that kind of complexity in most of the central characters in this year's O. Henry.

*There are two stories that focus on what might be called "bad neighbors":
Diane Cook, "Bounty"
Editor Furman calls this "an imaginative meditation on privilege" and says one of the pleasures of this story about the nastiness of humanity under pressure is the comedy of possessions, of "having just the right thing." It's a story of an apocalyptic flood that leaves what appears all of mankind struggling to survive. The focus in on one man of means who refuses to help his neighbors who call on him for help. The central character is just, well, self-serving and selfish.
Ottessa Moshfegh, "Slumming"
Furman says the "lure" of this story is watching the narrator become "a real neighbor, not wishing for it in the least." I am not sure this is true.  The narrator is a high school English teacher who buys a summer house and visits it during her summer vacation, buying drugs and hunkering down. She feels superior to the vagrant townsfolk , who she calls zombies. The rest are young people crashing junk cars, dirty diapers littering the parking lots, boarded up store fronts, etc. She says it is not that she lacks respect for the people of the town, but that she does not want to deal with them. O.K.  But it makes me not want to deal with her.

*There are three stories that deal with writers, and the problem with stories that deal with writers is that since they are written by writers they always seem somehow narcissistic.
Frederic Tuten, "Winter, 1965"
This is a story of a man trying to write, but although there are many people around him who have stories worth writing about, he seems only interested in writing about himself. Furman says the real story is in the writer's ruminations. But I don't really see significant ruminations about writing here. Peter Cameron picked it as his favorite, although he says he is usually wary about stories about writers, especially writers writing a story.  Cameron really says little about the story except he liked the warm and welcoming world it created. Nothing really warm and welcoming, or even interesting, about the central character.
Rebecca Evanhoe, "They Were Awake"
Evanhoe says the story is about the kinds of nightmares or disturbing events that threaten women disproportionately. It is based on a group of women in her MFA fiction writing program, who regularly meet and tell stories of their dreams.  It is mostly dialogue, and I find dialogue stories often awkward unless they are highly stylized and thus manage to communicate much more than mere information. These MFA confessions communicate only narcissistic self-concern.
Elizabeth Tallent, "Narrator"
The title of this story should tip the reader off at the beginning that there is some authorial self-consciousness here or some self-reflexivity. And indeed we do discover very quickly that the narrator of this story is a young aspiring writer who is attracted to an older successful writer. She has reached a point in her love of his writing that she now reads to construct someone she could love.
After she decides not to return to her husband, but to stay with the writer, they turn sex into stories, which does not surprise us, since writers, who must be obsessed to be successful, turn everything into stories. After the affair ends, twelve years later, she has divorced her husband, written three novels and is teaching at a university. The lover has written a novel about the time they were lovers and she, inevitably critiques his narrative treatment. The narrator explains how her past lover's novel should have given the female character some independent perceptions, made her less vulnerable and clinging.  Her consequent "realness" would have made the situation more ambiguous, concluding that this would have made it a better story—and the "better story" is the one we have just read.

*There are three stories about people dealing with the death of a relative:
Charles Haverty, "Storm Windows"
The narrator recalls his childhood in a house that his father loved, but the rest of the family, not so much. He recalls particularly a Christmas when the paramedics must be called for his father, who wants to make waffles for them.  Because of the father's cantankerousness, the story is primarily a comic remembrance. Comic line: Andy Williams singing "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," and the father saying, "This can't be the music I die to." The titular device is the storm windows the father insists on putting up each fall in preparation for winter. The story ends inevitably with the narrator getting a call from his sister saying "He's gone," which  echoes an earlier comic scene when the narrator goes to the hospital to see his father and the nurse says he's gone—but it is just that he has checked himself out, for he just had heartburn, not a heart attack.
Marie-Helene Bertino, "Exit Zero"
This is a "death of a parent" story based on a central metaphor—the appearance of a silver unicorn—evoked mysteriously in magical realism fashion. However, since the metaphor must suggest not only the spiritual beauty of what the father leaves for his daughter, but also the inevitable physicality of that inheritance, this is not a unicorn of adolescent pastel purity, but something that looks more like a "pissed-off donkey," that eats and farts, and shits on the carpet.
Adrienne Celt, "Temples"
This is still another story about tidying up after someone's death, this time an aunt.  The theme is once again the tension between what is lovely because it is transcendent and what is merely physical or fleshly.  The theme is announced in the first paragraph when the narrator talks about the pillow that her aunt slept on for ten years, thus shedding up to a pound of skin. It continues throughout the description of Aunt Marjorie's physical self until, predictably, when the narrator and her mother scatter the aunt's ashes, they blows back into their faces, so that Aunt Marjorie is in her ears and under her fingernails, "dusting the part in her hair."

*There are two stories about young women in love
Shruti Swamy, "A Simple Composition"
The narrative is quite simple—a  16-year-old girl learning to play the veena, falls in love with her teacher, an older man. They have sex.  Then she gets married, and has sex with her husband's department chair at the university where he teaches. The first-person voice of the story gives us a young woman who seems to fall into these two sexual encounters passively.  Shruti Swamy says in her authorial comments that this is the "ugliest" story she has ever written, and that she was genuinely dismayed by the young woman's sexual encounters.  The story ends with a metaphor of Punch and Judy puppets in a parade she watches--not stringed puppets, but actual people in large masks with contorted features of delight. If anything makes this story work, it is the metaphor of the puppets, for the woman sees herself, indeed sees life itself, as a stylized acting out of behavior that seems somehow beyond her control.
Zebbie Watson, "A Single Deliberate Thing"
Watson says the story is about telling and not telling. It is the voice of a young girl in a summer after her boyfriend has joined the army and left her--a summer when she lost a horse. The language of what appears to be a letter to the boyfriend, is sprinkled with diction that jars against the persona of the speaker, e.g. "I fetched the electric clippers."  "One of those wicked summer storms." "It was an unbearably heavy week."

*The final three stories are based on historical fact, newspaper headlines, or a psycho-physical puzzle.
 David H. Lynn, "Divergence"
David Lynn's comments on writing this story suggests that it springs from both an actual event—a friend getting badly injured in a bike accident—and his long time fascination with the subject of how a physical trauma such as a car crash can bring about profound changes in someone's personality, in their sense of self. The fact that the central character here is a university professor makes the central character's thoughts about no longer being his old self more plausible; he is a man who thinks about himself and ideas.  What is his "self" he wonders.  Was it not "some sort of amalgam of memories collected from boyhood on?"  Over the years, he thinks he has often spoken to his students of such matters—that events remembered, "distant in time and space, no longer existed anywhere except within the precincts of an individual skull." 
Lydia Fitzpatrick, "Safety"
There is something uncomfortably "ripped from the headlines" about this story of a shooter in an elementary school. Fitzpatrick says she started writing this story on the anniversary of Sandy Hook, and just after she had had a baby; it expresses her fears. Furman says the story illustrates how even the most evil character is capable of love.  She says the story is about the implicit agreement between children and adults that adults will promise safety in return for children's trust. The horror of an unknown shooter for an unknown reason breaking into an elementary schools is obvious enough.  The fact that at the end of the story, the reader discovers that the shooter is the brother of one of the students does not really mean anything except that the brother, like all such shooters is "disturbed."
Asako Serizawa, "Train to Harbin"
The story's impact depends on the syntactical and lexical style, which sounds much like a nineteenth-century novel in its formality, juxtaposed against the horror of the biological experiments conducted with such cold calculation during the war in 1939 between Japan and China. The narrator is a Japanese physician, carrying out experiments for the Japanese government on prisoners of war.  Under what the narrator calls a "veneer of normalcy," they "harvest human data" for the lives of their entire nation depended on it."
Molly Antopol chose this as her favorite story.  She loves the prose and says that all the research that must have gone into the story creates a world that sweeps her away.  Lines and descriptions, not scenes, are what stay with her. She calls it a "haunting, visceral, and ethically nuanced story." Indeed, it is the prose—detailed, factual, cold and formal—used to tell a story of atrocities as horrifying as those perpetuated by the Nazis that makes the story as powerful as it is—that and the reader's repulsion at the scientist telling the story in such clinical fashion.

I should get my copy of the Best American Short Stories 2016 next week.  I am hoping for the "Best"--at least "Better" than the O. Henry.

1 comment:

Donna OShaughnessy said...

Mr. May, I am a recent graduate of the University of Illinois Champaign's Creative Writing program which means I am ignorant and raw, still an unpublished short story writer. But, I appreciate the work you put into your blog and I just ordered a copy of the anthology you'll be reviewing in October.