Tuesday, May 26, 2009

More Stories from 2009 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories

I am sorry to be away from this blog so long, but I have been on the road with family. We stopped a few days ago in Jackson, Mississippi to visit the home of Eudora Welty, one of my favorite writers. What impressed me most about this lovely Tudor style home just across the street from Belhaven College was its unpretentiousness, just like its wonderful former owner. The kitchen looked right out of the late forties and there were books stacked in every room.

I have been reading more stories in the 2009 PEN/O. Henry Prize stories and have the time today to make a few comments, which hopefully will stimulate some discussion among the readers of this blog.

“Uncle Musto Takes a Mistress” by Mohan Sikka—The story is told from the point of view of a man who is recalling when he was ten and living with his grandparents. I am afraid I am not familiar with the changing values of the Indian family that Sikka says is the background fro his story. What I like most about the story is the way Sikka develops the character of the conniving grandmother, who feels that by destroying the relationship of Uncle Musto and the younger Rose, she can make her husband pay for an indiscretion in the past when such relationships were more tolerated. What leaves a sour taste for the grandmother at the end and for the reader also, at least this reader, is how ultimately the servant class pays the price for the crime--based on the lingering assumption that two years in jail is something the servant can more easily bear than members of the military class to which the grandfather and grandmother belong.

“Kind” by L.E. Miller—I was not really engaged by this story. The central interest seems to be Edith, the kind of woman who has chosen a life of “voluntary poverty,” which I assume refers to the emotional poverty of her life. I guess I don’t really see the relationship between the narrator Ann and Edith. What is Ann’s stake in the story?

“Icebergs” by Alistair Morgan—What Morgan calls the main themes of his story—loneliness and isolation—come through very strongly for me. I am engaged by the narrator who has lost his wife and is losing his daughter. But what Morgan calls the peripheral context for the story—the real events of an African finance minister stealing money from his country—seem to me to have no relevance to those themes. Morgan says the back story “moves the plot,” but if the plot has nothing to do with the themes, then what is the point of the plot except merely to be plot—stuff that happens? If it is not meaningful stuff, then why is it in the story?

“The Camera and the Cobra” by Roger Nash—I like this story, but then I am a sucker for a story that is so tightly wound with imagery that it seems more a poem or a picture or a parable than a narrative. I like the image of the ants in the camera. I like the imagery of things appearing and disappearing, of alternating moments of uncertainty and clarity. If you did not suspect that Nash was a philosopher after reading this story, you would know it for sure when you read his discussion of the background for the story—a discussion as dense in its way as the story itself.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

John Burnside's "The Bell Ringer": PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories, 2009

If you want to read a paradigmatic example of the traditional lyrical/realistic short story, innovated by Chekhov (Collected Stories) and Turgenev (Sportsman’s Sketches) and then developed by Joyce (Dubliners) and Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio), take a look at John Burnside’s “The Bell Ringer.”

Burnside’s discussion of the creative origins of his story suggests that he is well aware of this tradition. He says he started thinking about the story when he thought of how important bells, usually church bells, were to the community—to announce the outbreak of war, the return of peace, marriages, deaths, and important social occasions. Since the community was often defined by the reach of the bells, with those “beyond the peal” deemed to be outside that parish, he started thinking that maybe an experienced listener could not only determine by the tenor of the bells what they signified socially, but also “the secrets of individual bell ringers—their hidden wishes, their secret desires and fears, their private loneliness.” It’s a nice trope, fanciful, but somehow believable.

The key characteristics of the Chekhov, Turgenev, Joyce, Anderson lyrical/realistic tradition are all here: The “loneliness” that Frank O’Connor discusses in The Lonely Voice, the “secrets desires and fears” of an individual in a small community, a central metaphor that embodies the loneliness and secrets.

I don’t want to give a plot summary here, for another element of this short story tradition is, of course, the emphasis placed on the ending of the story, what Joyce described as an epiphany. Eva, the central character, has lost her father, lives in an old family house in a village in Scotland, is often alone because her husband works in other countries. She doesn’t really mind being alone, for there is little love or intimacy between her and her husband. Her one friend is her sister-in-law, who confides in her that she is having an affair. She joins a bell-ringing club so she can meet people. She does not make friends at the club, but she does become infatuated with a young American.

What I like about the story is the fictional world Burnside creates—a kind of reality/unreality that is both the world of everyday and the world of fantasy and fairytale. The story begins with Eva thinking the landscape around her looks like a children’s-book illustration, the snow steady and insistent in a kingdom that had succumbed to the bad fairy’s spell and slept for a hundred years in a viridian web of gossamer and thorns.” When she goes to the church for the bell-ringing in the tower, she thinks of the location as a “pagan place, a dark garden of yews and straggling roses and, at its center, the stone church, with its altar and its font and, above it all, the bells, suspended in the chill air of the belfry, heavy and still, waiting to be brought to life.” I like that rhythm.

The ending is announced this way: “It was like watching a conjurer perform a magic trick, when you shouldn’t really care, because you know it’s an illusion, but you just have to figure how it’s done.” The ending is absolutely inevitable and even predictable, but still a surprise. I like it when a story does that. I like it when everything comes together in a pleasurable little gasp.

If you like this story and you have not read all your Chekhov, Turgenev, Joyce, Anderson, then you have a lot of wonderful short story reading ahead of you. And while you are at it, read the two very finest contemporary short story writers in this tradition—Alice Munro and William Trevor.

Monday, May 11, 2009

E. V. Slate’s “Purple Bamboo Park; Ha Jin’s “The House Behind a Weeping Cherry": PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories, 2009

I just read E. V. Slate’s “Purple Bamboo Park,” intending to move through the 2009 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories in order. However, since Slate’s story focuses on a Chinese setting and characters, I decided to skip over and read Ha Jin’s story “The House Behind a Weeping Cherry,” for I know his work, and I thought it was interesting to find two Chinese stories in this year’s volume.

I tell you up front that I have never been impressed with Ha Jin’s fiction. I have read most of his short stories, and Lord help me, I even read his monstrously big novel, A Free Life, because The San Francisco Chronicle asked me to review it. I thought it was clumsy and clich├ęd.

I realize that Jin is writing in a second language, but as I hinted in my discussion of Aleksandar Hemon, I don’t find that sufficient to excuse poor prose and simplistic stories. I just don’t think that Hemon and Jin are in the same literary universe as Conrad and Nabokov.

“The House Behind a Weeping Cherry” is, in my opinion, another simplistic Ha Jin piece. He says in the author’s notes that he used to go to Flushing, New York to observe people in an immigrant community so he could write about them, taking notes of peculiar things he saw. He says he was fascinated by how immigrants survived and he wanted to write about the work they did. So he came up with a male character who worked in a sweatshop and who lived in a house of prostitutes and drove a car for them. Combining prostitution and the sweatshop would make his story “more interesting,” he thought. But he found the writing a struggle, for he did not know much about prostitution and sweatshops, and at times he doubted whether there was even a story in the material. But that did not stop him. “Gradually, as I kept writing and revising, the story took shape.” Oh, by the way, he also planted the cherry tree in front of the house.

Someone out there, please, please tell me what makes this one of the ”Best Stories of the Year.” It is a simplistic, predictable boy-meets girl-story. The fact that the boy works in a sweatshop and the girl is a Chinese prostitute in an immigrant community does not, in my opinion, make it any more than that. And the simplicity of the central POV character does not excuse such language as: “Her words made my heart leap.” Great joy welled in my heart.” “My heart sagged as I lay back in the seat to take a nap.” A very busy heart indeed!

Now back to E.V. Slate’s “Purple Bamboo Park.” Who is E. V. Slate? you might ask. The notes at the back of PEN/O. Henry reveal that Slate’s stories have appeared in Best New American Voices 2005, Crazyhorse, and The New England Review. Slate lives in Singapore “and has spent time in San Francisco, Beijing, and Mumbai.” If you Google E. V. Slate, you come up with two entries, that identify her as female who lived in Cambridge, MA in 2006 and won the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award. If you start poking around on the Net, you find out that E.V. Slate is a pseudonym for Olette Trouve and that she received her B.S. in biology from University of San Francisco and her M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University in 2003. And guess what? Ha Jin, who got his M.A. in Creative writing at BU, became a full professor three in 2002. So, did Olette Trouve, aka E.V. Slate, study under Ha Jin in her final year at BU? I don’t know. Does her story show a Ha Jin influence? Maybe, maybe not.

The central character in the story is given no name, but is referred to only as Ayi, a name for a Chinese maid. The voice of the narrator--third person that reflects the simplicity of the central character. The POV and the central character are very similar to James Joyce’s “Clay.” Here is a description from Joyce’s story: “Maria was a very, very small person indeed but she had a very long nose and a very long chin.” Here is a description from Slate's story: “Ayi was small, a small and stout ay. Her eyes were very close together and when she wore her spectacles she knew she looked like a pig (in spectacles).”

Ayi is older than Joyce's Maria, but she is similarly alone and similarly yearns to be a part of a family. She fancies that the family she works for—referred to as Wife, Husband, Baby—treat her like their own mother, but this is more wistfulness than reality. She is particularly drawn to the husband, who she likes to think of as her son, for her own son died as a child.

The story comes to a climax when Ayi fears that the wife wants her husband to dismiss her. In her desperation, she tells the husband that the wife wants her gone because she saw her with another man.

The resulting crisis is a tragic one, but Slate treats it almost comically. The family is in a pedal boat at a park, the Wife and Husband up front, Ayi and Baby in the back. When Husband tells Wife what Ayi has said, Wife turns around and slaps her, “and Baby, who was standing with one foot on the backseat and one on the side of the boat, caught the carom of the slap and tumbled out of the boat bottom first.”

The tragicomic crisis is very similar to the climax of Flannery O’Connor’s famous story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” when the grandmother causes the car accident.

Baby is rescued, but Husband, who “sat in a cushioned office chair all day long and liked to eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch," dies. "He also had his shoes on, of course. Ayi watched the gray soles disappear in the water.” In the last line of the story, Ayi looks into the water where the Husband went down, “but she could only see her own reflection—a drowning pig in spectacles—and she clawed and clawed the water until the image disappeared.”

I like this story, but maybe part of that is because I hear the echoes of the Joyce story and the Flannery O’Connor story. There is also a subtext that interests me. When she was young, Ayi was a member of the students who took part in Mao’s cultural revolution, “one of the last who had arrived at the commune in 1969, waving their flags and little Red Books.” When Wife slaps her in the boat, she recalls the “boards and sticks she and her classmates had used to beat their teachers” as well as other acts of violence from her past, in which she was either on the inflicting or the receiving end. Beneath the seeming simplicity of the central character and this tragicomic domestic relationship, there seems to simmer a culture of brutality, at least from E. V. Slate's point of view.

I would appreciate hearing from any of you who have read these two stories.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum, "The Nursery," 2009 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum says in the “Writers on Their Work” section of the 2009 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories that “The Nursery” began with a news report she heard about a teenage baseball player killing a teammate during a game. How it happened—accident or a fight—did not concern her; her interest was in how the parents must have felt. That interest made the first draft go rather quickly, she said, and gave her her central character Beth, whose desire to protect and nurture her son made her sympathize with her.

When writers read one of their stories at a public reading, they often make a few preliminary remarks about where the story came from. If they do not, when the reading is over, someone from the audience will ask: “How did that story get its start? What gave you the idea for that story?” They often want to know if the story is based on something that happened in the author’s life, as if the real life event were more important than the story.

I suspect that writers don’t feel that way—that the event, real or read about—somehow evaporates and that the most real thing for them is the story. I suspect that the story comes from many calculated decisions, as well as many impulsive decisions as the writing progressed—either in the writer’s mind as he or she mulls it over, or at the keyboard as some things the writer never had in mind get forced into the story because of what they have experienced or remembered or read or heard. And these things just seem somehow to fit. Sometimes the writer knows why they fit; sometimes the writer does not.

Let’s guess how Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum’s story came into being. As she says, it started with the “I wonder” ploy. “I wonder what that boy’s parents felt like. I wonder if the parents of the boy who killed the other one did not suffer as much or more than the parents of the one that died.”

Let’s say Lunstrum started with exploring this “I wonder” and then, as she created the parents of the boy who killed the other one, discovered that it might make a good story if the mother were a controlling woman, if she were divorced, if the boy, in spite of all her efforts to influence his development, saw in him elements of his father that she could not control. So Beth took over the story, and it was all about her.

Let’s say the notion of “nurturing” gave Lunstrum of the woman owning a nursery. That would work, wouldn’t it? And as Lunstrum developed the background of the nursery—the woman nurturing plants and trying to nurture her son—she discovered that—as she says in the “Writers on Their Work” notes—“I was particularly happy in this story with the way the overgrowth and lushness of that setting worked in contrast to Beth’s withholding and reserve.” Yeah, that is a nice bonus, holds things together well.

But there has to be some tangible conflict in the story, some displacement from Beth’s conflict with her son that embodies her fear that he will be more like her husband than like herself. Thus Lunstrum invents Uri, a sort of old-line hippie with a ponytail, about ten years younger than herself. He smokes pot and challenges her. He embodies her lazy husband and her fears for her son David. She can’t control him.

Then there has to be some crisis, some choice she has to make about how far she will go to control her son. And that choice has to be the one that comes from her most pressing need, and it has to be the wrong one, and the “good father figure,” the coach, will lose out to the “bad father figure,” Uri. Beth must pay for being who she is. As Lunstrum says, she is not very likeable. But we understand her need.

Of course, there is much more to how this story may have come into being. And, after all, I am merely a reader guessing how Lunstrum created it. But since half the readers of this blog are writers and half are not, I wonder if the way writers read stories is radically different than the way nonwriters read stories. And I wonder if those who write or want to write have an interest in the “backstory” radically different than that of nonwriters. Nonwriters want to know what the backstory is, echoing something my children used to ask me when I told them stories, “Did that really happen, Daddy?” Writers, on the other hand, want to know how the story came into being. For them it is not a matter of “what really happened?” but rather a matter of “how did you make it?”

If you read Lunstrum’s “The Nursery,” please let me know what you think about it and about my faltering efforts to understand the mysteries of what make short stories work.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories: 2009--Do You Want to Read It Together?

I just received The O.Henry Prize Stories for 2009, which has been renamed The PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories this year to signify the series’ new relationship with the PEN American Center. The volume includes twenty stories chosen by Laura Furman. The prize jury this year--A.S. Byatt, Anthony Doerr, and Tim O’Brien—comment on their favorite story in the collection.

I will be reading the stories and discussing them this month, and I invite you to pick up a copy and join me. This is not a challenge, nor a contest, an assignment, nor a race. It is an invitation. A joint reading of these stories seems especially appropriate with Larry Dark’s recent promotion of a National Short Story Month and Dan Wickett’s unofficially naming May as a National Short Story Month on his blog at emergingwriters.typepad.com

The “winner,” as it were, of this year’s O. Henry Prize is “An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen” by British writer, Graham Joyce, which was chosen as “favorite” by both Byatt and O’Brien. Joyce won the World Fantasy Award in 2003 and the British Fantasy Award four times. He teaches creative writing at Nottingham Trent University.

It’s a three-part story in first person POV. Part I introduces us to Seamus Todd, a British Color Sergeant, who has seen service in Northern Ireland and the Falklands. At the time of the story, he leads a small group of young soldiers in the Gulf War. The first part is characterized by the voice of Todd, who is a typical, or maybe not so typical “ordinary soldier” who emphasizes that they are engaged in a paid job and that you don’t argue with the Queen: “You form up. Move out. Press on.”

Part II focuses on Todd’s experience after stepping on a spring-release mine while separated from his men. He knows if he steps off it, he will die. Hours pass and finally an Arab shows up. I really don’t want to tell you what happens next, for some people read fiction primarily to find out what happens next. I read stories so I can read them again. It may be hallucinatory; it may be supernatural. It may be, as critic Tzvetan Todorov has defined the term, “Fantastic,” at least as long as we hover between making a decision as to whether it is hallucinatory or supernatural.

I don’t know if A.S. Byatt and Tim O’Brien picked this story because they think it is the best story or because they like it the best. Those two responses do not always have to be the same. It is the only story I have read so far, so I cannot respond either way. However, it should be noted that Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is one of the most respected collection of war stories to come out of Vietnam, and that A.S. Byatt’s The Black Book features includes several hallucinatory or supernatural stories.

Byatt says “An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen” is the story that most haunted her from the book, a story whose rhythm runs in her mind. Byatt suggests that what this story and the stories of Rudyard Kipling (who she thinks is the greatest English short-story writer) share is the seamless mixing of genres—combining the daily and the strange.

O’Brien calls “An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen” a “superb ghost story, a wonderful story about war, in exactly the same way that “Bartleby” is a wonderful story about office life. O’Brien suggests that many war stories merge with the world of magic and ghosts, for the systematic butchery of war does not always feel “real” and that sometimes a realistic story can seem to demean the essential unrealistic reality of war.

I hope many of you pick up the 2009 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories. You can get it in paperback very cheaply from Amazon. I am glad that Anchor Books continues to publish this volume and that Houghton Mifflin continues to publish The Best American Short Stories. I know that neither of them make a great deal of money, but they help to keep the short story alive.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

David Bezmozgis: a Successful Paradigm of the Immigrant Short Story

I appreciate Sandy and Becky's response to my post on Aleksandar Hemon. It pleases me that readers of this blog find some of my recommendations helpful

I do want to make a response to Becky's remark about Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis. The book got a lot of publicity when it was released in Canada and the U.S.

So how is it that the stories of 30-year-old Bezmozgis, who immigrated with his family from Latvia to Toronto in 1980, generated such a prepublication buzz? No one had heard of him. Then three stories appeared in quick succession in Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Zoetrope: All Story. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux sent him on an unprecedented prepublication tour. And Canada’s Quill and Squire magazine featured him on the cover.

Bezmozgis was quoted in the Quill and Squire story as saying, “the only way you can try and explain something like this is two things. It’s the quality of the work and it’s connections.”

Since a reviewer perhaps should draw no conclusions about connections and the quality of a work has never been a guarantee of financial success, some speculations about the probable appeal of this work might be in order.

It’s no secret that if you can handle the English language cleverly or facilely and have a multicultural story to tell, book editors will sense sales and sit up and take notice, even if all you have to peddle are short stories. Jhumpa Lahiri, Nathan Englander, and Aleksandar Hemon have proven that in the past few years. (Emphatic exception: I think Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction is very fine. There is nothing facile about it; if you have not read it, you should pick up a copy of her latest, Unaccustomed Earth.)

If you string the short stories around a central group of characters so that your book reads sort of like a novel, you have an even better shot at success.

Since many people say that individual short stories are too hard to read, it also helps that David Bezmozgis’s stories are easy. The prose is straightforward and uncluttered with reflection. The dialogue reads like a film script, clean and economical. And there is just enough of a wry comic tone to make the seriousness of the immigrant experience pleasurable rather than painful.

You also have to have likeable characters. The father of the Berman family is a model of old world silence and dignity. The mother is, if not always stable, supportive. And the boy, at different ages, is just cute enough to be lovable, just tough enough not to be bullied, just horny enough to be believable, and just respectful enough to honor the old ways of his ancestors.

Other familiar elements of the typical immigrant story predictably pop up, for example, ghosts of the old oppressive world. Here, it is a KGB agent accompanying an internationally known weight lifter to Canada. The father tells the son, “This is why we left. So you never have to know people like him.” And there must be some frustrating efforts of the family to be successful, as when the father attempts to set up his own business and is patronized by a more successful immigrant predecessor. Moreover, there should be some lesson about being true to your heritage, as, after punishing the recalcitrant hero, a Rabbi says, “now maybe you understand what it is to be a Jew.”

And, of course there has to be a little sexual initiation, preferably with a more experienced, although not necessarily older, female. In the title story, the hero’s nominal cousin, who at fourteen has already been in porno films in Europe, serves the purpose with salacious insouciance.

So what is the saleable appeal of this book? An easy read, endearing characters, snappy openings, epiphanic endings, multicultural local color, stranger-in-a-strange-land survival, melting-pot political correctness, a little sex, and a serio-comic tone that softens gravity with levity. What’s not to like?

A funny sidenote: After the above review appeared, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux bought an ad in New Yorker, which quoted the following:

"What's not to like?" --Charles May, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

As you all know, one must be very careful with tone.

Friday, May 1, 2009

National Short Story Month

Larry Dark, who heads the Story Prize and has a blog at thestoryprize.blogspot.com and a website at ldark@thestoryprize.org has asked his readers about the advisability or possibility of trying to start a National Short Story Month, something like the National Poetry Month. I think it is a great idea; of course, I think anything that might encourage readers to read good short stories is a great idea. I wonder what my readers think about this. Larry posted a poll and got good results. If you have not responded to Larry's poll, please respond to mine. And please leave a comment to this post if you have any ideas about this or any recommendations of others that I might contact about the idea. I would like to help promote this.