Monday, February 29, 2016

O. Henry Prize Stories 2015: Part II--My Favorite Stories

In my opinion (and thank goodness it is not only my opinion) the best short stories are the most mysterious ones, or the ones written by writers who are obsessed by mystery.  For some reason (perhaps many reasons), the short story (both by tradition and generic qualities) is particularly suited to evoke mystery (or to create mystery where many never felt mystery before).  And in my opinion (again, thank goodness I am not the only one to think so), the best readers of short stories are those fascinated by mystery—not simple, solvable  mystery, but, (forgive me for using such a redundant adjective) mysterious mysteries, which, by definition, are the human kind. (I talk about this issue in more detail in a couple of chapters of my book I Am Your Brother.) One of my favorite writers who is of this opinion is Flannery O'Connor.  Here's one of the many things she says about mystery:
The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery. Fiction should be both canny and uncanny.
I could go on and on quoting Flannery O'Connor about mystery, but you can read her yourself in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.  I will only cite one more O'Connor observation:
The particular problem of the short story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible.  He has only a short space to do it in and he can't do it by statement.  He has to do it by showing, not by saying, and by showing the concrete—so that his problem is really how to make the concrete work double time for him.
 Eudora Welty once said:  "The first thing we see about a story is its mystery.  And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again.  Every good story has mystery--not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement.  As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful."  "The mystery of allurement."  Yes, I believe that.  And yes, when it comes to the stories I like best, the more I read them, the more mysterious they become.  I love being caught in the beautiful mystery of them. 
Umberto Eco uses a metaphor to describe what is required of us from such stories in his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods:  "There are two ways of walking through a wood," Eco says: 
“The first is to try one or several routes (so as to get out of the wood as fast as possible, say, or to reach the house of grandmother, Tom Thumb, or Hansel and Gretel); the second is to walk so as to discover what the wood is like and find out why some paths are accessible and others are not.  Similarly, there are two ways of going through a narrative text.  Any such text is addressed, above all, to a model reader of the first level, who wants to know quite rightly how the story ends (whether Ahab will manage to capture the whale, or whether Leopold Bloom will meet Stephen Dedalus after coming across him a few times on the sixteenth of June 1904).  But every text is addressed to a model reader of the second level, who wonders what sort of reader that story would like him or her to become and who wants to discover precisely how the model author goes about serving as a guide for the reader. In order to know how a story ends, it is usually enough to read it once.
However, in contrast, says Eco, “to become the model reader of the second level the text has to be read many times, and certain stories endlessly."
And it is because I like mystery that my favorite stories in the 2015 edition of O. Henry Prize Stories are: Christopher Merkner's "Cabins," Emily Ruskovich's "Owl," Thomas Pierce's "Ba Baboon," and Elizabeth McCracken's "Birdsong from the Radio."
In his comments on his story, Christopher Merkner says that the mystery that gave rise to "Cabins" struck him when a friend told him that he was getting a divorce. Merkner says he realized that the friend had already told fifteen other mutual acquaintances about the impending divorce and that what hooked him into the story was his intuition that the real divorce was between him and his friend's personal life, as well as the personal lives of the fifteen mutual friends who have told him nothing about the divorce. The problem, Merkner says, was his foolish assumption that had "some sort of intimate arrangement with the details of these people's personal lives."  And as he worked through the story, he wondered how many lives he assumed he knew, but ultimately knew nothing about at all, "or just very tiny bits and pieces." 
This mystery of the lives and minds of others is perhaps the central mystery the short story form most often hooks into, and perhaps why short stories are, by their very nature, made up of "very tiny bits and pieces."
This mystery of human identity—just who someone really is—is also at the center of Thomas Pirce's story "Ba Baboon." In his brief commentary at the end of the book, he tells about how his grandfather suffered a traumatic brain injury in an accident and became a different person afterwards—personality changes that both frightened and fascinated him, concluding this way: "I think most of us like to assume we are who we ae and will be that way until we die.  It can be an unsettling thought, the extent to which our identities are so malleable, the degree to which we are barely ourselves, even from one moment to the next."
Elizabeth McCracken says her story actually began as an assignment for the editor of Fairy Tale Review, who asked her to write a story for a collection of stories based on myths. She hunted about for a myth to use without much success until one day her children suggested, lightheartedly, that her New Year's resolution might be biting them less. McCrackin says, before she had children, this parental desire often expressed as "I could eat you up I love you so," was unfathomable to her, but now she understood it.  It made her think of "Lamia," best known perhaps from Keats' poem, and she did some research and found one version in which Lamia was a woman who had gone mad from grief after the death of her children and turned into an animal, and then, McCracken says, "well, it all made sense to me."
Emily Ruskovich says her story began with a single image: "a woman lying in the grass at night, shot down by a group of boys who had mistaken her for an owl."  In an interview with Hannah Tinti, she says it began with another story she had started to write with a peripheral character for whom she tried to suggest a backstory with this sentence: "He had lived in the trailer ever since his mother was shot by a group of boys, who mistook her for an owl." She notes in her end-of-book commentary that two other images clustered about this central image—coffee grounds spread on a dirt floor and giant-headed inbred cats—both from her family. She says she felt these three images all connected in some way and that she set out to write the story to discover how.  In her interview with Tinti, Ruskovich says a friend of her who saw an early draft told her that the boys in the story reminded her of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan—another connection that fascinated Ruskovich, especially for the way it evokes how we can be haunted by our childhood loves to the point we almost don't believe they are real, but yet we find ourselves waiting until they return.
When Frank Kermode in his Norton lectures twenty years ago asked, "Why Are Narratives Obscure?"  he cited Kafka's parable  "Before the Law" in The Trial. It’s about a man who comes to beg admission to the Law but is kept out by a doorkeeper.  So he sits there year after year in inconclusive conversation with the doorkeeper outside the door unable to get in.  When he is old and near death, he sees an immortal radiance streaming from the door.  He asks the doorkeeper why he alone has come to this door and receives this reply: "This door was intended only for you.  Now I am going to shut it."  A terrible parable, you would have to agree.  "To perceive the radiance of the shrine," say Kermode, "is not to gain access to it; the Law, or the Kingdom to those within, such as the doorkeeper, may be powerful and beautiful, but to those outside they are absolutely inexplicable.  This is a mystery."  While the insiders protect the Law without understanding it, the outsiders like us see an uninterpretable radiance and die."  A terrible parable indeed.
Kermode is concerned, of course, with the radiant obscurity of parables, a word that in the Gospel of Mark is used as a synonym for "mystery."  It is the radiance Welty refers to when she says the "first thing we notice about our story is that we can't really see the solid outlines of it--it seems bathed in something of its own.  It is wrapped in an atmosphere.  This is what makes it shine, perhaps, as well as what initial obscures its plain, real shape." To Marlowe, sitting Buddha-like on the deck telling the story of Kurtz, to outsiders to the mystery, the "meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that, sometimes, are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine."
Why is there is apt to be more mystery in short stories than in novels?  I will simply list three that seem possible to me. 
First there is the historical and prehistorical source of the short story in myth and oral tale that, by its very nature, was concerned with mystery, for everything was mystery and story was the only explanatory model available.  A genre never completely departs from its origins.
Second, there is short story's dependence more on pattern than plot for its structure.  As a result of this dependence, the action of a short story is more apt to be organized around an implicit principle or idea rather than a series of events occurring causally in time.  The puzzle effect is inevitable.  It is no accident that America's first theorist of the short story also invented the detective mystery story.
Third, there is the mystery of motivation in short stories.  It is not easy to determine why Bartleby prefers not to, what Roderick Usher is so afraid of, why Wakefield goes to the next street over and hides out for all those years.  Part of the problem may be the short story's close relationship to the romance form, which, allegorical in its nature, develops characters that, even as they seem to be like real people in the real world, are driven by the discourse demands of the narrative and thus act as if they are obsessed, propelled by some central force rather than merely logically, causally, or randomly.
Watch how Emily Ruskovich's "Owl" creates the voice of the husband who is mystified by his wife, who seems both adult and child at once, looking for that lost childhood  that seems just out of reach. And admire how Ruskovich, without forcing the allusion, gradually merges her her story into that never neverland of Peter Pan and Wendy.
Read Christopher Merkner's "Cabins" and enjoy how the narrator of the story moves back and forth between reality (whatever that is) and fantasy as he deals with the utter mystery of those he thinks he knows.
Put yourself in that tiny pantry with the two main characters of Thomas Pierce's "Ba Baboon" as they frantically search for the magic word that will pacify the dogs that growl at the door.
Identify with the distraught mother of Elizabeth McCracken's "Birdsong from the Radio," as she is driven to regain that which is lost in the only way possible to totally integrate the other—by devouring them.  As Kristen Iskandrian, who picked this story as her favorite, says, the voice of the story seems to come "from the belly of a timeless and placeless place, from the nowhere/everywhere where fable gets forged."
As Flannery O'Connor says, "The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery." 

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.'

Sunday, February 14, 2016

George Saunders' "Mother's Day": Mixed Point of View and Sympathy and Judgment

George Saunders is one of my favorite short-story writers—not necessarily because I always like his stories, for satire is not my favorite form, but because he is so damned smart about the nature of short stories, which means, of course, that he agrees with me on such matters. I have written several blog posts on Saunders' stories and his view of the short story form, which you can find by searching his name in the "Search this blog" slot just to the right.
I also like Saunders' ideas on kindness and sympathetic identification with others. If you have not already read it, search for his 2013 graduation speech at Syracuse University. The only reason to buy the book (64 pages for $9.99 on Amazon) is to give it to a graduate as a gift. It is not that much more than the price of a graduation card and a helluva lot better than Hallmark.  However, if you have not read Saunders' stories, you would be better to pay $9.99 for a copy of his collection Tenth of December.
Saunders' most recent story, "Mother's Day," just appeared in the winter two-week issue of The New Yorker. It's the first Saunders story I have read since he hit it big three years ago with Tenth of December, which won lots of awards and, lo and behold! had lots of folks in the media actually talking about the short story, as if they the form had just been invented.
In his interview on "Mother's Day" with Deborah Treisman for The New Yorker on Feb. 1, Saunders said that his process of coming up with a story is never to think about taking on an issue or an idea or writing about a certain thing, but rather to find a voice that "is fun to do and in which I can feel some sort of power."
And voice is indeed the key to reading "Mother's Day." The first voice you "hear" is that of an elderly woman named Alma, the "mother" of the title. But you don't know that at first, so it takes a few paragraphs to "hear" the voice of a grumpy old woman. Saunders' decision to put the point of view in the third person adds to the initial reader disorientation. As a result, the first few paragraphs are confusing. For example, since you don't know right away it is the mother speaking you don't know who Pammy and Paulie are. Furthermore, although it certainly seems it is Alma speaking when we hear, "Just like Pammy to take her mother to lunch in a sweatshirt with a crossed-out picture of a machine gun on it," it is not clear it is Alma who provides the voice of herself in third person speaking to Pammy, e.g. ""We're going home," she said. "You can drive me out to the grave."
You can hear the voice more clearly if you click on the audio button on the New Yorker web site and listen to George Saunders read the story.  He does not try to mimic the voices of Alma, and later, the character Debi, but he obviously knows the intonations he wants you to hear.  I have listened to the reading twice and can now hear both Alma and Debi clearly when I read the story.
Saunders has obviously worked on "Mother's Day" off and on for some time, having sent an earlier version of it to The New Yorker a few years ago, a version which Treisman had reservations about and sent back for editing. He talks at some length in the interview about how "Mother's Day" has changed over the years from a focus solely on the character Alma to a duet of Alma and the woman Debi—both of whom once loved Alma's late husband Paul ,Sr.  
Saunders says that Debi probably turned up in the story because when he was touring and being interviewed about the graduation speech he gave on kindness, he began to notice what he called a "certain ego-based New Age stance"  in which people, while not realizing what they were doing, claimed a virtue while actually living out its exact opposite.  And when you read Alma's justification of her neglect of her children and Debi's self-justifications and defenses about her own sexual behavior, you can hear this "New Age stance." However, Saunders said that Debi was a way to make the reader see where all of Alma's bitterness came from.
Then Saunders says something quite academic and not completely clear--the kind of statement that had he made it in front of a class, some kid in the back row would have raised his/her hand and asked, "Say what?"  Here is what Saunders says, without providing any explanation to the kid in the back row, i.e. me:
"I've sometimes thought that what a story seeks to do is destabilize itself--disallow a too-easy reading of its internal moral dynamics."
Always an academic myself, I like that statement, for it rings true to my own experience with good short stories—stories that refuse to allow the reader to make an "easy" judgment about what inner demons motivate a character, for example, that Melville's Bartleby "prefers not to" because he is lazy, or crazy, or represents Marx's downtrodden worker, etc.
In the Treisman interview, Saunders says that although he knows that his stories are going to be "about" something,  if he starts out with that sort of intention the story never proves interesting. And by "interesting" I think he means "interesting," as opposed to being simple, to him.  Instead, he says, as he concentrates on the technical aspects of a story, a certain set of meanings begins to come forward. And by "technical aspects," I think he means all those decisions or intuitions a writer has about "how" to structure the story, how to give it a certain syntactical rhythm or voice, what language to use, etc.
Saunders says he tries to be only "dimly aware" of those meanings, lest the story gets reduced to those meanings. By "dimly aware," I think he means what all authors, at least all good short story writers, know--that meaning emerges from those very technical decisions/intuitions the author makes as he is in the "process" of writing the story. It is only when the story is done, Saunders says, that he finds he can really think about what themes it might embody, for then "weirdly, the "thematic stuff seems to have taken care of itself.  The story is about something…but hopefully more than I planned or could see at the outset."  I like the humility of the word "weirdly" here, for it suggests that "ah ha" experience authors have when they "read" their own work not as a writer but as a reader and see how the language has worked a kind of magic of coming together to "mean" something.
Robert Boswell talks about this "dimly aware" idea at some length in his book on writing fiction, the Half-Known World. Boswell says:
I have grown to understand narrative as a form of contemplation, a complex and seemingly incongruous way of thinking.  I come to know my stories by writing my way into them…. For as long as I can, I remain purposefully blind to the machinery of the story and only partially cognizant of the world the story creates.  I work from a kind of half-knowledge."
To do this, Boswell says, the writer must suggest a dimension to the fictional reality that escapes comprehension." Flannery O'Connor talks a great deal about this sense of "mystery" in the essays in her collection Mystery and Manners.
Saunders says he thinks stories "give pleasure more in the how they say than…what they are saying."  But it is the "how" that "Mother's Day" says what it says that has been causing some readers problems, for example om the bog The Mookse and the Gripes. Trevor Berrett, who operates the blog, says he is glad to see a new story by Saunders, but after reading only the first third had to lay it down in frustration, for he says he "didn't know what to make of" what he was reading. Another reader at Mookse and Gripes  thought the story was "terrible," that he/she was not sure what to make of what Saunders hoped to accomplish with those "ghoulish harridans" or what point he was trying to make.
Another reader found the story "a bit simple and didactic"; however, suggesting that the story was "about" parents who have kids that are their "worldview-ic opposites" may reflect it is the reading that is too simplistic, not the story. Someone named Joe says the story is full of lazy observations, nonsensical digressions, POV shifts.  "I mean this really was a total stinker and a slog and an absolute unmitigated disaster on so many levels, concluding, "Wowzers. I'm stunned."  Someone else named JohnnyHenry agrees with Joe, saying the story took too much of an effort to follow, for it has too much unnecessary shifting within the narrative even on the sentence level.
However, the confusion is not really there if you listen to Saunders read the story.  The rhythm of the voices is quite distinct and clear. These objections on Mookse and the Gripes are like those my students used to make about James Joyce's Ulysses, when I tried to teach them to read the book. However, when I got students to practice reading a page or two of the book aloud, they understood Joyce's purposeful prose without any problem. Some stories you have to make your lips move when you read them. And the fact that Saunders sets up the inner voice of Alma and Debi in the third person is a technique that may be quite necessary to discover the basic theme of the story.
The "how" of "Mother's Day" centers on Saunders' first setting up that cranky old woman Alma, full of phlegm and fierceness, and then juxtaposing against her the voice of Debi, that infuriating self-congratulator who is somehow responsible for Alma's present state. Saunders believes the basic theme of "Mother's Day" is that "in this life, we do get hit with things that deform us, and we sometimes can't simply will ourselves out of that state of deformity." But this is something he discovered as he engaged in the process of writing the story, not something he set out to "prove" from the beginning.
Much of the meaning of "Mother's Day" depends on the unlikability of Alma. And coincidentally, unlikability of fictional characters was recently discussed by Heidi Pitlor in the Foreword to Best American Short Stories: 2015, about which I blogged last month. Pitlor quotes Claire Messud's often repeated tirade response to a Publisher's Weekly interviewer who said she would not like to be friends with the protagonist of Claire Messud's novel The Woman Upstairs, adding "would you?" To which Messud replied with some vigor:
For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”
However, Messud does not deal with the related problem of unlikability: if a character is  reprehensible, how can the reader identify with that character sufficiently even to read the story? And if the reader cannot identify with the character, how can he or she make a moral judgment on the character's behavior? Donald Antrim, whom Pitlor also quotes (from a symposium on the subject of character unlikability by The New Yorker) may provide the beginnings of an answer to this question:
When we accept the suspension of disbelief, we agree to a logic—the story’s premise and its extension as, and eventually into, a created world; and we need empathy to make our experience in the reading. But empathy is not appreciation, infatuation, or the feeling that an author and her characters are decent people. 
Empathy with fictional characters has been the subject of quite a bit of critical discussion in recent years, as discourse researchers and theorists study what has been called Theory of Mind, that, is, the human ability to empathize with someone else, and how reading fiction can increase this ability. I have written about this in previous blogs, which you can also search, if you are of a mind.  Most recently, researchers are trying to determine if there is something about so-called "literary" works that stimulate Theory of Mind more than popular narrative texts. In short, researchers are trying to discover if Saunders is right when he, like many other writers, suggests that stories may be more important in "how" they say what they say than in "what" they say.
One of the best discussions I have ever read on this problem of sympathy and judgment of unlikable characters is in a book on the dramatic monologue entitled The Poetry of Experience, by Robert Langbaum.  Using Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" as an example, Langbaum says the poem "carries to the limit an effect peculiarly the genius of the dramatic monologue—I mean the effect created by the tension between sympathy and moral judgment…most successful dramatic monologues deal with speakers who are in some way reprehensible."  Langbaum says the dramatic monologue requires sympathy for the speaker as a condition of reading it, concluding: "Sympathy adapts the dramatic monologue for making the 'impossible' case and for dealing with the forbidden region of the emotions, because we must suspend moral judgment, we must sympathize in order to read the poem."
Please forgive the following brief summary of the different sections of the story, as I try to make sense of Saunder's technique of using a third person/first person perspective  and how this shifting pov relates to the problem of sympathizing with an unlikable character.
Part I: Told from the third person perspective of an older woman named Alma, whose daughter Pammy has taken her to lunch for Mother's Day. We learn that Alma's son Paulie has flown in to visit, but has slept late.  He doesn't appear in the story. The Alma perspective recalls the childhood of Pammy and Paulie, who, she thinks, have not turned out well; they have poor jobs and have never married, but she insists it is not her fault.
Alma recalls having sex with her husband Paul, Sr.  when they were young and having that sexuality curtailed by the birth of the children, who cried and complained and pooped at idiotic random times and would step on glass and wake from their naps. She justifies her feelings by saying the craziness of her and Paul's sex life was all part of their grand love. She recalls playing mean tricks on the children, punishing them, and now thinks how stupid Pammy is for taking out on this walk. Then she sees Debi Hather sweeping in front of her small house.
Part II: The story shifts to the pov of Debi, who sees Alma and wonders when such a mean old woman will die. Debi recalls all the men she has had sex with, but has no regrets; she thinks she has "really lived," for she feels she has always accepted people the way they were.  She also recalls her daughter Vicky, who had been a bookworm, a subservient, insecure, uptight girl; Debi feels she had got stuck with the wrong kid. She recalls Vicky running off in her senior year with  two boys, who left her in Phoenix for being a bitch. Debi is proud of her daughter for being independent. 
Debi watches Alma and asks why she was always so mean and why she squandered her "precious life force," trying to control everyone. She has a fantasy about she and Alma being in heaven and Alma finally seeing that she has always lived in a state of self-imposed blindness. She recalls the times that she had sex with Alma's husband Paul, and she recalls how she had loved who she was at that time because she was authentic and spontaneous.  She also feels it was unfair that although she had loved Paul and he had loved her, she had never got to live with him. Ultimately, Debi feels that she is happy now and that she was happy then with Paul; she only regrets that he died and left her.
Part III: Back to Alma's pov again, but the focus now is primarily on a hail storm that hits them, injuring Pammy and causing her collapse.
Part IV: Back to Debi, who offers Alma and Pammy an umbrella, which Alma refuses.
Part V: Back to Alma, who has collapsed and feels a tightness in her chest. She has hallucinations of little beings which condense into a boy and a girl baby. The rest of the story becomes an hallucinatory confrontation with the baby figures who Alma tries to hold on to, but her hands are burning. A stump appears, and she sits on it, feeling that all this seems to mean she has been wrong about who to blame for her anger, but thinking if she was wrong about who was to blame, then "there was no right." She fakes admitting she was wrong, and the stump rises, after which hyena-like creatures scramble toward her across a wide plain. Fearing for the babies, she tries to grab them, but her burning hands sear their arms.  As long as she blames Paul for all her unhappiness, her arms get hotter and hotter.
She thinks she does not want to be angry, that she wants to be her young non-mad self, but realizes that would not do, because she would still be Alma who would meet Paul, who would always be Paul.  Her arms and hands become cool only when she realizes it would all be fixed only when she stopped being Alma.  This is when the baby girl whispers in her ear, "Who do you want to be?" But on the verge of death, Alma cannot answer that. She only knows she must no longer be Alma. As she cries, "this cannot possibly…" and dies, the story ends with an abrupt shift to a paramedic who says, "Nobody even close to home in there." The other medic thinks this is rude, but realizes it is fine, for the daughter is out of earshot, "sobbing against a tree."
The end of the story is very much like the famous ending of Flannery O'Connor's story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find," when the grandmother, who is also unlikable because she wants everything her own way and has inadvertently caused the death of her son, his wife, and their two children. After the Misfit shoots the grandmother three times in the chest when she reaches out for him, saying "You're one of my own children," he says, "She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." Indeed, Alma would have been a good woman if she could have been another woman—something she realizes only on the verge of death.
So, what is the story about?  What meaning does Saunders arrive at in the process of creating this particular story?
First of all, we need to think of the significance of "Mother's Day," a particularly twentieth-century creation meant to honor mothers.  It is often said it is the day of the year with the highest telephone traffic, as everyone calls their mother on that day.  It is synonymous with what is good and nurturing and unquestionably wholesome and desirable, even though history is full of "Mommie Dearest" type bad mothers.
In this story, we have two mothers—Alma and Debi—neither of whom are good mothers. Both neglect their children primarily to focus on self-satisfying sex, which children obviously just get in the way of. Most people have no sympathy with abusive mothers, neglectful mothers, selfish mothers, bad mothers.  Consequently, the challenge of Saunders' story is how to make the reader sympathize with the two mothers at least to the extent that the reader can read the story before being able to make a moral judgment on the mothers.
There are two reasons that some readers may have trouble with this story: one is the sympathy/judgment issue about the two mothers who are bad mothers, and the other is the mixed point of view in which we hear the voices of the women at the same time that we hear the voice of a third person narrator—a  mixed pov necessary to provide the tension between sympathy and judgment. So the problem the story raises is how to empathize with two unlikable characters and how to maneuver ourselves through a story in which both sympathy and judgment are continually juxtaposed.