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.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Part I: O. Henry Prize Stories: 2016

One of my reservations about the O. Henry Prize Stories is that the twenty stories published each year seem solely the choices of the series editor—since 2003, Laura Furman, a short story writer and novelist who is now professor emerita at the University of Texas at Austin.  That means for the past thirteen years, the "winners" reflect her taste and judgment and hers alone. Best American Short Stories series editor Heidi Pitlor, on the other hand, chooses 100 of what she considers the "best" stories and then turns them over to a different guest editor each year who selects his or her choice of the 20 "best." At least with BASS, there are two different judgement calls.
My other reservation is that somehow the O. Henry Prize franchise has managed to publicize the stories that are chosen for the volume as "winners" of a "prize." There is no actual prize, only, as in BASS, republication in the yearly volume. Before Furman became editor, three guest "jurors" chose three stories to appear in first, second, and third place "prize winners." No actual prize was given. Now the three jurors are simply asked to pick their favorite and write a short piece about it.  Still no prize.  But if you do a search of the universities where most of the "prize winners" teach creative writing, you will find a puff piece in their newsletter or alumni review touting one of their faculty as a "winner of the O. Henry Prize."
I have spent the last week and a half reading the twenty stories in this year's collection, and I have that vague feeling of disappointment I often have with the O. Henry Prize stories. Granted, this is a result of only a first reading, and I always read every story I discuss more than once.  But one of the things that bothers me is that most of the stories in this year's volume only need one reading, for they seem to lack the complexity that the" best" stories embody.  And the subtitle of The O. Henry Prize Stories is "The Best Stories of the Year.
The first thing that strikes me about this year's collection is the large number of stories that rest on a "gimmick," or are "one note" tour de force stories that depend primarily on the novelty of the writer's concept or the facility of the writer's prose. I think there is a lot of good writing in the O. Henry stories this year, but not a lot of "good" stories. I suspect there can be bad stories with good writing, but not good stories with bad writing.

Elizabeth Genovise, "Irises"
One of this year's jurors, Lionel Shriver, picked this story as her favorite. Shriver, born in North Carolina, lives mostly in England.  Her story "Kilifi Creek," was in last year's O. Henry Prize Stories; I thought it was too easy and "popular."  But then what do I know? The story won the 2014 BBC National Short Story Contest. Go figure! Furman calls "Irises" very much a "woman's story."
Shriver says that the premise of Genovise's story is not one that she would usually find appealing—that the narrator is an unborn fetus whose mother, Rosalie, is planning to abort her—too precious, too politically partisan, complains Shriver. I guess the fetus pov did not bother her quite so much. (Sidebar: I just read a review of Ian McEwan's new novel Nutshell in the Sunday Los Angeles Times. It appears the McEwan also uses the fetus as storyteller gimmick, in a novel that imagines the events leading up to Hamlet—set in modern London).
However, in spite of her reservations about the politically partisan predictability of the theme, Shriver thought the first sentence--at least the second half of the first sentence, "I am eight weeks in the womb and my life is forfeit"-- had an "artful elegance" that "efficiently" reflects how little the mother cherishes the pregnancy.
I agree with Shriver that the quality of Genovise's prose is high and the style is mostly "cut-glass clear." Shriver says the sentences that stand out as particularly fine do so "because they marry formal grace with trenchant content." Indeed, what more could you ask for in a short story—a style that seems intrinsically at one with the content.  As Shriver points out, the tension in "Irises" is a universal one—between a reputable repetitive life and a risky romantic life. 
Rosalie's husband has never known "immersion in an art, never taken the artist's gamble," while she, having been thrown out of her career as a ballet dancer, "like a vagrant from a freight train," longs for a return. When she discovers she is pregnant, she cannot imagine trading in "the weightless grace of a dancer's body for the anchored solidity of motherhood." When she meets and is drawn to the drifter pianist Joaquin, who shares her addiction to the possibility of loss, a paradox that keeps them both alive, she decides to get an abortion and go away with him.
A great deal of finely wrought language illuminates the story, that is, until Genovise must resort to plot to resolve the tension between the weightless danger of the world of art and the heavy solidity of security.  In an unlikely bit of plot maneuver, Genovise puts Joaquin in the Museum of Science and Industry where he sees an exhibit of the development of a fetus and decides not to meet Rosalie at the train station, so she goes back to her staid husband and foregoes the abortion.
The final plot problem is how to resolve the fetus pov gimmick, which Genovise manages by fast forwarding to the pov of the now adult woman-who-was-a-fetus as she tells her mother she is thinking of leaving her spineless husband and her bully of a son, who make it impossible for her to write the poems she wants to write. And so it goes. As Furman says, very much "a woman's story."

 Geetha Lyer, "The Mongerji Letters"
You can expect fantastic stories to involve some sort of gimmick—a fact that often, unfortunately relegates many such stories to the realm of the "merely generic." Geetha Alyer's story uses the gimmick of the epistolary structure—an old, time-worn technique, albeit here we only get one side of the letter-writing—never the other side, for the communications from the other side are not words, but rather actual creatures that have been discovered by geographic explorations.  We know we are in for this leap of fantasy when we read the first sentence of the second paragraph, referring to a polar bear the sender has stuck in the envelope. It is an amusing concept, and the reader goes from letter to letter, smiling at the description of each new creature that springs miraculously from the envelopes and takes on actual physical life. But the story seems just to depend on the cleverness of the trick, not on any significance of the trick.
Furman observes that fantastical stories are based on some level on familiar human life and then tries to make a case for the "relevance" of the trope of the creatures in the mail. She says the story's tension is between the timelessness of the strange events and "our overwhelming sense that we are watching a dying planet." I don't see that "message." Lyer says the story came from the tactile desire to hold the world in your hands. That makes sense in a metaphoric way, but not when you think about it for very long.

Joe Donnelly, "Bonus Baby"
Furman says this  baseball story is in the mythic tradition of Malamud's The Natural in which the baseball players are great warriors. I am not sure the story carries that much weight.  Instead, what the story depends on is the moment-to-moment experience of the pitcher on the mound and his sense of perceiving himself in a significant situation—confronting the "mystery of the pitch, the enigma of the game, the loneliness of the mound, "the maddening mystery of baseball." Donnelly says the story was inspired by his imagining what it would be like to be on that mound attempting to come to terms with the self and with the game. What makes the story work is the plot suspense of the pitcher's going for a perfect game. Furman says the reader is with the pitcher every inch of the way. Yes, I agree; it's an experience that Donnelly creates quite nicely, but not with the mythic aura or existential weight that he and Furman claim for the story.
As a sad side note, I just read that William P. Kinsella, who wrote Shoeless Joe, the novel that became the basis for the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams,” died in Canada, at age 81. He built a fantasy world of baseball, and for a time there, all of us came to enjoy it.

Sam Savage, "Cigarettes"
Furman says this story is more tender than we might expect for a "meditation on cigarettes." She says it is about choosing and loving. Nonsense!  This is a two-page riff on smoking and has no place in a book claiming to hold the "best stories of the year."  Even if I had not been a smoker for most of my adult life and could not imagine my life without a pack in my pocket, and even if cigarettes had not killed my father and his brother, I still cannot justify this bit of puff, pardon the pun, as being anything more than a little play with language, a sort of MFA workshop assignment.
Even the stories by the best-known and most accomplished writers in this collection seem more like tour de force exercises than like complex stories that spring from something pressing in the writer's imagination and explored with a sense of discovery.

Robert Coover, "The Crabapple Tree"
Furman  notes that this story reads more like a tale from Grimm than a chapter from Winesburg, Ohio. Of course it does, for, as Coover says in his brief comments in "The Writers on Their Work,"  he wrote it to set the Grimm brothers story "The Juniper Tree" on the American prairie. Retelling fairy tales is the way Coover made a place for himself in the so-called postmodern realm of metafiction in 1969 with his short story collection Pricksongs and Descants, featuring such fairytale retells as "The Magic Poker" and "The Gingerbread House." "The Juniper Tree" is a particularly gruesome Grim story, and Coover is obviously having a lot of fun  playing with it, as if to say, "Look, I can still do this, nothing up my sleeve, just the magic of the fairy tale."  By the way, this is the only story in this year's O. Henry Prize Stories from The New Yorker. Furman says the subtext of the story is the "power and anarchy of regret."  More fun than power, it seems to me.

Wendell Berry, "Dismemberment"
I hate to put Wendell Berry's piece in this category of tour de force exercises, for I love his writing for its clarity, its poetry, and its honesty.  But this is less a story than a redo of an old piece that Berry says first appeared in his novel Remembering—how Andy Catlett lost his right hand in a corn picker in 1974 and then, triumphed with a great deal of determination,  ingenuity, and the kind "by God, I can do this" grit that characterizes the Kentucky folks I grew up marveling at.  I love this piece, but it is less a good story than just damn good writing. In her obvious way, Furman notes the piece's "unity of language and thought" that characterizes all the best short stories.

Ron Carlson, "Happiness"
And I love this piece, but it is not a story, but rather a paean to a fishing trip, in which Carlson describes everything in loving detail—including a long list of food stuffs. Furman says that although happiness might inspire, it doesn't last--a truth she says that is not stated but "implied by the aesthetics of the story."  I am not sure how the "aesthetics"--which might be described as a lingering over everything that is pleasing and purely pleasure—suggests this. What implies that happiness does not last is that by its very nature the events described in the story are limited to a certain place and time. Carlson says he recalls the events in the story as giving him a feeling he identified as "happiness," and he wrote the story immediately, afterward wanting to stay close to each small event. It's a joy to read—good meticulous, loving writing, but not a story with any significance or exploration of human complexity.  I am surprised that since Furman called the first story in the collection "very much a woman's story," she did not call this one "very much a man's story."

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