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Prize Jury 2003
  • David Guterson
  • Diane Johnson
  • Jennifer Egan

  • Read about other jurors and their selected favorites.


    David Guterson

    David Guterson is the author of the novels Snow Falling on Cedars, East of the Mountains, and the newly published Our Lady of the Forest (Knopf, Hardcover, September 2003), as well as a story collection The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind. He also wrote Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense. He lives on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound.

    Juror Favorite:
    David Guterson on "Train Dreams" by Denis Johnson

    "The entire history of the short story," writes Daniel Halpern, "is passed down, generation after generation, like a relay runner's baton, and the art of the story continues."

    It has been 170 years since Poe's "MS. Found in a Bottle," and the baton has gotten heavy indeed. The contemporary writer of ambitious short stories has emerged from under Gogol's "Overcoat" to find Calvino, Borges, Barthelme, Kawabata, Kafka, Oates, and George Saunders. It's a load to carry, with much to sort, and no prevailing certainties. Add to this the imperatives of the moment (not to mention the myths and tales preceding Poe by centuries), and a writer might well be brought to his knees by the weight of too much history.

    Denis Johnson's "Train Dreams" is a sweeping tall tale, an homage to Bret Harte, a work of North American magical realism, a yarn of the supernatural variety, and finally the biography of a widower and hermit, Robert Grainier, who weeps in church, fears his dreams, and dies in 1968 without having used a telephone. Is it a short story? That's difficult to say. Perhaps there's no longer such a category.

    Where everything is reduced to a "general death" by the fire that took his wife and only lover, Granier finds his woodstove "lying on its side with its legs curled up under it like a beetle's." He imagines that at the fire's inception "a magazine curled, darkened, and flamed, spiraled upward and flew away page by page, burning and circling." Such attentiveness to detail gives this story credence, but its greater power lies in its visitations, its haunted moments of sadness and yearning in which the world appears otherworldly and aggrieved even while infused with comedy.

    I admire this story for its celebratory quality, its skillful blending of forms and traditions, its consistently exquisite use of the English language, and in the end for its emotional appeal. I carried it afterward into my dreams: on the night following my second reading, a lynx or bobcat visited me, having crossed over from Denis Johnson's "Train Dreams."


    Diane Johnson

    Diane Johnson is the author of, most recently, Le Mariage and Le Divorce. She wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," and the biography Dashiell Hammett, A Life. Her criticism appears often in the New York Review of Books. She divides her time between Paris and San Francisco.

    Juror Favorite:
    Diane Johnson on "The Thing in the Forest" by A. S. Byatt

    Though it was hard, I've decided I liked the first story the best: "The Thing in the Forest." In some ways it is the most old-fashioned of the stories, with its circular ending and classical ingredients of ghost story. Or is it a ghost story? Was it maybe a real Loathly Worm they saw? The delicate handling of the supernatural along with the possible and the historical impressed me. The actual local tradition of the Loathly Worm gives us both a natural explanation and affirms the existence of the supernatural. The fate of little Alys is well handled—were those her tiny bones? Of course not, yet the writer so skillfully suggests that the awful creature consumed her. When Penny finds all the odd, repulsive things in the Thing's lair, all kinds of horrifying history is suggested, against the backdrop of the war and the frightening experience of dislocation and being in effect orphans.

    I so admired the treatment of Primrose and Penny, and of the way English social-class differences dictated the subsequent lives of the two little girls and prevented them from really bonding at the end. Each is so well drawn, each so unlike the other, yet both are sympathetic. The line about the worm's having done them both "no good," is chilling in its matter-of-fact way of suggesting lives blighted by what they saw, to say nothing of what was done to them by the whole experience of being evacuated in the war, for which the Thing is in some way a metaphor. The writer has a quiet and powerful way of describing unearthly sights that convinces the reader utterly, and makes the natural world, with its "sinister hoods of arum lilies," vividly present.


    Jennifer Egan

    Jennifer Egan is the author of the novels Look at Me and The Invisible Circus, and a story collection, Emerald City. Her short stories have been published in The New Yorker, Harper's, GQ, and Ploughshares, among other publications, and her nonfiction appears frequently in The New York Times Magazine. She lives with her husband and children in Brooklyn.

    Juror Favorite:
    Jennifer Egan on "Train Dreams" by Denis Johnson

    The nettlesome task of picking a favorite from among such a fine and disparate group of stories has had an unexpected payoff: it forced me to examine--and to some extent redefine--the qualities I value most in a piece of short fiction.

    In one sense, my reading priorities have been consistent since childhood: I want to be riveted by what I read, and I want to be moved by it. As I've gotten older, the sort of fiction that can produce these effects in me has shifted toward works whose language and construction feel unique. Yet in judging these stories, I had to put aside my usual criteria. "Train Dreams" was not the one that moved and compelled me the most, nor did it wow me instantly with its rhythms and structure. Its protagonist is opaque to the point of cipherdom, and its leisurely, episodic unfolding seems perversely old-fashioned against the sly compression of some other stories. But weeks after reading them, it's the one that continues to float into my thoughts with the persistence of a dream, or some troubling relic of my own experience. Why?

    First, there's the density of historical detail, the meticulous chronicling of logging and bridge building, flora and fauna of the American West, which make for an otherworldly atmospheric richness. But the story's real power lies in its mystery, its reluctance to reveal itself. What is this about? I kept asking myself as I read--A man's life? A supernatural transaction involving curses and wolves? The real answer is something much larger, I think, suggested only in the most glancing ways until the devastating last line: the cataclysmic changes wrought by the twentieth century, and the corollary disappearance of a certain kind of American life.

    There is a tendency in short fiction--I feel it when writing myself--to conclude and resolve. "Train Dreams" ignores that expectation and many others as well, offering in their place what I can only call a kind of strangeness. A mystery. For me, that proved more powerful than anything else in the collection, and more lasting.