A. S. Byatt was born in 1936 in Sheffield, England. Her novels
include the Booker Prizewinning Possession, The Biographer's Tale,
and the quartet The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower, and
A Whistling Woman. Byatt's story collections include Sugar and Other
Stories, The Matisse Stories, The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye, Elementals,
and Little Black Book of Stories. A. S. Byatt was appointed
CBE in 1990 and DBE in 1999. She lives in London.
A.S. Byatt on "An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen" by Graham Joyce
When I was young, we were told that a good short story conveyed a
single impression, or a concentrated actionits essence was condensation
and singleness. Stories I like don't necessarily conform to this
modelthey change direction, they surprise, they tell tales. It is true
that in a short story every word must countas it must in a poem. A
novelist can get away with clumsy, or heavy, or skating passages,
whereas a short story must make every word work, and each hold
together with the others.
I enjoyed reading this selection of stories and almost didn't want
to single out a favorite. I reread them after some time, paying particular
attention to those that had persisted in my memory. I admired
the ferocious energy of "Wildwood" and the complex shifts of feeling
and information in "Purple Bamboo Park"those two are still complete
inside my head. But the story that haunted me, whose rhythms
run in my mind, is "An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen."
This is the tale of an ordinary soldiera decent man, a responsible
man, a professional man, who looks after his men and understands
his work. It is told in a completely convincing first person,
which begins at ease in a known worldcombat in the Falklands, in
Northern Ireland, in Bosnia. The main action takes place in the
desert in the first Gulf War. The British infantry is mopping upthe
narrator tells his men to respect "the enemy" and not to sneeringly
call them "ragheads." They come across strangely shrunk bodies in
strangely spread mansize shadows. There is a dust storm, maybe the
result of aircraft and vehicle action, maybe natural"a dark thing,
like a live creature, part smoke, part sand."
The tale moves into another kind of tale, always keeping the reasonable
rhythm of the narrator's voice. He gets separated from his
men. He hears a click, and realizes he is standing on an unexploded
mine. He is visited by a butterflyor maybe notand an Arab in a
redandwhite shemagh who has one blue eye and one horribly
stitched up. He stands for hours on the mine, avoiding detonating it,
and converses with the Arab.
The very practical, precise military tale becomes uncanny. The
Arab is clearly a djinn or afreet. He has a courteous sardonic voice
that the narratoralways straight with himself and the world
faithfully records. The narrator says his interlocutor would have to
be a genie to help him. The Arab tells the narrator, "If I am a djinn I
can summon up a wind. But if I help you, you will never be rid
The narrator is blasted off his mine by friendly fire, and is found
with the red-and-white cloth on his head.
Things do not go well for him thereafter.
The thing I admire most about this tale is the pace, the rhythm, the
economy of incident and the accuracy of the words. Each sentence
adds something to the world being described. It looks simple and
easy, and is in fact controlled and crafted.
I think the greatest English shortstory writer is Kipling, and this
story has things in common with one of histhe ability to mix genres
seamlessly, the familiarity with both the daily and the strange. It
is about events in the world of action and politics. There is a brief
but tellingpassing mention of depleted uranium in among the
shrunken corpses and strange atmosphere in the desert, but it is
not dwelled on. The fate of the exsoldier in the last sectionslightly
out of his mind, working in "security," insecure, briefly in prison,
disintegratingis true to many lives of excombatants, and has a perfectly
downtoearth explanation. But the djinn or afreet is real, too.
The phrase "friendly fire" is a compressed figure of speechthe
djinns were made by God from smokeless fire when he made the
world. Friendly fire blasts the narrator off the mine. The supernatural
story is indivisible from the realist one. The colloquial dialogue and
commentary can contain intensely, sharply poetic passages, which are
still part of the plain, believable voice that talks to us. And tries to
retain its dignity and goes mad.
Anthony Doerr is the author of a story collection, The Shell Collector,
a novel, About Grace, and a memoir, Four Seasons in Rome. His work
has won the Rome Prize, Barnes & Noble's Discover Prize, the New
York Public Library's Young Lions Award, and inclusion in three previous
O. Henry Prize Stories. In 2007, Granta put Doerr on its list of
Best Young American Novelists. He lives in Boise, Idaho.
Anthony Doerr on "Wildwood" by Junot Díaz
It was the burning wig. The wig stayed with me all night and into the
next day, like one of those afterimages flashburned into the retinas,
the lights we see even after our eyes are closed. "It went up in a flash,"
Lola writes, "like gasoline, like a stupid hope, and if I hadn't thrown
it in the sink it would have taken my hand."
Isn't that sentence a précis of Lola's entire struggle? The desperate
prospect of her insurgency against the thermonuclear dominion of
In that moment the combustible space between Lola and Belicia,
between obedience and rebellion, between wig and burner, between
(as Lola's abuela would say) the egg and the rock, ignites, and the
story catches fire.
"People saw me in my glasses and my handmedown clothes,"
writes Lola, "and could not have imagined what I was capable of."
"You think you're someone," says her mother, "but you ain't
A dark, flummoxed, and deeply human heart beats beneath every
sentence of "Wildwood." Its first sentence is a proclamation, almost
a thesis statement. It then delivers its first fourteen paragraphs in second
person and present tense, even though the rest of the story is in
first person and past tense. It also wanders in time; shoehorns scenes
into summary; dispenses with quotation marks; drizzles Spanish
onto its English; strives toward a nearly unbelievable transformation
(Lola runs the four hundred meters, Lola finally understands her
mother); and the precipitating moment of the plot"I ran off,
dique, because of a boy"does not occur until the reader is many
These are all formal risks, all chances the author has taken willfully
and carefully, and these are all decisions that, had I been writing
this story, I would have screwed up. And yet don't the risks of the
story feel natural, inherent, and intrinsic? Don't they involve you
more deeply in the charged intensity of Lola's voice?
I believe a good story writer is a generous story writer, generous in
a sort of maniacal, foaming-at-the-mouth, Dr. Frankenstein way. A
good story writer expends more than is expectedmore than, perhaps,
seems possible. She pours the full force of her intellect and
energy into every paragraph, every dead end, every false start. And I
believe the magic of a good short story comes from the compression
of so many days of thoughta thousand afternoons of its writer
thinking on things, wrestling with problems, noticing how light falls
through leaves, or how a man wipes his glasses with a thumb and
forefingercompressing all those tens of thousands of hours into a
space that can be experienced by a reader in an hour or so.
If it works, a good short story can show us something thorny and
sublime and fabulously complex beneath the text, something trembling
behind the little black symbols on the white page, some truth
we can only feebly grasp, as if we are peering up at stars through thin
Writing stories is not, despite appearances, about spending lots of
time with oneself. It's about learning to be able to look beyond the
self, beyond the ego, to enter other lives and other worlds. It's about
honing one's sense of empathy so that a story might bridge the gap
between the personal and the communal.
Doing this well has to do with generosity, I'm certain of it. And
"Wildwood," which is about Lola and Belicia first and foremost, and
then and only then about sexual and psychological abuse, racism,
misunderstanding, adolescent rage, and wig-burning, is a wildly generous
Here's Lola: "It's about that crazy feeling that started this whole
mess, the bruja feeling that comes singing out of my bones, that takes
hold of me the way blood seizes cotton."
Here's Mary Shelley: "It was already one in the morning; the rain
pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt
out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the
dull yellow eye of the creature open."
Story writers don't fumble through so many lonely hours for
money or glory. They write for love, to figure things out, to practice
going after the truth, to investigate hurt, guilt, complexity. They do
it to bring people like Lola to life.
You put in a thousand hours, you whittle away at a pillar of clay,
and some rainy, electric midnight, when your candle is nearly burnt
out, its eyes open.
Tim O'Brien was born in Minnesota in 1946. His books include If I
Die in the Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home; Going after
Cacciato, which won the National Book Award; The Things They
Carried; In the Lake of the Wood; and July, July. O'Brien's short stories
have appeared in Esquire, Harper's Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly,
Playboy, Granta, GQ, The New Yorker, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and
The Best American Short Stories of the Century. The Guggenheim
Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts have awarded
fellowships to O'Brien. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Tim O'Brien on "An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen" by Graham Joyce
"An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen" is a superb ghost story. It's also a
survival story, a horror story, a bitterness story, a demon story, a class
story, a trauma story, a miracle story, a tailspin story, and...yes, to
be sure, a very wonderful story about war, though in exactly the same
way and to exactly the same extent that "Bartleby" is a wonderful
story about office life.
There is so much to admire, and so much to love, about "An Ordinary
Soldier of the Queen" that I'm daunted by the task of doing justice
to this beautifully shaped, immaculately pitched, and scarily
convincingas nightmares are convincingshort story. In the
opening pages, we are carried along by the jaunty, no-nonsense voice
of Seamus Todd, a worldly-wise color sergeant in the British infantry
during the opening stages of the Gulf War. The voice alone is a literary
accomplishment: tough, cynical, funny, wise, wiseass, courageous,
down-to-earth, and rich with the lingo and flatly nuanced
diction of a seasoned combat veteran. The first paragraph sets the
tone: "I'm going to ask the Queen. IÕm going to tell her what I know
and ask her what is true, and if she winks at me, well, there will be
trouble. This is me, Seamus Todd, born in 1955, ordinary soldier of
the Queen and very little else, and this is my testament, which is honest,
true, and factual. If I haven't seen it with my own eyes, then I
have left it out."
In this cunning vein, Graham Joyce leads us to expect a realistic,
even conventional tale about the terrors of modern desert combat
an account that is "honest, true, and factual." Twice in the first five
paragraphs, Joyce reinforces our expectations by deftly injecting his
prose with the numbing word "normal." For example: "War is normal.
That's why it's a paid job.... You don't argue with the Queen.
You form up. Move out. Press on." The events Seamus Todd sets out
to recount, however, are anything but realistic or conventional, and
his war experience is anything but normal. As a storytelling device, it
is precisely the narrator's voiceso matter-of-fact, so wholly military,
so ordinarythat gives heft and poignancy to an astonishing, even
magical turn of events midway into the tale.
In the midst of battle, isolated from his comrades by a sandstorm,
Seamus Todd steps on a pressure-release land mine. If he lifts his foot,
he dies. As Seamus considers his predicament, in what is already a
suspenseful scene, a "ghost" suddenly makes its appearance, smack in
the vast Iraqi desert, a ghost both as real and as unreal as the land
mine beneath the trembling foot of Seamus Todd.
Certain ontological questions arise, worthy of a color sergeant or
a Queen: What exactly, or even inexactly, is a ghost? Is this one real?
Can a ghost be unreal? (If so, what kind of pitiful ghost is that?) Oh,
and how do you know when you're dead, or if you're dead, or if, years
later, you're in fact still out there in the desert with your foot on an
armed land mine? For that matter, how do you know it is years later?
Minds malfunction, don't they? Clocks too? Is it all the hallucination
of a corpse? (The surname Todd, remember, is only a consonant away
from the German word Tod: death.) And what if the ghost, dressed as
an Arab, offers to extract Seamus from this terrible mess, but with the
proviso that "you will never be rid of me"? Is the offer credible? Is
anything credible amid the upside-down, inside-out horrors of war?
Is everything credible?
These are not the sort of questions we would have expected from
Seamus Todd, which makes them all the more profound and all the
more moving. In any case, let's hope the Queen has answers, because
Color Sergeant Seamus Todd is not the type to put up with regal (or
presidential) waffling. He wants the fucking truth.
Reading "An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen," I'm reminded that
a good many fine war stories reach into the world of magic and
ghosts and gods and angels and avatars and the awakened dead. Start
with The Iliad. Move on to Ambrose Bierce's "Chickamauga," or to
Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, or to Mark Twain's "The War
Prayer," or to Ian McEwan's recent Atonement. To some temperaments,
my own included, the systematic, sanctioned butchery of war
does not always feel "real," and at times a so-called realistic story can
seem to violate, or even demean, the essential unrealistic reality of the
experience. Plenty of soldiers will testify that wars do not end with
the signing of a peace treaty, that memory haunts just as a ghost
might, and that in the middle of the night, decades after hostilities
have ceased, a voice will murmur, "You will never be rid of me."