Junot Díaz was born in 1968 in the Dominican Republic and raised
in New Jersey. He is the author of Drown and The Brief Wondrous
Life of Oscar Wao, which won the John Sargent, Sr., First Novel Prize;
the National Book Critics Circle Award; the Anisfield-Wolf Book
Award; and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. Díaz has been awarded the
Eugene McDermott Award, a fellowship from the Guggenheim
Foundation, a Lila Acheson Wallace Reader's Digest Award, the 2002
PEN/Malamud Award, the 2003 U.S./Japan Creative Artist Fellowship
from the National Endowment for the Arts, a fellowship at the
Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and
the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He
is the fiction editor at the Boston Review and the Rudge (1948), and
Nancy Allen Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Junot Díaz on "A Spoiled Man" by Daniyal Mueenuddin
What a superb story. What a gift.
I cannot stress enough what a marvel this story is. From the title
onward the author displays a courteous offhand ferocity unlike any
I've ever encountered. The writing is clear, kind, disarming. The
rhythms are classic, Chekhovian. But what awaits is the reason I got
into this art game in the first place.
Enter Rezak, an old, lonely man on the edge of Islamabad, on the
edge of summer-home privilege, on the edge of, basically, everything,
trying to make himself "useful" as the string runs out on the last days
of his life. The writer puts my man in a box, in a literal box, and so
with understated self-conscious panache we get, "Opening the heavy
padlock, he lifted the door hatch and climbed in. . . . Tiny red lights,
run off an electrical connection drawn from the poultry sheds, were
strung all over the ceiling and warmed the chamber. He could sit but
not stand inside, and had covered the floor with a cotton mattress,
which gave off a ripe animal odor, deeply comforting to him."
Here is marginalized third-world living in a single devastating half
sentence: "He could sit but not stand."
And not far from where Rezak's box squats stands the Harounis'
weekend digs. Home to Harouni—American-educated Pakistani
who has come into money and is probably making some of his own
now—and his game American wife.
From this primal situation you could spin a million tales, but
Daniyal Mueenuddin spins what I would argue is the best one. So
casually terrifying and so irrefutably true I finished "A Spoiled Man"
with my heart blown out.
I've always thought that it is the curse-lure of short stories that
they can be perfect and the curse-lure of novels that they cannot.
Here in my mind is a story that nears perfection. In a matter of pages,
Daniyal Mueenuddin not only charts the downfall of one humble
man's heart; he also draws back the gnostic veil that often obscures
the truth about our world: that it is in fact multiple worlds existing in
one another's midst. Daniyal Mueenuddin does so with such economy
and so patent a lack of fanfare you wouldn't be blamed for
thinking it an accident.
For in part this is what this sublime story is kinda-sorta about:
worlds. The fact that we, all of us, live in a terrible concatenation of
often mutually exclusive but nevertheless articulated worlds. Often
ignorant of one another, governed by a cruel economy that dictates
who gets seen, who remains unseen, who can remain ignorant of the
other worlds, who cannot and who can be devoured by the world
above, despite all intentions, with nary a good-bye. Strategically,
Daniyal Mueenuddin allows us to inhabit all the various characters in
the drama, from upright Rezak to Sonya, the American wife, and
reminds us, with one shocking reversal, that it is the very way this
ecology of worlds is structured that makes the kind of fall that Rezak
suffers not only probable, but inevitable.
I'm putting this all in head terms, not doing a good job describing
this story's power, its nuance, its sudden dark turn. How could I?
Cetaceans, I read recently, have muscles that allow them to shape
the lenses of their eyes so they can see equally well above water as
below. They can, in other words, see in two worlds. We humans are
not so biologically fortunate. It is only art that can shape our eyes to
see all our various worlds, only art that reminds us at times gently, at
times forcefully, of what we are and what we've let ourselves become.
Stories like "A Spoiled Man" are the subtle knife that cuts open the
membranes that hold the worlds apart and allows us not only to see
into our other worlds but for a moment to reside there as well. What
more could we ask from art? From a short story? From a writer?
Paula Fox was born in 1923 and has been writing since she was in her
early twenties. Since her first novel, Poor George (1967), and first
book for children, Maurice's Room (1966), she's published books for
young people, as well as novels, such as Desperate Characters and The
Widow's Children, and short stories for which she's twice been
awarded an O. Henry Prize (2005 and 2006). Her memoirs are Borrowed
Finery and The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe.
Fox lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Paula Fox on "Oh, Death" by James Lasdun
Short stories bring readers news of people, places, the often inexplicable
vagaries of life, the search for meaning or the threat of meaninglessness, crises and events characters themselves find incomprehensible.
My reading of the stories in The PEN/O. Henry Prize
Stories 2010 took me to places I'd never been, Nigeria, Malaysia, Pakistan, a Greek prison island, a South American city, and areas of the
United States of which I have scant knowledge.
How does one determine the "best" stories? All are human efforts
to grasp the truths of experience, of life. Even when stories fail, all of
them convey the mystery that lies at the center of human existence.
Chekhov and Flannery O'Connor were artists, one great, the other
very good. When I read their stories, I am sometimes puzzled about
which writer I would apply the word great to.
Storytelling, as far as is known, began millennia ago—a tribe
gathered around a fire in the night, a storyteller standing before it,
telling a tale that would illuminate and teach.
Of course, there is the entertainment of storytelling, the charm,
the knowledge, the comedy. And perhaps as significant, a temporary
vacation from the reader's own troubles. Reading these stories made
me feel more hopeful about this world, reminding me that there's far
more variation in life than I ever imagined!
All the stories I read in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2010 said
something of value about the way we live, often showed the frequent
cruelty or indifference with which we treat others in the same boat—lifeboat!
Some of the stories in the present collection had outstanding characters
but barely a story, others were reports of events, interesting
enough but rather like reading newspaper reports. I chose the following
seven for their fulfilling aspects of good writing: "Oh, Death" by
James Lasdun, "Into the Gorge" by Ron Rash, "Sheep May Safely
Graze" by Jess Row, "The Bridge" by Daniel Alarcón, "Them Old
Cowboy Songs" by Annie Proulx, "Visitation" by Brad Watson, and
"Some Women" by Alice Munro. I also recommend "The Headstrong
Historian" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "A Spoiled Man"
by Daniyal Mueenuddin, and "Birch Memorial" by Preeta Samarasan.
Of all these, my favorite was "Oh, Death" by James Lasdun.
Told by a compassionate narrator, "Oh, Death" is the story of
Rick, a man easily aroused to anger. The writing is supple and subtle.
This reader had the sense of a voice speaking simply but eloquently
of events filled with dramatic tensions, yet the reader did not have to
make that partially conscious adjustment between print and inner
comprehension. This is the one story, I found, that has the Chekhovian quality of being a human voice, not words on a page—not
always a virtue in writing but essential to the quality of "Oh, Death."
Yiyun Li was born in Beijing in 1972, and came to the United States
in 1996. Her stories and essays have been published in The New
Yorker, Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships and awards from the Lannan
Foundation and the Whiting Foundation. Her debut collection,
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won the Frank O'Connor International
Short Story Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, Guardian First
Book Award, and California Book Award for first fiction; it was also
short-listed for the Kiriyama Prize and the Orange Prize for New
Writers. In 2007, she was selected by Granta as one of the 21 Best
Young American Novelists under 35. Her latest book is a novel, The
Vagrants. She teaches at University of California, Davis, and lives in
Yiyun Li on "The Woman of the House" by William Trevor
A while ago I reread A Farewell to Arms, and reencountered a line that
greatly impressed me when I first read the novel at nineteen: "The
world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken
places. But those that will not break it kills." Though what resonated
more in the rereading, which had eluded me when I was younger, was
a character's observation of small people who did not occupy the
main stage in Hemingway's books. "That is why the peasant has wisdom,"
said the character, "because he is defeated from the start."
I enjoyed reading the stories in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories
2010. Many of the characters' struggles against what has come to
break them—nature, history, love, hope, kinship, loneliness—stayed
with me. A few stories kept me awake at night, but, as a longtime
admirer of William Trevor's work, I was pleased to discover that "The
Woman of the House" was one of his.
Like many of Trevor's stories, "The Woman of the House"
explores the subdued and sometimes neglected dramas in the lives of
those characters who have not much to start with nor much to end
up with. The roaming brothers—called Gypsies though they were
not—harbored the hope "that there might somewhere be a life that
was more than they yet knew" yet "their immediate purpose" was
about survival. The crippled man, unable to go outdoors for years,
wanted two fresh coats of paint for his house, which he would not see
with his eyes. Martina, the crippled man's cousin and lodging with
him as a caretaker by arrangement, "had once known what she
wanted, but she wasn't so sure about that anymore." Silence prevailed
in the story: the brothers chose not to understand English when it
was convenient, and between themselves they communicated more
with their eyes than with language; Martina, listening to old-time
music played on the wireless, was told that the music was terrible by
the crippled man, yet she chose not to comment on that. "The
ancient Dodge was part of Martina's circumstances, to be tolerated
because it was necessary"—and indeed other things were tolerated by
her, too, out of necessity: the probing hands of the local grocer which
had in time become a memory; the small cash stowed away more for
the joy of a secret than any solid hope it provided; the repeated
queries of the crippled man on the origin of her name, the cruelty
unsaid yet felt; the rain that drenched her dress and ran down
between her breasts, cold as death itself.
Death, in the end, remained unexplained—the brothers suspected
that Martina had killed the crippled man&mash;because it was hardly a
drama worth dwelling upon, either by them or by the world. "The
woman's history was not theirs to know, even though they now were
part of it themselves. Their circumstances made them that, as hers
made her what she'd become." When the brothers roamed on in their
journey, and the woman lived on among still lifes in the house, what
was felt by the readers, and would continue being felt by them, was
the weight of time.