||A. M. Homes
A. M. Homes was born in 1961 in Washington, D.C. She is a novelist, short-story writer, memoirist, journalist, and screenwriter. Her books include This Book Will Save Your Life (2006), and the story collections The Safety of Objects (1990) and Things You Should Know (2002). Homes has received fellowships from, among others, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library. She lives in New York City.
A. M. Homes on "Sunshine" by Lynn Freed
I read the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories while on a long train
ride and then reread them again on the way back. I then left them
in a suitcase for a week or two as if to "cure" or define themselves
further—which they did.
The short story has always seemed to me the perfect medium, the manageable masterpiece, its compact canvas sized for the reader in motion, perfect for when one finds oneself with a few moments to savor something rare and curiously other—and interestingly, I have always thought of the short story itself as a thing in motion.
When asked to describe the difference between a novel and a story, I often use the metaphor of a train; the novel is a crosscountry trip; one boards leisurely in Washington, D.C., prepared for the landscape to unfold as the train passes through Maryland, Ohio, Illinois, bound for Los Angeles's Union Station. The short story is like hopping onto that same train already in motion in
Chicago and riding it into Albuquerque with no time to waste. What makes a successful story is very different from what makes a successful novel—characters that are not sustainable for the duration of a novel, styles of telling, tones, narrative constructions that are perfect for a story but crumble or bore the reader if carried on for too long.
With this in mind, I noticed something about this year's selection of stories—many expressed an outsider's point of view, a discomfort, a sense of being between places, on the verge of being lost, and were rendered from the point of view of not belonging. I was struck by this sense of "otherness."
The urge to be seen, identified, known to others as one is known to oneself seems to be a fundamental human urge—as though it takes another to confirm our experience of ourselves—i.e., we don't exist in a vacuum.
And so it was that one of these wonderful stories had a strange effect on me; it seemed to escape the zippered suitcase and come calling, tapping me on the shoulder in the dead of night, demanding attention, as if to say, I'm not quite sure you understand—read it again. For this, among many other excellent qualities including being extremely challenging and persistently haunting,
I chose "Sunshine."
Initially one is deceived (or seduced) by the surface simplicity of "Sunshine," the way in which it "un-says" things. There is something unusual and exceptionally artful in the way the author manages the balance between what is said and what is left unsaid. Enormously complex information and emotion is invisibly conveyed; this works because what is being said carries the fullness
and weight of collective archetypical imagery, classical themes of mythological root, literary references, albeit barely spoken, and psychological theories—all adding up to the very essence of one's moral life and responsibility. And in some ways I wish I were kidding, I wish I could go lighter here—after all, the story is called "Sunshine." And while I am loathe to describe the story, which you'll read for yourself, suffice to say, starts quite innocently: "They told Grace they'd found her curled into a nest of leaves." Hardly threatening, but that quickly and subtly changes; at first the hunter trackers don't speak English and when they first spot the girl they're not even sure what "it" is. The only named characters are Grace and Beauty whom one can assume were long ago "it" and Julian de Jong, the master, whom even the trackers don't look in the eye. "It" is a wild child, her animal nature described by her sitting on her haunches and "baring her teeth in a dreadful
high-pitched screech." If the Master, Julian de Jong, simply tamed her it would
be a rather pleasant echo of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion in which Professor Henry Higgins trains Eliza Doolittle, the cockney flower girl to speak "properly," or François Truffaut's brilliant 1970 film, The Wild Child. But in this case, the Master seeks to more than tame his prize; after he pays the trackers for her, Grace and Beauty work to civilize her enough so that he can then rape her. It is the rape which throws the story into the stuff of mythology, psychological theory, and honestly creepy fiction. And here is the moral challenge in that everyone from the trackers, the doctor, the dentists, the missionary, and the townspeople are complicit—this isn't the first time Julian de Jong has done this. The narrator notes, that in the past when the Master finally sent "them" home, "they seemed not to know where they'd rather be. And who was the worse for it then?"
The author's deft summoning of the complexity of slave/master relationships, the struggle of women for legitimacy beyond man's object or possession, and questions of economic power and domination—de Jong has more money than anyone else in the story—are part of what give this story its resonance. That and the added cruelty that the Master preys not just upon the very young,
but the undefended abandoned "it" who lives outside of society. In the end it is that "it" not bound by social convention, who is free to act independently and who powerfully and heroically stands up to Julian de Jong.
I read this story multiple times and was disturbed by it and quite honestly I went back to reread several of the other stories again because I wanted to select something more conventional, something less threatening, and yet each time I tried to walk away, "Sunshine" demanded that I return. And so it is for these qualities and the author's careful balance of presence and absence, location and timelessness, what is said and left unsaid, which leaves the
reader's imagination to create a world familiar enough to enter and yet distant enough that the reader feels "other" that I chose "Sunshine."
In "Sunshine," a broken-winged girl, taken for a beast, triumphs and I am at once reminded of the necessity of moral and artistic challenge—of Dostoevsky and his murderous Raskolnikov, of Nabokov and the finely wrought Humbert Humbert and here I could go on, but suffice to say that it is with all that in mind—that I celebrate the dark art here, applaud the gruesome, the transgressive, the thing that does not let us escape from the side of ourselves that we would rather not see.
Manuel Muñoz was born in Dinuba, California, in 1972. He is
the author of two short-story collections, Zigzagger and The Faith
Healer of Olive Avenue, which was a finalist for the Frank O'Connor
International Short Story Award. His first novel, What You See
in the Dark, was published in early 2011. He is the recipient of a
National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowship and a
2008 Whiting Writers' Award, and currently teaches creative writing
at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Manuel Muñoz on "Something You Can't Live Without" by Matthew Neill Null
For over ten years now, one of my favorite reading experiences has been to go through the two premier award anthologies that appear every year—The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories and The Best American Short Stories—and attempt to rank the stories for myself. It's an effort to make myself read slowly, to measure why my enjoyment deepens with particular work. Often the exercise makes me aware of my own reading patterns, of the ways in which I've become more receptive to particular styles of storytelling, or even of my willingness to give a favorite writer a free pass on something that is clearly not his or her best. No matter what, it's nearly always the most deeply fun reading I do all year, a surprising story never failing to emerge.
I kept this little habit to myself until around the time of the 2004 National Book Award nominations for fiction. That was the year when the five-book slate named only women writers—Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Christine Schutt, Joan Silber, Lily Tuck, and Kate Walbert—and the uproar around this unusual circumstance lead to all sorts of shoot-from-the-hip speculation. None was
more cutting (at least to me) than from The New York Times, which sniffed that the list shared "a short-story aesthetic" and that none of the books boasted a scope that was "big and sprawling."
What the hell, I wondered, is wrong with such an aesthetic? Is there even such a thing? And since when are stories not "big"?
I went right out and got those books.
I still seethe over that article six years later, and can always turn to The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories for any number of examples of stories that are more than just big and sprawling—they overwhelm the page. This year, I'm happy to wave "Something You Can't Live Without" as one such story that offers almost too much to fathom. Even its title seems to call out its essential nature.
It's rare that a story makes use of nearly every part of speech, reminding us as readers that every part of our language—from verbs to adjectives—can gather awesome weight when coupled together. Pay attention, the pages seem to say. All over this story spring words chosen with accuracy and care, from words deeply wedded to the Appalachian geography ("ironweed" and "seven sisters" and "chert") to the labor of the farm ("carded" and "planing"
and "hand-forged"). Even the story's time frame feels slickly yet unobtrusively referenced, with a word like "cipher," with its faint hint of history, employed as a verb of literacy, or "conscription," with a register that the more modern "draft" could never achieve.
But these are just words. Cartwright's attempt to pass on a cheap piece of goods to the poor farmer McBride is as straightforward a plot as anyone could ask, and the surprise comes in the story's largely silent battle of pride and comeuppance, two men thinking of the single way to emerge the better in the bargain. The real pleasure—and certainly not the only one—is in the sentences, as complex, deliberately assured, and lethal as Flannery O'Connor's.
What an authentic, confident story this is, soaked through with deceit and menace and the distinctly abrupt strain of American violence. Add in a startling ending—an unforgiving embrace of the nature of time and history, if not the devouring jaws of myth—and you've got a work ready to prove that short stories and short-story writers are the most sprawling and unruly of all mythmakers.
Christine Schutt is the author of two short-story collections and two novels. Her first, Florida, was a 2004 National Book Award finalist; her second, All Souls, a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. Among other honors, Schutt's work has twice been included in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. She is a recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Yaddo, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Schutt is a senior editor of the literary annual NOON. She lives and teaches in New York.
Christine Schutt on "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You" by Jim Shepard
A great story announces itself entirely to start; its terms are then rolled over and over again, and the story is made larger for what new associations adhere until, by the end, the terms are profound. Every reading reveals some new, impossibly smart gesture, surely intended and cumulatively significant. I lose my way, snow-blind. A great story is as heavy as wet snow, the kind that rolls up like carpet and grows bigger for the binding of its parts.
Halfway through "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You," the narrator of this story, Eckel—his first name is never given—explains in scientific language, then in easier, metaphoric terms, what might in fact account for avalanches: a degraded crystal, a stratum of which if slightly jarred can set tons of more recently fallen snow in motion. His mother calls such degraded crystal "sugar snow" because it will not bond. Even when compressed, the snow does not cohere, a phenomenon at odds with great story-making, in which the parts must cohere. And the parts. Sifted into this story are wondrous accounts of nature's brute force, anecdotes, histories, avalanche lore recalled by Eckel or his companions in the course of their freezing work.
They call themselves "the Frozen Idiots." They are four volunteers researching the complexities of snow; they conduct experiments on a viciously windy slope miles above Davos in efforts, all potentially deadly, to better understand and defend against avalanche. The year is 1939; they live in a hut; they have no heat and only kerosene for light. They are frozen idiots; they go about their work with reckless enthusiasm. They have started an avalanche and destroyed a church. Few of their fellows find their subject significant; nevertheless, they are close to finishing an important book on snow, and Eckel's tone at the start of this authentic story is confident and self-deprecatory. His voice is more matter-of-fact when he recounts the catastrophes that have contributed to the researchers' industry. An airborne avalanche, the most destructive category of all, killed the group leader's father, and another avalanche, less severe perhaps but lethal, killed Eckel's twin brother, Willi. The boys were sixteen.
Images of these assaults, the unnatural uprootings, flattened houses—a roof mistaken "for a terrazzo floor"—powerfully amass and add to the story's gravity. An unbroken teacup bewitches while a broken girl unsettles as does a boy "entombed in his bed." Napoleon's little drummer is lost in a gorge and drums for days before he falls silent. Avalanches, the seductive enormity of them! How helpless we are, slight as flies before it, but must we die alone? "Seventeen people were dug out of a meetinghouse the following spring, huddled together in a circle facing inward." A consolation, I think, companionship at the end.
Contrastively, Willi's death is horrible. He dies twice: First, under an immensity of snow, alone in the dark for hours, he loses consciousness. The second time, an avalanche of fear triggered by Eckel when he puts out the light kills Willi. He is dead by the time his mother reaches him. As for the survivors, buffeted by gusts of rage, self-rebuke, and loneliness, they endure by contraction.
Even before the catastrophe of Willi's death, the family terrain emerges as stark and severe as the slopes, dangerously unstable. An elder sister is dutiful but retreats to her room and her romance subscriptions. The father, an Alpine guide, claims to be "content only at altitudes over eleven thousand feet" although his sons know otherwise. They consider their father's "homemade medicines" his sole pleasure, yet Eckel attends to his father's every mood, negotiating the shifting terrain "even as disinterest emanated from him like a vapor."
To be loved, it seems, is as fateful as any experience. "Why does anyone choose one brother and not another? I wanted to ask." Significantly, Eckel does not ask this question aloud—not of his mother or of Ruth, the young woman to whom he is hopelessly devoted. He grudgingly accepts his mother's preferential treatment of his twin and Ruth's deception of him with Willi. Against the wintery heart there is no defense beyond contraction, a withdrawal
from the world with a cruel, self-absorbed intention to endure. Contraction, silence. At the onset of an avalanche a survivor trick is to keep your mouth shut; this has been Eckel's strategy throughout his life.
I underestimated how difficult it would be to act as a juror for the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. Beyond the challenge of making a selection from the forgathered, there has been the trauma of writing about the choice; my choice makes me sick. All great stories make me sick with their muchness. The parallel actions and anecdotes, repeats and reversals, all made with pickax accuracy,
add breadth and bulk. Everything connects. The alpine landscape, God-like, brooding and indifferent, gives contour to the characters' lives. The story of the old guide's devotion to the empress mirrors Eckel's devotion to Ruth; just so, the avalanche's "fractures . . . stress lines . . . fusillades of pops and cracks" apply to the human drama. And how better to represent our essential helplessness in the universe than with the image of a researcher inadequately
dressed, awake in his hammock, hanging in the cold dark? The harrumph a boy makes with his skis to signal to his brother "We're so close" fatally severs and forever binds them. In Jim Shepard's story, the snow coheres; it coheres for now. The hammock creaks. Someday, maybe tomorrow, maybe the next, Eckel
and his fellows will—we all will—be overtaken by that white