One of the most fascinating, and annoying, questions asked of writers is about the origin of a story. We hope that if we could pinpoint the real beginning of a story, it would reveal all that a story holds—certain aspects of the author’s personal history; the experience, fact, or image that caught the author’s imagination; the path through language from imagination to a coherent work of art. We wish to be able to extrapolate the mysterious process of writing fiction.
Many stories draw upon either the experience of the writer or another’s experience as reported to the writer. This is not an assertion that every story is autobiographical (or biographical), only that something of the writer’s own life is of necessity part of every story. A number of writers find their stories through research, a method of educating oneself and also of procrastinating. For still other stories, and other writers, the inspiration may be as fleeting as a landscape glimpsed from a passing train.
But the process of writing always remains mysterious. There can be no definitive answer to a question about a story’s origin because the best stories are manifold and open to multiple understandings. A single origin doesn’t seem enough for the stories we love and reread. Furthermore, a story presents changed meanings over time to a faithful reader, for the story we read in middle age is different from the one we first encountered in adolescence. A single glance from a train doesn’t account for a story’s beginning—it’s too monocular, too limited—and yet that may be the way the story’s creator remembers it. A story undergoes many changes as it’s written, making it a complicated journey from the starting point.
We do want to know where a story came from, and by that we mean the whole story, not only the tiny flash that began the imaginative process. Implicit in the question is the respect we have for the story, and the answer we suspect: Not even the writer really knows where the story came from. If that were known, why bother to write?
John Berger’s “A Brush” epitomizes a kind of silence I associate with the short-story form. In the story, the reader finds a slow, almost offhand perception that presents itself when one is looking the other way, or, as W. H. Auden said in “Musée des Beaux Arts,” “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”
We are all self-preoccupied; the narrator of “A Brush” is no exception. In Paris, he makes his way through his routine, giving no evidence that he is either lonely or happy in his solitude. We experience what he wants us to—chance meetings, a slow revelation of character and history by those he notices, and, finally, the shock of understanding, a moment of real attention. In the story’s ending, we understand how much the narrator has come to value and gain from his urban friendship. The narrator of “A Brush” is both the reader’s informant and a character involved in the story’s action. Berger’s masterly writing conveys with equal grace the recent history of Cambodia and the patient skill required in making art. At the story’s simple and exquisite ending, the narrator summons both fact and feeling.
Salvatore Scibona’s “The Woman Who Lived in the House” has an eccentric and delightful ending. The story is about many varieties of togetherness. Ásmundur Gudmundsson has a few easy relationships—with his father-in-law, and with a sister and niece—and several complicated ones—with a dog who’s crazy about him, an unsuitable lover, and his disgruntled wife. Scibona throws us right into the story with the announcement from a television set that Ásmundur’s latest investment, the one he and his wife put everything into, has failed. In no time at all, the marriage follows suit, in Ásmundur’s determination an act of God, who, “after twenty years of giving them the stamina and will that makes young Eros turn into the companionship of married love,” ends it in a comical street accident. The whole story is a dance of attachment and separation, connection and alienation, and, finally, of love lost and love renascent. The ending is both a surprise and a joy; the one we didn’t know we were waiting for at last is back with us.
Anthony Doerr was included in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories
in 2002, 2003, 2008, and now appears, for a fourth time, with “The Deep,” a story that combines the author’s preoccupations first with the natural world as it is seen through science and then with the interior, often secret, lives of his characters. In the case of “The Deep,” Tom’s interior life is dominated by his heart, a defective organ: “Atrial septal defect. Hole in the heart. The doctor says blood sloshes from the left side to the right side. His heart will have to do three times the work. Life span of sixteen. Eighteen if he’s lucky. Best if he doesn’t get excited.”
The voice of science—and Tom’s mother—urges extreme caution. Tom’s spirit looks at those small numbers—sixteen, eighteen—and wonders how cautious can he be and live. Tom’s heart keeps him slow, careful, and quiet. His life is different from that of the other children, particularly other boys. The tension in the story is between the restrictions imposed by his literal organ and the desires of Tom’s metaphorical heart.
In Lauren Groff ’s “Eyewall,” a hurricane rages outside and inside the narrator’s three-hundred-year-old house, flinging this way and that her chickens, furnishings, books, and her past. For all that is destroyed, something whole and new is created by the rollicking lively narrator. Groff ’s story is poetical and laced with humor, as the dead drink excellent wine with the living, and the storm rocks on.
Christine Sneed’s “The First Wife” narrates a story about inevitability in a doomed relationship, a kind of wry love letter from the cautious, somber narrator to her beautiful, unfaithful, and predictable husband. The story is a consideration of a cliché—the handsome movie star’s infidelity. A reader might well ask the star’s wife: Why is it that we go on asking questions to which we know the answer, starting things we know will end in failure? The answer is what Jean Rhys called “Hope, the vulture,” and because
it feels good to bet against the odds.
Often the ending of a short story brings a reversal of fortune, character, or the expectations established at the start. In Sam Ruddick’s well-choreographed “Leak,” there’s a comical reversal. A man believes he’s having a straightforward and, for all parties, satisfactory adulterous affair. Before long, it’s clear that he’s the innocent in the crowd that gathers, like clowns exploding from a car, at his assignation. The story’s title is a definition of what happens in every aspect of this lover’s duet, trio—no, quartet. Ruddick has a gift for understatement and for moving his characters along in ways that surprise and delight the reader.
It’s often said that in marriage one partner is the brakes and the other the gas. In Alice Mattison’s “The Vandercook,” the narrator is the caboose and his wife the engine. When the narrator, his wife, and children move across the country to the narrator’s hometown to aid his aging father and keep the family business going, the marriage’s balance of power and love is fatally disturbed. The narrator’s calm, rational voice doesn’t conceal the pain of a new understanding of his past and consideration of his future. By the end of the story what was whole seems corrupted. The beauty of the story lies in its sense of the continuity of the lives narrated. The characters will go on, but with a telling difference. Mattison’s story will be read and reread to trace the narrator’s understanding of his wife’s character and his own.
Dagoberto Gilb’s moving story “Uncle Rock” narrates a similar movement toward understanding, though in the case of Erick, whose difficult, compromised childhood is explored, there’s freedom rather than disillusionment in the end. Confronting cruelty, Erick gains a new understanding of his mother, of masculinity, and of his own strength. The boy who doesn’t speak in either of his languages ends the story with an evasion that protects both his imperfect mother and her lover. By speaking, Erick steps toward adulthood. He sees what he didn’t wish to, understands the unintended consequences of lush, powerless female beauty and male power, and moves into his own complicated life.
In Kevin Wilson’s “A Birth in the Woods,” the mixture of realism and fantasy pushes the reader into a nightmare. A young boy’s parents isolate themselves in the joyful, arrogant belief that they can make a new Eden and raise their child in a utopia. The story’s narration of a mother’s love, and her manipulation of her weak husband and young son, mixes with the elements of horror. The blood announced at the beginning of the story covers the family by the end. Wilson’s story is most brilliant in capturing the innocent ignorance of the child and the ways in which every child is a victim of his parents’ choices.
Cath in Keith Ridgway’s “Rothko Eggs” lives in London with her mother. Cath’s parents are divorced, and she feels like their caretaker, more knowledgeable about them than they are about themselves. She loves art and thinks about it, but just as often thinks about how to think about it. The story’s diction is striking; simple sentences, repeated, varied, until there’s a pileup, a fender bender of thoughts and words. The narration is a close-up third person, so close that we are nearly in Cath’smind as she puzzles out matters of art and sex, and, oddest of all, her parents’ shared history before she was born. Cath is central to them, but, she finds, only part of their relationship and not the whole of it, as she once thought. Ridgway’s story plays with articulating inarticulateness. For Cath, an intelligent and sensitive young woman, the impossibility of describing abstract art is nothing next to the impenetrability of other people’s motives and emotions, and her own.
As in Kevin Wilson’s and Keith Ridgway’s stories, Hisham Matar’s “Naima” has at its core a child trying to accommodate himself to his parents’ choices and secrets. “You need adulthood to appreciate such horror,” the narrator tells us. A useful question when reading first-person stories is, Why is the narrator telling this story?
A general answer is, To understand what happened.
In the case of “Naima,” the narrator is trying to understand his parents’ marriage, his mother’s death, and the place in his life of Naima, the family’s servant. His parents so overshadow Naima that the reader also initially wonders why the story is named for Naima rather than the mother or father. The beauty of Matar’s story lies in the narrator’s delicacy as he seeks to slice through memory without destroying the past.
Adulthood doesn’t much benefit the narrator of Ann Packer’s “Things Said or Done,” nor does the wry humor with which she copes with her father’s egomania and hypochondria. “Other people throw parties; my father throws emergencies. It’s been like this forever. When I was a kid I thought the difference between my father and other parents was that my father was more fun. It took me years to see it clearly. My father was a rabble-rouser. He was fun like a cyclone.” And then there is the narrator’s mother, a model of distanced cool, an escaped prisoner who refuses to risk her freedom to help her daughter. If the father were all monstrous, the story wouldn’t be as good as it is, nor would the narrator be as sympathetic a victim of herself and her family. The story’s intertwined characters are testimony that there are no easy answers for those trapped by love and loyalty.
For the second year in a row, fiction by Mark Slouka and Jim Shepard is included in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories
Last year’s story by Mark Slouka was about an estranged father taking a terrible chance with his young son; this year’s story is also about a father and son. In “The Hare’s Mask,” the narrator begins by announcing how much he misses his beloved father, then goes on to tell a complicated tale of himself as a boy trying to imagine himself into his father’s past. Something primitive is stirred as the narrator realizes that the world existed before he did. He pieces together a terrible loss his own father suffered at his age. The narrator tells us he had a “precocious ear for loss” and “misheard almost everything.” In this brief, layered, beautifully told story, the narrator moves from a child’s innocent inability to comprehend the past’s sorrows to an adult’s wonder that human beings dare to risk such pain again.
The narrator of Jim Shepard’s powerful “Boys Town” lacks, among other things, the capacity to weather loss and sorrow. His mother is a foulmouthed bully, and he is incapable of freeing himself from her. “Boys Town” is the story of a person without resources, internal or external, who has neither the education nor the emotional means to grow beyond his limiting circumstances. When he looks outside of himself at a movie seen long ago, he sees a hero who has nothing to offer but empty promises.“Most people don’t know what it’s like to look down the road and see there’s nothing there. You try to tell somebody that, but they just look at you.”
The hero/narrator of “East of the West” by Miroslav Penkov is named Nose for his “ugly snoot,” the result of his cousin Vera’s punch, which crushed “it like a plain biscuit.” In other ways, too, Nose is broken into pieces by Vera. “East of the West” centers on the river that divides Nose from his cousin, as it divides Serbia from Bulgaria. The river brings tragedy and heartbreak. The river covers the past, and Nose gathers his courage and swims to a drowned church with his cousin. The question of identity—who’s a Serb? who’s a Bulgarian?—rides through the story and becomes a larger question: Who will dare to change?
When you finish reading some stories you feel you’ve listened to a song. Miroslav Penkov’s “East of the West” is such a story.
The main character in “Mickey Mouse” by Karl Taro Greenfeld is a Japanese artist in wartime Tokyo assigned the task of creating a cartoon character to represent his country and displace the globally popular American rodent. The atmosphere of war, survival, and danger is so skillfully created by Greenfeld that it isn’t until the end of the story that the reader understands what the artist hasn’t about his peculiar and impossible assignment.
Steven Millhauser’s “Phantoms” is about the memory of a whole community as it lives with its all-too-present past. The phantoms, or ghosts, appear and reappear, a continuity after death that brings little comfort to the living. The presence of the past creates problems for the parents of the town: to tell or not to tell? What frightens a child more—ignorance or knowledge? Humorous, wise, and smart, the first-person-plural narrative covers the life of the haunted town and its people, making its consciousness of its phantoms and its willful forgetfulness seem more or less like our own relationships with our own ghosts. As ever, the strangeness in Steven Millhauser’s fiction pulls us in, intrigues us, entertains us, and makes us reflect on our own odd lives.
Steven Millhauser’s work has appeared in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories
before, as have the stories of Wendell Berry, who is also well known as a poet and essayist. “Nothing Living Lives Alone” is about Berry’s recurring character Andy Catlett, in several stages of his life. As ever, Berry meditates on the qualities of home and the relationship held by generations to the place they think of as their own, the “home place.” In this lovely, slow story, Berry is particularly interested in the entrance of the mechanical into the lives of the animals and people there, and he examines different ideas about labor and freedom, including the freedom some feel to destroy the planet on which they live. The story concerns worlds gone by and their place in our present. Once more Berry gives us intelligent, vibrant fiction, the product of his own excellent labor.
Each year, three jurors read a blind manuscript of the twenty short stories I’ve chosen for the collection, and each picks a favorite. This year’s jurors are Mary Gaitskill, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Ron Rash, three wonderful short-story writers who could hardly be more different from one another. The fiction of all three jurors has been celebrated in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories
. Each has written an essay on a chosen story, and I invite you to enjoy them in “Reading The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012
,” pp. 411–18.
The favorite stories for 2012 are by Yiyun Li and Alice Munro, two writers whose work has been included before in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories
“Kindness” by Yiyun Li is the confessional autobiography of a woman who’s lived in isolation and recalls those few who noticed her, ambivalent attentions she regards in the end as kindness. The narrator is humble, modest, and calls herself “an indifferent person,” which can be taken in two ways, that she is like many others and that she is immune to others. Her isolation stands out in her crowded Beijing neighborhood, in school, and during her time in the Red Army. Her life is circumscribed; the reader recognizes a war between her individuality and the demands of her society and of other people. Both the sourness and loneliness of “Kindness” are more predictable than the narrator’s final declarations about the kindness of others, hinted at in the story’s beginning when she says, “I have few friends, though as I have never left the neighborhood, I have enough acquaintances, most of them a generation or two older. Being around them is comforting; never is there a day when I feel that I am alone in aging.” Her apartment house is derelict, threatened with destruction by Beijing’s newly prosperous developers, but the life she lives and has led has filled her with stories, which alone keep her company.
Alice Munro’s “Corrie” is also about a woman without husband or family, a rich girl in a small town. Corrie, lame from polio, has a quick mind and self-possession to a remarkable degree. She takes what she wants from the life she’s been given, at least in one way, and she looks her losses and gains in the eye. Corrie is not sentimental, which saves her. The ending of her story is its most surprising part, and Corrie’s reaction to a revelation seems both exactly what the reader would expect her to feel—and its opposite. Reading the story, I didn’t want to be anywhere else, doing anything else—once again receiving a gift from Alice Munro.
Excerpted from The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2012 by Edited by Laura Furman Prize Jury: Mary Gaitskill, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Ron Rash. Copyright © 2012 by Laura Furman. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.