Reading the many short stories submitted to The O. Henry Prize Stories by periodicals each year would seem to provide a special perch from which to generalize and categorize, to proclaim the year’s prevailing style or subject matter. At a recent dinner party I attended, the host declared that he didn’t read contemporary fiction and didn’t know much about it, but he wondered if people still wrote old-fashioned sentences like “ ‘I don’t know what you mean,’ Constance said coldly.”
It was easy to reassure him that such sentences still enjoy life, along with many other kinds, and that writers today are publishing a healthy variety of stories. But nothing would induce me to stand on an O. Henry soapbox and preach about trends in contemporary prose.
By choice, my reading experience focuses on one story at a time, not on what kind of story it is. If it’s a great story, it doesn’t matter if it is a Western, an epic, historical fiction, a spiritual journey, a domestic drama, or a postmodern fable. What matters most is how effectively the story moves the reader from one world (her own) to another (the story’s).
As the statements of this year’s O. Henry writers reveal, the writers themselves come to their stories in many different ways. You’ll find one writer who wrote a story to express deep grief, and another to enter a contest that required a certain genre. Another of our writers wrangled his subject from anecdote to part of a novel to a short story. Yet another writer found her story within the fiction of two centuries ago, when, we would like to think, women’s lives were so different. Each story in the collection represents an individual writer’s search for the story and the right way to tell it.
There’s a distant intimacy in William Trevor’s fiction. He observes his characters from the heights of a chilly god, not without sympathy but without sentimentality–a god with low expectations, perhaps. The reader of a Trevor story, whether she likes the characters or not, can’t help but be drawn to their dilemmas. In “The Room” the much-wronged Katherine uses infidelity as a catharsis. Varieties of betrayal and a homicide shadow the story, yet its focus is not on violence or even conflict but on an intricate emotional balancing act. Katherine lives as though in a chambered nautilus, with each aspect of her life sealed off in a separate compartment. It’s up to the reader to make the connections between them.
Three of our stories have war in the background: Justine Dymond’s “Cherubs,” Joan Silber’s “War Buddies,” and “The Gift of Years” by Vu Tran. In “Cherubs” the war is long past, and, at first, there are no signs of trouble at the charming wedding in France the story portrays. But as it unfolds, narrated in first-person plural by American guests with the breathy enthusiasm associated with nuptials, the past intervenes. The excitement and promise of the occasion is tempered by another time when other Americans, the liberating army, were terrible guests.
Joan Silber, whose story “The High Road” was in the O. Henry 2003 collection, sets her story “War Buddies” years after the war has ended, when the narrator takes stock of his life and, most of all, of his long-lost doppelgänger. They were a civilian pair of engineers sent to South Vietnam to solve a technical problem that was costing lives and money. The war, though terrifying, was almost the least of their troubles.
The third war story, by Vu Tran, is about a South Vietnamese soldier separated from his family while his children grow up. The narrative contains a stunning reminiscence of battle, but Vu Tran’s tale explores the consequences of war in domestic terms. It’s a story about the universal human reluctance to believe in events that take place in our absence, especially when it comes to our children.
“The Duchess of Albany” by Christine Schutt and “Mudder Tongue” by Brian Evenson are strikingly different stories about aging parents and children. In Schutt’s story, a mother faces up to her widowhood by playing with language and image. Evenson’s portrait of a deteriorating father’s linguistic pathology evokes the reader’s sympathetic frustration even as we wait for another fascinating mistake. Schutt’s widow uses language as a way to avoid being meddled with as she mourns, and Evenson’s misspeaking professor succeeds too well in concealing his loss of control over the spoken word. For both aging characters, language is a weapon against an increasingly alien world.
“A Stone House” by Bay Anapol and “In a Bear’s Eye” by Yannick Murphy are testimony to the often-observed kinship between the short story and the poem. In “A Stone House” the narrator circles around her lover, who is chimerical even when he’s within reach, and her memories of her dying mother. “In a Bear’s Eye” observes the difference between adult grief and a child’s literal understanding of loss. On the first reading, both of these lovely stories offer the pleasure of the language; a second reading reveals the force of their emotion.
It would be easy to categorize “City Visit” by Adam Haslett and “The Diarist” by Richard McCann as coming-out stories, but this sells both stories short. One of Richard McCann’s gifts as a writer is the way he uses memory to wrestle experience into art. “The Diarist” begins with the narrator announcing, “Here’s one thing I remember, from all the things I never wrote down in my diary the summer I was eleven, the summer before my father died.” The narrator is impossibly different from his father and brother in ways he didn’t then understand. At the triumphant end of the story it becomes clear that the narrator will find his way not only by recognizing his sexuality but also through writing.
The protagonist of Adam Haslett’s “City Visit” believes that New York, where he arrives with his mother for a visit, holds the key to his secret identity and his freedom. What he doesn’t notice, and the reader does, is that his mother knows his secret and is willing to step aside while he takes his risks away from her care.
Ariel Dorfman’s “Gringos” and Sana Krasikov’s “Companion” are stories of uneasy exile. In Dorfman’s skillfully layered tale, an exiled Latin American couple who live in the United States pretend not to know Spanish, putting themselves in danger when they’re abroad. “Gringos” is also the story of a long marriage; perhaps the marriage offers the couple their only secure citizenship. Ilona, the protagonist of “Companion,” is a warm, sexy, cranky, lonely woman who’s living in the United States, yet she thinks constantly of other places and other possibilities. Her struggle to improve her lot undercuts her existence. The story poses the question of whether Ilona’s helpless, predatory stance is part of every immigrant’s condition or simply Ilona’s character.
In writing “The View from Castle Rock,” Alice Munro used a diary from her own family, though the story as a whole is convincingly imagined. It’s long been Munro’s special gift to make vivid the historical surroundings of her characters. In this case, their desires and hopefulness seem especially dramatic and important, as Munro brings to life the promise and the price the obscure immigrants pay when they leave for a new world.
Eddie Chuculate’s “Galveston Bay, 1826” takes the reader on an adventure over land and out of time as a group of Cheyennes cross the Red River and travel as far south as they can. Chuculate’s characters are deftly portrayed, and the reader feels, along with them, their joy and terror about what they discover.
“The Scent of Cinnamon” by Charles Lambert is set in the nineteenthcentury American West and begins with an exchange of letters between an American farmer and an English widow. As the two strangers move closer to becoming man and wife, the story takes another turn altogether, leaving the reader to decide what happened and what didn’t, what was real and what wasn’t. The Western pioneer setting, with its keen details of clothing, furniture, and horseflesh, makes an appropriate backdrop for a story about longing and loneliness.
Though “El Ojo de Agua” by Susan Straight takes place in contemporary Rio Seco, California, its heart is in another time and place altogether, the flood of 1927 in segregated Bayou Becasse, Louisiana. That nightmare time had a profound effect on the intertwined families in Susan Straight’s story, so much so that the story’s present-day tragedies echo the depredations of the past.
When Rebecca Curtis’s narrator describes the sisters in her “Summer, with Twins,” she is measuring them: “They weren’t strikingly beautiful, and they weren’t especially kind. But everything they did they did with enthusiasm . . . Their enthusiasm made me angry, because it seemed false, but then I became included in it and realized it was genuine.” The narrator’s desire to be included is her downfall. She’s too dense to understand the selfishness and meanness of the twins, but the ambiguous reward of her summer–and the story–is an understanding of the power of money. Rebecca Curtis insists on confronting the confused morality of the twins.
Appropriate social behavior has gone missing in “Djamilla,” Tony D’Souza’s story of a young American in love with Africa. Disillusioned with the tribe he’s living with, he flirts with a beautiful unmarried woman from another tribe. However much he sees himself as part of a community, because he’s an outsider, he doesn’t suffer the consequences of his actions. The interplay of desire, role playing, and carelessness makes “Djamilla” an intense exploration of how different people living in close proximity can be.
In Jan Ellison’s “The Company of Men,” Catherine, the young narrator, is deliciously naïve. In New Zealand she meets two young men, Jimmy and Ray, and the three settle temporarily in Sydney, Australia. They’re all young and uncommitted: “There was the promise of some new knowledge–the shape of an ear, the smell of musk–or a shift in one’s view of oneself in the world.” They never become sexually entangled but she’s seduced nonetheless, and in a way that shifts her view of her own sensuality.
“A New Kind of Gravity” by Andrew Foster Altschul takes place in a shelter populated by women and children who’ve suffered from violence, but its male narrator is the story’s true subject. He works at the shelter, guarding the women from their abusive husbands and boyfriends. As his involvement with them becomes more complicated, the story grows more tense. He’s trying hard to understand the women. We believe he’s the good guy. Yet his secret flaw makes the story–and its subject–far more complicated than a tale of right and wrong, good and bad.
Once again, the stories in The O. Henry Prize Stories
come from the three most important commercial publications for fiction–The New Yorker
, The Atlantic Monthly
, and Harper’s
–and from a variety of small magazines. The role of the commercial magazines in supporting and publishing new and established writers has never been so important. The Atlantic
’s decision to stop publishing a story per issue and to offer all its fiction in one annual issue raised distress signals among the community of writers, editors, and readers who care about literature.
Yet if the commercial magazines reach more readers than any of the others, the little magazines are the greatest evidence of our vibrant literary world. It’s true that some of them fold when they lose university or private support, but heartening new magazines always arise in their place. For the second year in a row, an O. Henry Prize story comes from One Story
, the innovative and successful dream of two young women. Another story is from Noon
, an annual whose imaginative writing isn’t widely known to the reading public. Two stories in our collection come from Manoa
, an especially handsome quarterly, which for two decades has engaged in cross-cultural publication of writers from Asia and North America.
Literary magazines and writers need an active readership. If you admire the writers in this year’s O. Henry
, please keep an eye out for their future work.Laura FurmanAustin, Texas
Excerpted from O. Henry Prize Stories 2007 by edited by Laura Furman. Copyright © 2007 by Vintage Anchor Publishing, a division of Random House, Inc. Introduction © 2007 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.