For the reader, the short story is nothing less than a brief and intense residence in another world. This other place offers escape from yourself and your own world, as well as the rarest of gifts—the possibility of becoming someone else. Each crucial element of fiction—character, place, time, event—offers the opportunity for intimacy and compassion. These two words, so quiet and loaded, contain difficult and threatening emotions, but they are also the emotions that in the end make us feeling beings. The short story, while you’re reading, includes you as a witness and imaginary
participant, and allows you to suffer and rejoice.
The reader’s entrance into the new world depends, mysteriously, on the language used to tell the tale. Unless the teller’s voice is true, the reader won’t have the courage to go to Pakistan, to a hollow or gorge or prairie, to a village in Malaysia, certainly not into the mind and heart of a character quite unlike the reader.
Read the statements of the authors in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2010. Some of the writers have impressive bodies of work, others are beginning, but none claims to be in complete control of a story or to say that it came out as planned. The impulse to write is not an impulse to control. It’s more like an experienced sailor going to sea once more. Writing a short story is akin to being on a voyage to India and ending up in Indiana. There are discoveries to be made along the way, and the new land has its points of fascination, but it isn’t where you thought you were going.
Ron Rash, one of our best living storytellers, lives and writes close to his Appalachian roots. “Into the Gorge,” he tells us, came from a story he’d heard as a child. The story is emblematic of Rash’s work and his precise, modest, often beautiful prose. His people are rooted to their landscape, and it in turn is at the mercy of its long-staying temporary residents. Rash seems at times to be writing about paradise, but his settings soon turn out to be the opposite for his characters. He examines through vivid, often morally complex situations both the dangers of nature to human beings and the danger human beings bring to nature. It’s often a question of which suffers more.
James Lasdun’s “Oh, Death” is set in a community of newcomers and the less privileged descendants of early settlers of Vanderbeck Hollow. The narrator, a newcomer, “games the system” for a living, as he tells Rick, who grew up in the hollow. To support his family Rick performs manual labor, doing whatever he can—chopping and delivering cords of wood, trimming trees, landscaping. Rick knows the nearby woods, and has seen a mountain lion up on state land, though the narrator knows for a “fact” that there are no longer catamounts in the area. By the story’s end, a reversal has taken place, and the narrator, the stranger to the woods, learns new and truer facts.
Such reversals occur often in the short story; if the story is good, the reversal evolves from the combination of character and circumstance. Annie Proulx’s “Them Old Cowboy Songs” is a meditation on an American belief—that if one works long and hard, one’s sacrifices and pains will pay off in the end. The story begins with high spirits and an admirable and naive reliance on love’s promise, and ends in abandonment and a bitter disappointment that resonates more than the success stories we’d like to believe. The story is remarkable not only for its penetration into another time but for its convincing portrayal of the cruelty and indifference of nature. In the world of Proulx’s remarkable story, waking to see another day comes to seem miraculous.
When the narrator of Wendell Berry’s “Stand by Me” uses the simple phrase “home place,” we leap ahead from Annie Proulx’s tale of western settlers to a country where nature has been tamed and named: “. . . the Dead Tree Path, I remember, and the Spring Path, and the Rock Fence Path.” There’s harmony between the people and the place they live, and a community watches over its children and elders, but nothing can keep loss and sorrow at bay. The narrator’s evenhanded telling, more than what is told, speaks of the lifelong habit of turning over facts, like well-worn pebbles, by a man trying to understand the beginning of his own story so that he can bear the end.
In a story literally of a different shape than any of the others in this year’s PEN/O. Henry, Ted Sanders uses the form of the obituary to sing the lives and deaths of his characters. The newspaper-column format is joined to the repetitious, charming storytelling cadence of a fairy tale, but “Obit” is a story for grown-ups.
One method of reading short stories, or at least analyzing them, suggests that the development and ending sections evolve entirely from the beginning. In Jess Row’s “Sheep May Safely Graze,” the development extends again and again, illuminating the more simple beginning, amplifying it, and then, in the ending, returning to it. The development has a large life of its own, with action enough for several short stories. Row manages the episodes in the cascading fashion of waves beating against the shore, until he quiets the story—and the reader—with the lyrics of the Bach cantata that give the story its name and lead into the slow, movement-by-movement action of the narrator’s final cri de coeur.
“Birch Memorial” by Preeta Samarasan is a love story set in postcolonial Malaysia that encompasses several types of love. At a distance of twenty-five years, Kalyani tells of the time when she was twenty, orphaned and beautiful, supporting herself and her crippled brother by selling appam, a street snack, and trying to save money for an operation for her brother and a house for them both. She tells us of the foreign researcher Sebastian Mills, of the mad beggar Millionaire Komalam, of her disabled brother. Though she says she doesn’t believe in God, she also tells us of God’s disguises and appearances. She addresses the story to “you,” both to us as readers and to the people of Ipoh town who witnessed her life and gossiped about her. The narrative both draws the reader in, as does the dialect in which it’s told, and at the same time reminds us of the distance between us and the privilege we enjoy in hearing the secrets of Kalyani’s life.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a shrewd and romantic observer of the troubled relationship between Americans and their New World. In “An East Egg Update,” George Bradley, shrewdly if not romantically, observes the changes time has brought to Gatsby’s territory since Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. The story includes the large changes as suburbs replace villages and estates, and of the inexplicable, memorable action of a dying woman. The intensity and strength of “An East Egg Update” lies in its perspective; it’s a large view, seen up close.
Brad Watson’s characters in “Visitation” inhabit an anonymous, familiar freeway landscape in California. Father and son are passing through, as are most of the other characters. Watson uses the commonplace situations of divorce and a father visiting his child as background to the story the father tells of his own failures: “He’d been painfully aware of his own despair for most of his life. Most of his troubles had come from attempts to deny the essential hopelessness in his nature.” It seems for a long time in “Visitation” that there’s not much to contradict the universal bleakness of the father’s vision, a quality echoed in the constancy of the highway, the marginal motel, food, TV fare, even the other guests in the motel. Then a ripple appears in the even vision: a strange family—Gypsies, the father names them, frightening his son—whose oddness, poverty, and assertiveness break the hopeless politeness between father and son. From the break comes something more difficult and rewarding for the narrator to bear than despair.
“But the ancient Dodge was part of Martina’s circumstances, to be tolerated because it was necessary.” Martina is the woman in William Trevor’s “The Woman of the House,” and there is much aside from an unreliable car she has to tolerate, as we learn little by little. Two brothers of uncertain nationality turn up and they’re hired to paint the outside of the isolated Irish cottage where Martina lives with the crippled owner, a relative. The brothers have each other, a living to make, and the world to roam. The crippled man has his house and land, his benefits coming monthly in the mail, and Martina to torture. Martina has no one and nothing, only a Gold Flake tin crammed with money she’s gotten by cheating the crippled man and selling herself. In other stories, some of William Trevor’s characters free themselves from their own anxious delusions, such as Harriet in his memorable “After Rain,” but he doesn’t make a case for redemption or despair. As he once wrote, “My fiction may, now and again, illuminate aspects of the human condition, but I do not consciously set out to do so.” In “The Woman of the House,” there is plenty of incident—betrayal, the possibility of murder—but such excitement is secondary, deferring to the struggle by Martina and the brothers for their own survival.
Until its turning point, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “A Spoiled Man” seems to be the story of Rezak, a very poor, rather proud, and resourceful Pakistani who falls by luck into being the caretaker for an orchard owned by the wealthy Sohail Harouni and his American wife, Sonya. All goes well for Rezak, almost too well, the experienced reader senses; in the world of the short story, good fortune requires its opposite. Unwittingly, the well-meaning Sonya delivers Rezak to his doom. The story, richly told, is a complicated and rewarding reflection on an entanglement of power and helplessness.
“Many, even if they had not arrived as artists, would leave at least as craftsmen: they created things from delicate worry beads to nice sitting chairs to tables they could gather around. Something from nothing, something in nothing.” So Natalie Bakopoulos describes life on a Greek prison island in 1970, an arbitrarily administered place, inhabited by political prisoners, many of them “artists and writers and the rank-and-file of the Left and Center.” The newly arrived Mihalis and the long-serving Vagelis are old friends reunited on the island. Vagelis is so well acclimated to prison that he doesn’t ask Mihalis about his wife and friends who are free. Soon we learn of a compelling reason for his immersion in prison life. In prison or free, citizens of a country run by a military junta or not, we’re enclosed by our feelings and dreams. The story reminds us to look beyond the details of setting and background, even when they’re as engrossing as they are in “Fresco, Byzantine.”
The title of Peter Cameron’s touching, witty “The End of My Life in New York” refers to a realization the narrator has in the course of the story. The notion of leaving New York is embellished by the perfectly chosen details of that life, and those who live in it, or try to. Cameron’s narrator is unemployed (and perhaps unemployable), scarred, in chronic pain, and guilty. Years before, his drunk driving set off a terrible sequence of injuries to himself and others, and in the accident’s aftermath he’s removed not only from his companionable life with his partner but from his profession, his erotic life, and eventually his city. Throughout the story, as in Chekhov’s classic “Misery” when the cabdriver tries all through a snowy night to find someone who’ll listen to him, Cameron’s narrator tries to tell an awful story he heard at a dinner party. His only listener is the reader. Hearing it, we can only wish him well and hope he can figure out whether New York’s complications, demands, and ironies can be escaped in any life, anywhere.
John Edgar Wideman’s “Microstories” can be read as separate stories, or meditations, or as one narrative distributed widely. One thing is certain: that the small pieces gain power when taken together, and that they add up to a fully realized work. The stories are varied and absorbing, about unbearable memories and the forms love takes as it leaves us or stays. However much “Microstories” dwells on separation, the strength of the writing brings warmth both to the characters and to the reader.
In Daniel Alarcón’s “The Bridge,” the narrator inherits his uncle Ramón’s modest house and declares, “There was nothing of my family in this house and maybe that was the only attractive thing about it.” Named after a failed connection, “The Bridge” is about a family engaged in a malicious civil war both in life and after death. The narrator, as executor of his uncle’s estate, delves into his family’s history as he searches for information about the one relative he liked, Ramón, a blind translator married to another blind translator. The story is full of puns and doubling, even down to a minor but crucial character, a truck driver, who shares a name with the renowned translator Gregory Rabassa. The jokiness of such literary devices only deepens one’s sense of the infinitely complex and bridgeless gap that often defines family life.
The Russian nanny in Kirstin Allio’s “Clothed, Female Figure” purposefully does not pick favorites among her families, another way of saying that she herself has no family. She is a deliberately distant observer of her employers, her stance a muddy reflection of her education as a psychologist. For better or worse, she’s chosen her life, and at the end we discern her reasons for her exile from intimate relationships. As in other fine stories, we understand the first paragraph of “Clothed, Female Figure” only when we’ve reached the story’s end.
The narrator of Damon Galgut’s long and absorbing “The Lover” is troubled not so much by his past or present as by his future. As the story leads us across Africa from Zimbabwe to Tanzania and into Europe, the narrator demonstrates the experienced traveler’s capacity to accept and appreciate what the present day brings. But he leans always toward the next thing, and he thinks that without love this will always be so. “All his few belongings are in storage and he has spent months wandering around from one spare room to another. It has begun to feel as if he’s never lived in any other way, nor will he ever settle down. He can’t seem to connect properly with the world. He feels this not as a failure of the world but as a massive failing in himself, he would like to change it but doesn’t know how.” A lovely Swiss man appears who might become his lover; a hesitant courtship begins. The engaging pull of Galgut’s prose is such that we follow the narrator willingly not only from nation to nation and continent to continent, but from the country of first-person narrative to that of third-person, and back again. The main character, both narrator and character, must now be settled, one thinks, homeless no more, the troublesome mechanics and restless loneliness of youth behind him, because he is telling the tale. For the reader, the story is a chance to be uprooted, to go far from home and feel the chill of travel.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Headstrong Historian” takes us to another Africa altogether, to late nineteenth-century Nigeria and the life story of Nwamgba. She is a strong woman hemmed in by custom and circumstance, whose beloved son betrays her in an unimaginable way. Nwamgba is both the historian of the title and the grandmother of another headstrong historian. Nwamgba preserves and lives within her traditions but uses her will to cut her own path, marrying Obierika despite her family’s disapproval—wise, as it turns out. Characteristically, Nwamgba “had believed with a quiet stubbornness that her chi and his chi had destined their marriage.” In both her marriage and in raising her son when she is widowed, Nwamgba stays in conflict with her husband’s greedy cousins and the whites who come to Nigeria as slavers and missionaries. Nwamgba holds firmly to her own sensible beliefs and in the story’s surprising
ending is more than vindicated. In her second prizewinning PEN/O. Henry story, Adichie mixes the magic of human character and that of spiritual belief, and takes her readers with her wherever she wishes to lead.
Among Alice Munro’s many gifts is that of graceful compression; we can understand the whole of a life within the pages of a short story. Other writers do this also, each in her own way. But it’s a hallmark of Munro’s writing that in the shell game of storytelling it delights rather than annoys the reader when the true nugget of intention and heart is revealed. In “Some Women” there are many threads of meaning and heart for the reader to follow, but the narrator’s understanding that time has passed is the story’s warp. The reader feels the wonder of an old woman at the complications of human relationships and the varied personalities met in a long life, that she once had so much to learn, and did.
Some stories are meant to be written, and Lore Segal’s “Making Good”—about a circle of reconciliation or “bridge building”—is such a story. Its wit and lightness hold the infinitely complicated and essential conundrum of forgiveness. Who has the authority to forgive a grave crime against humanity? Great public crimes cannot by their nature be forgiven, except by those most closely harmed and by the dead. Is forgiveness even possible? Lore Segal’s articularity of diction, humor, and restraint of sentiment give her fictional disquisition on forgiveness its grace and fascination. To amend the folk saying that the devil is in the details, perhaps forgiveness is possible only when one knows all the details. Uncomfortable and sometimes absurd as the little circle seems in “Making Good,” it’s an honorable place to be.
In the end, what’s striking about the characters in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2010 is not so much the forces that divide them—war, death, nationality, race, plain bad luck, environmental depredation—as how hard they must try to keep themselves together.
Excerpted from PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2010 by Edited and with an introduction by Laura Furman. Copyright © 2010 by Laura Furman. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.