Anchor Books The O. Henry Prize Stories
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Prize Jury 2007
  • Charles D'Ambrosio
  • Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Lily Tuck

  • Read about other jurors and their selected favorites.

    Charles D'Ambrosio

    Charles D'Ambrosio is the author of The Point and Other Stories, and The Dead Fish Museum. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Zoetrope: All-Story, The Paris Review, A Public Space, and various anthologies, including The Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005. Orphans is a book of his essays. D'Ambrosio lives in Portland, Oregon.

    Juror Favorite:
    Charles D'Ambrosio on "The Room" by William Trevor

    As a reader I rarely feel the need to judge the books and stories I encounter; in fact I can measure my distance from the experience of a work by counting up the opinions I hold about it. And then the writer in me reads almost entirely without opinions, I get so lost in rhythms and colors, the shape and sensation of sentences; it all feels so close to music, loosed from the material, that an opinion would only seem a kind of dross, one of the forms feeling takes as it cools and hardens over. Probably the true encounter for any reader is not through opinion but its opposite: reserving judgment, living with uncertainty, accepting the unknown, and keeping the mystery fully intact until it is absorbed by some means other than your own interfering mind. Very often the best we can do for others, and for stories, too, is to admit that we don't understand them. That's not a failure, I don't think, unless you're in the business of writing reviews or running a blog.

    Each story in the collection gave me something generously--the mandarin rolling over the dust in "Djamilla" and the lovely, utterly convincing poetry of that first passage of dialogue, sung like a duet; or in "Summer, with Twins," the wonderful control of the comedy, the tension created by a surface that won't give way to depth, the author's keen accuracy in finding the echo of a cruelty in people that is also in the universe itself; or in the elegantly constructed "El Ojo de Agua," written in half-sentences that evoke the fitful mood and music of a dream and offer in turn a metaphysic for the story as a whole, as Gustave, the elderly main character, never quite manages to complete a life or wake fully to this world, remaining submerged in terror, tragedy. With regret, I can't run through the entire catalog of loves encountered along the way. The story that chose me--or that's the way it feels, as if the narrative had been lying in wait--is "The Room."

    The story begins with a bluntly thematic question, the sort of thing that might cause me to hesitate. Why is it so hard to begin a story with dialogue? A weight falls on the words, forcing them into something beyond ordinary speech, and the writer risks perverting the tone in order to carry the added burden of sense--but here it works. So the line is selfconsciously thematic, which in turn takes a special bravery--the question can't be resolvable--not in the story, not in the mind of the writer, not in the universe. A similar bravura move comes in the homophonously named husband, Phair. The author uses this personified abstraction, like the allegorical Envy or Despair, in a modern, postsymbolic world that won't support the one-to-one correspondences of an allegory. There's a strange atavism in the name, and I'm still trying to puzzle out how it works. It can't be simple irony, for that would be no better than an innocent, straight usage of Phair/Fair. Something of its literal bluntness weighs against the maddeningly inconclusive nature of the story. It's almost as if the name must retain all its possible suggestiveness--straight and ironic, serious and ridiculous, sly and obvious--and carry each of its canceling contradictions in order to work. Something like that--and I love it, at any rate, particularly the way it challenges the reader, warning us away from settling on a premature and simplistic understanding.

    Katherine barely knows the man she's having an affair with, yet she hardly knows her husband either. Lies, and liars, still corrupt, even in this old, already corrupted world. There is a murder but the case is dismissed--the witness summoned for this most unwitnessed life proves unreliable. These are not exotic or intriguing people; their small adventures play out, one imagines, in the streets of their hometown. As familiar as the world is, everyone in this story is anonymous, deeply unknown, existing without the support of facts or validation. Katherine's trysts take place above a betting shop. Chance and circumstance form fate, and, some God--some adhesive unifying love--is felt as an absence, though this is not an overtly religious story. Late in the story, Katherine finds herself bewildered, wondering "how she knew what she seemed to know," and yet, stripped of certainty, there is a sense in which all of these characters--Katherine and Phair, but others too--pursue deception as a means to enrich their lives. There is excitement in it, there is storytelling, the hint of narrative control. The lies lead them toward romance and yet suspend them above the truth, which makes "The Room" the saddest of love stories--a frank and somewhat brutal collision of bodies. And that's very near the thing that decided me on this story. Every time I read it I'd wait for a simple image near the end, of a barge that struggles upriver, the prow painted with roses; the author notes it twice in a short span. Something about the handling seems particularly deft, the suddenly appearing barge treated as an important symbol that, like the lives of these characters, like our own ordinary lives, can't quite approach significance.

    Ursula K. Le Guin

    Ursula K. Le Guin was born in 1929 in Berkeley, California. Her novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) is an American classic, and she has been honored for her fiction by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, shortlisted for the National Book Award, and has won the PEN/Malamud Award for short fiction, as well as the Nebula, Hugo, Gandalf, Pushcart, Newbery Silver Medal, and many other prizes. Her short fiction has appeared in periodicals ranging from The New Yorker to Fantasy and Science Fiction. Le Guin lives in Portland, Oregon.

    Juror Favorite:
    Ursula K. Le Guin on "Galveston Bay, 1826" by Eddie Chuculate

    As I read these stories, I found myself asking each one: are you a literary performance or a story? Of course, I assured them, you can and should be both. But if you're only a fine, artful performance you'll fade out of my mind as I put you down; if you're a story too, I will never entirely forget you.

    Many of the pieces in this book met my question bravely. Four answered it to my complete satisfaction. One of the four is about two mad, peaceable engineers dumped into the Vietnam war; another is about an old man in California who has lived his whole life just barely above floodwater; one is about a man who guards women who will not guard themselves from the men who destroy them; and then there's the one about some crazy tourists. I picked this last one to talk about, but I tell you, it was a hard pick.

    "Galveston Bay, 1826" won me first, and last, by surprising me: every sentence unexpected, yet infallible. On rereading, both qualities remain.

    Where are we, among these coyote mirages, this endless herd of antelope? What is this beautiful place? Is it the land of magical realism? Not exactly. It's a bit north of that. It's nearer home. It's the way things were, and aren't. So, who are these fellows we're riding with, and where are they going? War party, no? No. They're tourists, off to see the Great Lake. Like any tourists, they have to get along with semicomprehending foreigners, and their experience will be a mixture of shock, enjoyment, and endurance--a rattlesnake, a crazy dance, a huge shrimp feast, a prairie on fire. Unlike some sightseers, they accept and admire whatever they see, being perfectly secure in the knowledge of who they are themselves. And so they arrive at the end of the Earth, and have a swim there.

    The tone of the narration is serene and buoyant, a rare mood at present and one that might lead a reader, thinking it accidental, to underestimate the weight and strength of the piece. Particularly in the short story, we're so used to expressivist angst that we may mistake the absence of it for triviality. In that case, Mozart might be a useful model to think of; or the quiet, understated way so many American Indians talk.

    The calm, beautiful, unexplaining accuracy of description carries us right through the madness of the final adventure: "Three arrows pointing upward floated past Old Bull at eye level, followed by a limp swamp rat and Red Moon's appaloosa, upside down." And so the survivor of journey and cataclysm comes home, alone, to tell his tale--perhaps, as an old hero, to embellish it a little. The ultimate aim of the short story, like the arrow, is to end exactly where it should. In art, the satisfaction of hitting the bull's-eye is not a simple one. It goes deep.

    Lily Tuck

    Born in Paris, Lily Tuck is the author of four novels: Interviewing Matisse, or The Woman Who Died Standing Up, The Woman Who Walked on Water, and Siam, or The Woman Who Shot a Man, which was nominated for the 2000 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Her fourth novel, The News from Paraguay, won the National Book Award. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker and are collected in Limbo, and Other Places I Have Lived. Her biography of the Italian writer Elsa Morante is forthcoming. Tuck divides her time between Maine and New York City.

    Juror Favorite:
    Lily Tuck on "The Room" by William Trevor

    "'Do you know why you are doing this?' he asked, and Katherine hesitated, then shook her head, although she did know" is how this remarkable story begins, introducing a double deception--the act of adultery and that of deceiving the lover. Or perhaps a triple one--self-deception--since the reader is right away alerted to the fact that Katherine may not really know yet.

    Ostensibly the story is about a woman who has embarked in a rather calculating manner on a loveless affair with an unnamed man--whose own marriage is failing--in order to know what it is like to deceive. Nine years earlier, her husband, Phair, had been accused of murdering a woman he had been seeing and deceiving his wife with. Thanks in part to his wife's testimony, based on her own lie, Phair was acquitted of the crime. The couple has been living quietly with this "deception" and Katherine, the wife and the protagonist of the story, even makes the claim: "I love him more, now that I feel so sorry for him, too," a sentiment further complicated by the fact that, originally, her husband had felt sorry for her since she could not have children and the marriage would be childless. It is also a story of how Katherine has tried to be a good, loyal, loving wife, about her restraint and discretion; a story about trust, but like all good stories it is not easily reducible.

    As one reads further one learns that Katherine's affair may not just be based on wanting to know what it is like to deceive but rather on a multitude of reasons that she may not understand or try to define to herself (and are only suggested to the reader): curiosity, revenge, and also idleness since she has just been fired from her job. Not only is Katherine at loose ends but she seems to be at a turning point in her life as she takes physical stock of herself in the mirror: "Her beauty was ebbing--but slowly, and there was beauty left." She also is passive and passionless; there is nothing heady or exciting about the affair. Before going home to her husband to cook their dinner, she sits in a café and drinks a latte, taking more pleasure in drinking the coffee than in anything else that had occurred that afternoon--in the sex.

    The characters in this story seem to have settled into a routine of stoic acceptance and hopelessness; Katherine and her husband no longer seem to have any expectations for happiness--they are merely soldiering on. At the same time their lives, the daily domestic routines--buying and cooking food, ironing a shirt--that shore up the marriage are portrayed without cynicism and with compassion and sensitivity, particularly for Katherine.

    The room rented by the nameless man, in which the affair is conducted, is central and symbolic. It is described as squalid, messy, and temporary: "cardboard boxes, suitcases open, not yet unpacked. A word processor had not been plugged in, its cables trailing on the floor . . ." The most unusual item does not belong to the man: "an anatomical study of an elephant decorated one of the walls, with arrows indicating where certain organs were beneath the leathery skin." It is of course the most telling. The room is not so much a place for sex as for emotional release; it is where Katherine suddenly feels compelled to tell her lover about the nine-year-old murder case and where she speaks of it for the first time. It is both cathartic and a test. The room is where Katherine allows herself to think about what happened in the past, about her marriage, and finally it is the place where she stops deceiving herself.

    Rain, too, plays a part in the story. Rain as cleansing and as revealing: the woman who identified Phair as the murderer does so because she saw him on the stairs while she went there to shut the window when it began to rain; the rain was the excuse Phair gave the night of the murder for coming home late; likewise a rainstorm that ends the period of excessive heat finds Katherine in the café drinking her latte and lying to her husband about how she spent the afternoon. The affair lasts six months before the nameless man decides to go back to his wife, and during this time, in spite of herself, Katherine thinks back on events--the police questioning her, her husband's part, his denial of the murder and his unquestioning acceptance of her lying about what time he came home on that particular evening--that are fine examples of the author's deft handling of information in both the past and the present.

    Also, inevitably during those six months, the truth will out: not necessarily the truth about whether or not Phair killed the woman but the truth about how Katherine feels about not knowing whether or not Phair killed her. The day comes when Katherine and her lover meet for what will be the last time, and after he has gone, she does not want to leave the room; instead she falls asleep for a few minutes, and when she wakes up she does not know where she is. Katherine then goes on a walk that is described as a "wasteland, it seemed like where she walked, made so not by itself but by her mood. She felt an anonymity, a solitude here where she did not belong, and something came with that which she could not identify. Oh, but it's over, she told herself . . ." And here the reader is not certain whether she is referring to the affair or to her marriage. Both probably. The ambiguity is stunning and Katherine's realization too comes with a heavy price that is applicable to both: "The best that love could do was not enough . . ."

    In spare and deceptively simple prose and in an uninflected and composed tone, the author is able to evoke the fraught atmosphere of a bad marriage and to dissect unhappiness and establish a mood, a sense of place, an atmosphere of expectations or the lack of them. More impressive still and a testament to his skill, the author is able to both infuse this story with authorial knowledge and disappear as an authorial presence so that his character can achieve a certain freedom based on self-knowledge. Never does the author draw any conclusions from either Katherine's lies or her truths. Her realization occurs as a result of the reality of the story. Where--the reader cannot help but wonder--did the germ for this story come from? And how did such a seamless structure arise out of the incipient idea? How did the author capture the complexity of reality in such artful and unexpected ways and yet have it be so profoundly like life?