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Prize Jury 2008
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • David Leavitt
  • David Means

  • Read about other jurors and their selected favorites.

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria in 1977. She is from Abba in Anambra State, but grew up in the university town of Nsukka. Adichie's first novel, Purple Hibiscus, won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction. Her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, won the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction. She lives in Nigeria.

    Juror Favorite:
    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on "Touch" by Alexi Zentner

    I admired a number of stories in this collection and spent some time thinking about which to pick. For a moment I thought that I should perhaps be clever and select the story that took the most risks and was ambitious and original, etc. But I didn't. The more short stories I read, the more I realize that while I respect many different types, my ability to love a story remains stubbornly fixed on the same criteria: I like a story to tell a story and to teach me something about what it means to be human and to not be terribly self-conscious or ironic for irony's sake, and most of all, to have emotion. "Touch" does all of these. Its themes of love and loss may be familiar, but it has such memorable characters, such a strong sense of atmosphere, such grace, and all of these done with a wonderfully light touch, that it easily transcends its themes. The language--axes cutting smiles into pines, sawdust flying down men's shirts like mosquitoes, the river like a mouth in a brief yawn--transported me to this small self-enclosed world of people who live through winters of cold-shattered thermometers, a Nature-shaped world that is ordinary and yet filled with wonder. I was moved by the elegiac telling, the unapologetic tenderness that never became maudlin, and the characters--the men hacking out a livelihood with a sort of disinterested dignity, the romantic but tough father, the mother who is determined not to lose any more, the daughter who looks wide eyed at life, the narrator for whom my heart broke at the end. I will remember this story for a long time. After I read it, as I lay in bed waiting for sleep, this image haunted me: a father and a daughter frozen in a river, both reaching out to touch, but not quite touching, the other.

    David Leavitt

    David Leavitt is the author of the story collections The Marble Quilt and Collected Stories and several novels, including The Lost Language of Cranes and The Body of Jonah Boyd, as well as two nonfiction books, Florence, A Delicate Case and The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer. He is the recipient of grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and a New York Public Library Literary Lion. Leavitt codirects the creative writing program at the University of Florida and edits the journal Subtropics. He lives in Gainesville, Florida.

    Juror Favorite:
    David Leavitt on "What Do You Want to Know For?" by Alice Munro

    In the early 1980s, when I first started writing, the short story enjoyed a brief renaissance. Long regarded as merely a sidebar to the far more significant spectacle of the novel, the story--thanks in great part to the efforts of a small group of writers and editors--suddenly asserted itself as a form worthy of attention in its own right. Reading stories by writers such as Raymond Carver, Deborah Eisenberg, Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, and Grace Paley, young writers like me suddenly saw provocative possibilities where before there had only been the pallid "minor" offerings of authors for whom glory resided exclusively in the novel. That some of these emerging writers only wrote stories added to the form's new appeal and heralded a brief golden age in which (wonder of wonders) story collections actually sold; one or two even hit The New York Times bestseller list.

    Alas, that golden age did not last long, and, starting in the early nineties, the novel once again usurped what little of a spotlight remained for prose fiction. This does not mean, however, that the story is dead. On the contrary, as the exemplary selection that Laura Furman has culled this year attests, the story is as vibrant as ever.

    More than anything, it is the vitality, variety, and audacity of these stories that impresses. Who would guess, for instance, that a fragile alliance formed between a lonely musician and the parakeet whom his girlfriend has left in his care could evolve into a love story of truly operatic intensity? Yet in Ha Jin's fabulistic, funny, and very moving "A Composer and His Parakeets," this is exactly what happens. Michel Faber's "Bye-bye Natalia" is an exercise in linguistic ventriloquism, as the e-mail relationship between an HIV-positive Ukrainian would-be mail-order bride and her Montanan suitor proceeds apace--until a fatal misstep in musical taste derails it. (That the author is Dutch, and lives in Scotland, only adds to my amazement at the story's pitch-perfect renditions of its protagonists' voices.) William H. Gass's "A Little History of Modern Music" is exactly that: a lecture, rich in divagations, given by a fatigued professor to a group of bored students; it is also a summing up, about nine pages in length, of the sorrowful trajectory of twentieth-century history. As for Lore Segal's "Other People's Deaths," this story provides further evidence that its estimable and witty author, whose work appears so rarely in print, deserves a wider audience. Who else but Segal, after all, would think of turning an account of a young widow's grief into a comedy of manners focused on the bungled, often selfish reactions of her friends to the unwelcome fact of death?

    One story in this collection bowled me over. Not surprisingly, it comes from a writer whom many consider the greatest short story writer of her age: Alice Munro. As is the case with most of Munro's work, the apparent modesty, even artlessness, of "What Do You Want to Know For?" belies the story's intricacy, not to mention the breadth of its concerns. "I saw the crypt before my husband did," the narrator begins--and launches into an account of her own mysterious preoccupation with this crypt, which sits in the middle of an almost abandoned cemetery in rural Ontario. As the story progresses, the narrator adds, with very little fuss, that a lump has just been found in her left breast. The weeks following this discovery--weeks marked by long waits between medical appointments--she and her husband devote to an investigation of the history and origins of the abandoned crypt.

    "What Do You Want to Know For?" is frank, brave, and strangely helpful. I recall Grace Paley once saying that, for her, a great story has to be "about everything." This is the sensation with which I came away from "What Do You Want to Know For?"; that, in the course of reading the story, I had learned a great deal not only about the cemeteries of western Ontario, but about--there is no other way to say this--how to live. "It seems as if you must always take care of what's on the surface," Munro writes late in the story, "and what is behind, so immense and disturbing, will take care of itself." Such interpolations, deadly in the hands of a less experienced and (I daresay) less wise writer, become, when Munro takes them up, part of a story's delicate architecture. Hers is an art of layering in which the other ingredients are perfectly rendered dialogue, unforgettable details of place and history, and the scrupulous analysis of human interaction. As seemingly meandering as the rural roads down which its narrator and her husband drive, "What Do You Want to Know For?" carries us to a conclusion that is at once startling and inevitable, and leaves us in awe of this writer who can trick us into believing that a carefully planned journey was really just a wander through the countryside. I can think of no writer who exerts such control over her material--control as absolute, and as invisible, as God's.

    David Means

    David Means is the author of three story collections, including Assorted Fire Events, which won the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. His latest collection, The Secret Goldfish, was short-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and has been translated into eight languages. His recent work has appeared in The New Yorker, Zoetrope, Harper's Magazine, The Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories 2006. He teaches at Vassar College and lives in Nyack, New York.

    Juror Favorite:
    David Means on "Folie à Deux" by William Trevor

    Hovering, moving in and out of viewpoints, is a kind of omniscient eye, and it is this eye that concludes: "For Anthony, the betrayal matters, the folly, the carelessness that would have been forgiven, the cruelty. . . . The haunted sea is all the truth there is for Anthony, what he honors because it matters still." This is a revelatory moment in the story, but it is also a deeply poetic moment. What does it mean to say that "the haunted sea" is all the truth there is for a man? Clearly, we're not meant to think--and I certainly didn't--that Anthony pushed away from his world simply because of a childhood incident. A good reader, able to feel the wider connotations of the words "haunted sea," will bring to bear upon the story his or her own reflection. Perhaps the sea is meant to represent the seat of the soul and the deep, unfathomable pains that linger in the heart and, for some of us, push us into a state of depression in which the will to go on falls away.

    The paradox of the story--at least the way I read it--was that, clearly, Anthony did go on with his life after he "lost his will to go on." He moved to Paris and found pleasure in his work. He is content--I wouldn't dare say happy--to clean the ovens, tend to his duties at the café, and to live far away from Ireland. Trevor refuses to give us more of Anthony's life, forcing us, as all good stories do, to deduce from the glimpse, to use our sympathetic capacities, to extrapolate outward.

    Near the end, Trevor's eye allows us a fleeting, tight glance into Anthony's point of view, and we see that at one time he read The Irish Times and got the news that his parents were dead. We get the feeling that, from his vantage, his life makes sense. To Wilby, he says, simply, "I haven't died." This statement resonates deeply. It is a statement both of fact and of existential rebellion. It is clean and pure. It is all Anthony can say to Wilby, a man who has speculated and pondered and tried, drawing from fleeting memories of the past, to make sense of seeing his friend again, alive. (Anthony's statement echoes Herman Melville's character Bartleby. The simple, short utterance of an imponderable soul.)

    Two men meet, the I/thou of their souls bumping for a quick moment on a street in Paris, and in that meeting there is--as there always is when two people come upon each other--a potential for deep revelation, for some complex exchange, for a long conversation, for a mending of wounds, for a bond to form or a bond to break. As readers, we know this is a key moment, and we lean in close to the story and--if we're reading the way we should--let the poetics of the moment resonate. (The reader should go back and look carefully at the way Trevor composes this pivotal moment, using his panning eye to move us from Wilby's point of view into Anthony's, splintering the narrative, giving us a tactile sensation of divided lives, causing us to feel the intricacy of the meeting while, at the same time, making us aware of the magnitude of the fact that no matter how hard Wilby tries, he'll never locate the secret narrative behind Anthony's life.)

    Trevor is a master at evoking a certain kind of loneliness--often mistaken for a form of darkness. His work is sometimes criticized as being too dark, lingering too much on the tragic. But really his stories are not so much about darkness as about loneliness, not so much about loneliness as a particular kind of solitude and isolation.

    With all the neuroscience in the world, the nature of character proves a mystery. All behavior is, at the narrative level, enigmatic. One event--even the trauma of sending a dog to its death, chasing a blow-up raft into the waves--cannot explain the vagaries of Anthony's strange behavior. In the end, each thing we do, each decision we make, each love we feel, each memory we have, when tweezed apart and held for close observation, stands as part of a mystery. Because the world is just too vast and too complex and has too many factors--like a wild, chaotic storm wending itself into various graspable but fleeting symmetries--to be nailed down precisely.

    But the miracle is that Trevor does nail the truth down with his art and with the poetic musicality of his form and with the way the story ends, moving alongside Wilby in the salerooms, passing the orderly display tables where the stamps, held fast in their frames, behind glass, are arranged in an orderly fashion. This is the miracle of a great short story, the paradox of what a writer like Trevor can do at his best, giving us just a glimpse, a few fragments of one thing, and then another, that can be held in the mind as a multifaceted whole, rotated, reread from one angle and then another, giving you a sense of having the entire picture, and yet, at the same time, one that is truthfully incomplete. Like the lives we live.