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Prize Jury 2014
  • Tash Aw
  • James Lasdun
  • Joan Silber

  • Read about other jurors and their selected favorites.

    Tash Aw

    Tash Aw was born in Taipei to Malaysian parents and grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The Harmony Silk Factory won the Whitbread and Commonwealth Writers prizes for best first novel, was longlisted for the Booker Prize, and has been translated into twenty-three languages. His third novel is Five Star Billionaire. He lives in London.

    Juror Favorite:
    Tash Aw on "The Gun" by Mark Haddon

    Two boys and a gun; a tough neighborhood of tower blocks and scrapyards; a traumatic, violent event that will mark the story's protagonist. Stripped down to its bones, the story seems immediately familiar: A coming-of-age story, we might think, a masculine-rites-of-passage narrative. Indeed, the one- dimensional directness of the title seems to offer only one choice to the reader. This is a story about two boys who find a gun, go and play with it, and end up committing a horrific act that will scar them forever.

    Except that they are not scarred in the way you imagine, and in some ways, the one who pulls the trigger doesn't even seem particularly shocked by what he has done (though we don't see him thirty years later, as we do the protagonist, so we don't really know for sure). And nothing is quite what it seems: Everything hovers on the edge of possibility, flitting among multiple realities. The physical properties of the story, like its emotional terrain, are a shifting no-man's-land, never fixed to one single truth. The bleakness of the council estate where the protagonist grows up is shot through with tenderness, but it is also socially vague—working-class, certainly, but populated by families who read crime novels and do jigsaw puzzles in their spare time; and it borders a huge ring road, bleeding elsewhere into more aspiring areas where people drive BMWs and have china greyhounds on either side of the fireplace. There are woodlands next to factories and junkyards. Everything is ugly; everything is beautiful.

    And this constant juxtaposing continues on the emotional and technical planes of the story. Gentleness nestles snugly next to the violence; joyousness is placed squarely with the grotesque; the serious social portrait of the neighborhood is laced throughout with an exuberant sense of the ridiculous, sometimes the absurd. Above all, present forces its way into the past, and vice versa. The infallibility of memory: Nothing is ever quite what it seems, but everything is exactly what it seems.

    That is why the event that lies at the heart of the story never seems quite as unbelievable as it should be, for everything in the universe of the story is already set up to be at once fantastic yet rooted in reality. A cow crashes through a roof into a meeting at an ironworks. A dead woman calls her son on the telephone half an hour after she dies. A large deer bounds out of scrubby woodland on the edge of a busy road and is shot by young boys fooling around with a gun, and is then cut up in an apartment on a council estate and roasted with potatoes. Has the protagonist made all of this up? Is he going mad? These are questions he asks himself but never finds the answers to.

    In some ways this is the gritty-but-intimate story you might have imagined at the outset, but it is much more than that. It takes a well-trodden narrative and makes it surreal, ever so gently ironic, sad, and hugely affectionate. It pulls the reader in lots of different directions: You never know exactly how to react, for there's never a comfort zone. The protagonist often feels somewhat detached from the goings-on around him, even in the most explosive moments of the story, and at times I felt frustrated by his inability to take charge of the swirl of events and emotions around him. But by the end of the story, his state of nonengagement seemed entirely fitting to me, and truthful, too. We think we own our memories, we think we construct the narrative of our lives, but in fact we don't. Things just happen—random events, sometimes boring, sometimes monumental, often just plain weird. We are mere observers to the strangeness of our own lives, this sequence of events that unfolds before us, leaving us bewildered, lost in a blurred landscape, just like the protagonist of "The Gun."

    James Lasdun

    James Lasdun was born in London in 1958. His publications include The Horned Man, a novel, and Landscape with Chainsaw, a collection of poems. His story "The Siege" was adapted by Bernardo Bertolucci for his film Besieged. He cowrote the screenplay for the film Sunday (based on another of his stories), which won awards for best feature and best screenplay at Sundance. His story "An Anxious Man" won the UK's inaugural BBC National Short Story Award in 2006. His latest books are a memoir, Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked, and a collection of stories, It's Beginning to Hurt. Lasdun lives in upstate New York.

    Juror Favorite:
    James Lasdun on "The Inheritors" by Kristen Iskandrian

    I was drawn immediately to "The Inheritors" by the nervously probing intelligence of the writing. Many short stories, including some very great ones, involve a trade-off whereby you give your time and attention to some fairly unremarkable chunks of narrative on the understanding that by the end something will have happened to make them magically resonate with each other and add up to more than the sum of their parts. "The Inheritors" is rare in offering both that larger, structural, magic and the detailed pleasure of a super-sensitive mind figuring out an enigma, sentence by sentence, right there on the page.

    What is that enigma? It has to do with the sense of connection that arises, occasionally, between two strangers. Like the orphaned bric-a-brac in the thrift store where she works, the unnamed woman encountered by the unnamed narrator is of uncertain origin (or so she claims) and quirkily idiosyncratic character. Her presence in the world seems as tenuous as her grasp of idiom, and as striking: It's easy to understand the narrator's growing fascination with her. Fascination does seem the word for this odd, original relationship (original in the sense that although it seems extremely lifelike I don't remember ever seeing it as the subject of a short story). Not quite warmth, not quite annoyance, not quite erotic interest, it seems to partake of all these things, and braid them into something utterly—and wonderfully—mysterious. And of course it is further enriched by the narrator's own singular temperament, her very appealing way of combining the whimsical with the scrupulous as she articulates her complex reactions to the ever-evolving mystery of this new acquaintance of hers. Her trains of thought are as pleasurable to follow as they are unpredictable. Musing on the multifunctionality of objects in our world (TVs that double as refrigerators, et cetera), she looks at the tea towels she's folding in the store and imagines how even these humble items might adapt to modern times: "I saw them scrubbing out their own stains, embroidered corners curling in like starfish, while maybe simultaneously announcing the time." Then, in a series of characteristic swerves, she feeds her reflections right back into the puzzle of attraction and exasperation at the emotional heart of the story: "I wanted to say this to her, wanted her to find me funny, and I also wanted to unravel her, to find a loose thread and pull at it, as though she were the towels I was folding, which felt suddenly twee and self-satisfied."

    That idea of multifunctionality also seems to be the key to the larger design of the story. If you stand back from its microscopically focused acts of scrutiny and self-scrutiny, what you see is a whole architecture of substitutions and repurposings. From the first image of the woman as a "placeholder" for someone else in the narrator's memory, nobody is quite who they seem, and every feeling comes with a switch that can turn it magically into its opposite. I haven't seen this before either&mdsah;this kind of delirious but controlled volatility. I found it—like every other aspect of this story—strange, new, delightful, and curiously moving. It leaves you with a sense of unnavigable waters having been accurately and lovingly charted—if not exactly made safe.

    Joan Silber

    Joan Silber was born in New Jersey. She is the author of seven works of fiction, including Fools (longlisted for the National Book Award and finalist for the 2014 PEN-Faulkner Prize), The Size of the World (finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Fiction), Ideas of Heaven (finalist for the National Book Award and the Story Prize), and Household Words (winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award). She is the author of The Art of Time in Fiction, a critical study. Her stories have been in three O. Henry collections, and she's received a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters as well as grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York City.

    Juror Favorite:
    Joan Silber on "Opa-locka" by Laura van den Berg

    Picking just one story was difficult. As I read, I kept forming new enthusiasms—the masterly "The Women" by William Trevor, the astounding "Fatherland" by Halina Duraj, the wonderfully sharp "Trust" by Dylan Landis. In the end, I chose "Opa-locka" by Laura van den Berg. It's a wild story that manages to be utterly convincing—two sisters, down on their luck, have hired themselves out as private eyes, and are first seen spying on an adulterous husband from a very hot rooftop in Florida. While their vigil features bologna sandwiches, ice cubes, beer, Cheetos, and NoDoz, the hokiness of all this doesn't mean they're not close to danger.

    What I loved in this story was the way it kept surprising me. It has a number of layers—the two sisters once hired a detective to try to find their own runaway father, one sister has a prison record and an edgy streak and a bad neighborhood, the worried wife who hires them is rehearsing Don Giovanni. While I was watching the sisters make a botch of their genuinely vexing investigation, I had the great pleasure of feeling the story go deeper, as it went down several paths.

    It's quite a stunning moment when the story announces what it's about. Watching her ex-client sing Mozart, the narrator thinks, "The basic problem in the story was that everyone wanted Don Giovanni to change, but he wouldn't." This bit of smartness—right in character—was especially satisfying to me because I'm sort of an enemy of the old chestnut that a short story is required to show a character changing. Chekhov, I like to point out, is often interested in characters who won't change—"The Darling" sings a whole tune about this. "Opa-locka" is intent on looking at the mystery—to use one of its favorite words—of why some people (father, husband, sister) are so set on doing what they do, no matter how they are loved.

    The story has its own sense of pacing—it isn't afraid to include a crucial death at the last moment—and it lets its final loops tie together all the elements. It's a deceptively skilled story, ambitious in a superbly sneaky way.