Introduction to 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories
Every year, after the long process ends of choosing the twenty PEN/O. Henry Prize stories from the many submitted, friends ask me what trends were revealed by all that reading and deliberation. The question doesn’t have to do with aesthetics or literary technique but with subject matter: What do this year’s stories show about our world?
Those who pose the question seem to believe that short-story writers are prophets or seers, or at the very least mirrors reflecting the joys and horrors of our time. It’s a common notion that writers are society’s canaries in the coal mine, sensitive and intelligent canaries who bring us news about the way we live now. Many are known for doing exactly that; Charles Dickens springs to mind, and so many other writers with a social vision such as Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, Margaret Atwood. And who could have done a better job than Herman Melville of portraying the multi-racial, multiethnic mix that was his America and is ours?
But for many writers, an explicit social agenda and social commentary—even contemporary life itself—are of limited interest. The relevance of a good writer transcends time and place. We continue to read Charles Dickens even though we don’t live in Victorian England. Fyodor Dostoyevsky thrills us not because we recognize czarist Russia but because we recognize the struggle of our own souls.
Literature—writing that lasts because of its superior quality—does have a way of seeming both predictive and definitive. When we see a suburb of a certain type, we see Cheever Country or the Land of Yates; literature over time defines life. When we reread the best short stories, we recognize both their technical power and the true-to-life human crises embedded in them.
Of course, one practical obstacle to the idea that stories have something to tell us about our moment is that often they are written long before they are published. The moment they arrive in print before the reader’s eyes might make a writer seem prescient, but the excellent timing is more often than not a happenstance. There have always been apocalyptic stories, but one published on September 10, 2001, would have a predictive power unavailable to the same story if published much earlier or later.
That said, it’s hard to deny that some stories capture the zeitgeist perfectly, and in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2011 the mood is a savage fierceness, which seems apt at the moment. Many of the stories are laden with a convincing sense of doom and intimations of what civilization looks like minus the civilization. All of this year’s stories are written with end-of-the-world honesty.
One example of such intensity is Lynn Freed’s “Sunshine.” Because the author is a native of South Africa, her brilliant, rockhard prose might seem to be expressing metaphorically the horrors of that nation’s past, but “Sunshine” is larger than recent political history. Its true subject is evil. Its world is an eternal, almost mythic, struggle of Master and Slave. The story’s drama is about the breaking of a wild spirit by a spoiled creature too used to getting his way. The manner in which the struggle ends is haunting and frightening—and rings true. Our juror A. M. Homes was also struck by these strengths, and she chose “Sunshine” as her favorite.
Helen Simpson’s “Diary of an Interesting Year” brings the reader into a postapocalyptic world that seems at first familiar from screen incarnations. Yet the quotidian, middle-class voice of the narrator is in powerful contrast to the dramatic privations of a society’s collapse. The story is funny until it is distinctly not, and then it is powerful and unnerving.
“The Black Square” by Chris Adrian is about the limits of love of all kinds, except the love of death. Its central conceit—a black square one can enter but never return from—is an invention of brooding, Rothko-like minimalism, and suggests a different world from ours, one in which suicide is accepted, perhaps even respectable. This is the way the world ends—through a small black square, one person at a time.
In “Melinda” by Judy Doenges the violence, as well as the melancholic monotony of a degrading world, is supplied by methamphetamine, to which Melinda has devoted her young life and what’s left of her mind. The cool, matter-of-fact tone of Melinda’s narrative is perfect for the destruction she describes: her world that will end before she knows it, as she loses her sense of time and her capacity to care about anything but the drug and what it takes to get it.
The stories of David Means are not unacquainted with destruction. (A previous Means story was included in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2006.) In “The Junction” Means layers two narratives of hobo life in the American Midwest: one is the tale Lockjaw tells one freezing night to a bunch of cynical kibitzers permanently down on their luck—a tale about hot cherry pie, fresh-baked bread, and home; the other is the story of Lockjaw’s audience of fellow hobos and his relationship to them. Lockjaw is a talker because “you had to spin out a yarn and keep spinning until the food was in your belly and you were out the door.” But Lockjaw’s peers are way beyond home, fresh cherry pie, and Lockjaw’s gift of gab.
In “Ice” by Lily Tuck, we’re in the Antarctic. On a cruise ship the quiet drama of a frozen marriage acts as a diversion to the real iciness to come, the coldness of death. Tuck’s characteristic compression and elegant brevity shape a dangerous world that has shrunk to one element—the ice that surrounds the boat and defines the characters’ lives.
Another kind of isolation overwhelms a young couple in Lori Ostlund’s “Bed Death.” Two American women arrive in Malaysia to find work and to be together. In the end, they are alienated both from the place and from each other, separated not just by the “bed death” of the title—the end of their lovemaking—but by the end of their mutual tolerance.
In what might be the sweetest story in the collection, “Nightblooming” by Kenneth Calhoun, a young musician, filled with doubts and condescension, plays a gig with the Nightblooming Jazzmen, a band of elderly musicians who are “marching the saints and balling the jack.” The illusions crushed by the end of the night are those of the youth, who loses a new home he’s surprised to find he wanted.
Three other stories in the collection revolve around varieties of love, or rather its impossibility, power, and elusiveness: “Pole, Pole” by Susan Minot, “Nothing of Consequence” by Jane Delury, and “The Rules Are the Rules” by Adam Foulds. Susan Minot’s story is set in Kenya and centers on the accidental, sexually heated meeting of a young woman, newly arrived, and a man whose elusiveness is soon made plain, as is the tenuousness of the woman’s reason for being in Africa. The story begins with a passionate coupling of strangers and ends in isolation.
In Jane Delury’s “Nothing of Consequence” a widowed French schoolteacher goes to Madagascar and meets a young man. The important transformation in the story comes, surprisingly, to the young man. The encounter allows him to understand his own story, and gives the Frenchwoman a measure of justice for a grave wound in her past. The story reveals with delicacy and humor how incidentally yet significantly the lovers touch each other’s lives.
In Adam Foulds’s “The Rules Are the Rules” the life of Reverend Peter and his congregation in suburban London is complicated by his closeted homosexuality and his loss of faith. “Off the grid. That was how Peter thought of himself when he lost contact with God, when Jesus was a dead man and he was alone. Then the world was vast and contained nothing, nothing real, only his loneliness between hard surfaces.” He finds refuge in anger and in petty cruelty to those smaller than he, and despair at what he sees as the coming loss of his lover, Steve, who is free to go to bars and clubs for casual sex. The story conveys without sentimentality Peter’s aching imprisonment. The intensity in the story derives from the awful sense that there is no escape from the rules because they are the only ones Peter accepts.
The energy and music of “How to Leave Hialeah” by Jennine Capó Crucet lie in the voice of the narrator. She begins with sassy happiness at her successful escape from Florida, her mother, her extended Cuban American family, and what appears to be a sadly restricted existence. As she moves along an outwardly successful path toward another kind of restriction within an academic life built on the corrupting exploitation of her ethnic identity, our narrator crosses from authenticity to falseness, from a world with flaws and joys to one in which success means compromising self-definition and petty internecine triumphs. The story ends with a new and opposite desire, perhaps unattainable.
Mark Slouka’s “Crossing” works both as an engrossing, involving tale of a man trying not to screw up again and as a metaphor for all parenting. Has there ever been a parent who hasn’t felt the terror and responsibility this father faces? Slouka’s story is a vivid portrait of the love of a helpless parent for his child, one that leaves us caught in midstream, holding our breath.
Helplessness, irresponsibility, mistaken identities—these are also elements in Elizabeth Tallent’s rich story “Never Come Back,” about a man who, in the middle of his life, finds frustration and disintegration in his family and his rural California community, and internally in his sense of his own manhood. His grandson seems to offer him a fresh start, but the child, like everything else in the story’s world, isn’t his to have. Tallent’s prose is dense and involving; her characters and their place are believable and heartbreaking.
A story by Brian Evenson was included in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2007; that story, “Mudder Tongue,” was about a father whose language was failing him. “Windeye” is a child’s story about belief in make-believe. Evenson blurs the distinction between being dead and not being alive, between pretending and not knowing what is real. The boy’s need for his sister’s affirmation of his feelings and perceptions spells lasting trouble for him, but his fidelity to his young, fearless sister pulls the reader through the story.
Another exploration of childhood comes in Brad Watson’s “Alamo Plaza,” about a family’s vacation in Gulfport, Mississippi. Brad Watson’s previous PEN/O. Henry story appeared in the 2010 collection and also took place in a motel. The pleasure of the current story lies in the narrator’s exploration of memory tainted by knowledge. The characters are both who they are in the present of the story and who they will be when their fates, announced early in the story, catch up with them. For the moment, though, there’s an uneasy truce between remembered unhappiness and the web of details that the narrator illuminates with a survivor’s skepticism and uneasy affection.
Four of our stories reach into the historical past with a present-day intensity; nothing will do now but to tell the truth.
Jim Shepard, a master storyteller, sets “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” in 1939 Switzerland, a time of fateful political transition. Four volunteers—Die Harschblödeln, the Frozen Idiots—are spending the winter “in a little hut perched on a wind-blasted slope . . . nine thousand feet above Davos.” They are avalanche researchers, which is to say that their fates will hurtle down at them with impersonal destructiveness. The high-spirited young scientists court disaster as the narrator’s courtship of an old acquaintance turns into another kind of disaster. The narrative tone is commemorative yet hardly solemn; between gallows humor and the perils of the quartet’s scientific research, there’s an almost jaunty quality to the story’s beginning. As the story develops, the reader’s sense of doom and sorrow grows until the final surprising and satisfying ending. Our juror Christine Schutt chose “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” as her favorite.
Tamas Dobozy’s “The Restoration of the Villa Where Tíbor Kálmán Once Lived” takes place in Hungary in the last years of World War II and during the Soviet occupation. To László, a survivor of conscription into the German army and then of the Soviet bureaucracy, restoring the villa where a Hungarian hero once lived becomes both his raison d’être and his excuse for behavior exemplifying what the philosopher Hannah Arendt termed “the banality of evil.”
“The Vanishing American,” Leslie Parry’s story of early Hollywood, World War I, and lost love, is full of feeling, intelligence, and narrative confidence and skill. A silent film is being shot in California, and illusion reigns. The protagonist is a mute actor playing Indian #9. The buffalo are imported and Indian #9 is not Native American. He is a veteran of the all-too-real Argonne Forest, haunted by the war’s losses and his own uncertain future, and he moves through the film’s shooting both present and absent. The story fascinates the reader, who will gradually put together Indian #9’s identity, where he has been, and where he is going.
Matthew Neill Null’s West Virginia tale “Something You Can’t Live Without” is a terrific story about a con man who is himself conned in a particularly horrible way. Our juror Manuel Muñoz chose the story as his favorite. What gives “Something You Can’t Live Without” its heft and glory is the deep authenticity of the narrative. There are no caricatures here, no researched settings. Everything in the story feels true to life—as gruesome and glorious, in fact, as life itself.
It’s possible, of course, that the apocalyptic ferocity of The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2011 is in the eye of the beholder. The hope is that each of the stories will outlast the original time and place that inspired it. That’s the best news about the latest incarnation of our annual collection of twenty stories—each of them displays a vigor and intensity that suggest that the end-time of the short story as an art form is nowhere in sight.