Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from the Introduction
Reading blind is an experience that we as readers most often have with a writer whose work is unknown to us. We feel exhilarated when we find a new writer; it’s like meeting a new friend, sometimes like falling in love. The verb “envy” is the one most often used when we see someone embarking on a first reading of Virginia Woolf or Henry James.
Some of the stories in The O. Henry Prize Stories come from established writers, but they are given a chance to be read blind as well. Every year, a panel of three jurors reads a blind manuscript of the pieces selected as O. Henry Prize Stories; neither attribution nor provenance is given, so the jurors don’t know which magazines the stories appeared in or who the authors are.
All of the stories are in the same typeface and format. From these, each juror picks a favorite story and writes about it in the section “Reading The O. Henry Prize Stories.” This isn’t to say that jurors don’t on occasion detect a writer’s identity. There can be clues in sentence structure, word choice, or subject matter. The biggest giveaway is what one might call the writer’s presence, which includes all evidence of craft and meaning but goes beyond those elements. Each writer has a unique way of finding details in the material and natural world to create the story. The writer’s presence— the way the writer sees— is as innate as the color of the writer’s eyes.
Jim Shepard, a past O. Henry Prize winner and a 2013 juror, chose as his favorite story Andrea Barrett’s “The Particles.” He took note of the narrative’s pacing and what he calls the writer’s restraint. The word is a clue to a special quality of Barrett’s work. Though she often writes about scientists and the past, she uses restraint to hold back an avalanche of extraneous or excessive detail and authorial observation— explanations the reader doesn’t need. She restrains not only the superfluous but also the interesting when its presence would distract from her finely focused narrative.
Implicit in her work is the fascination of what she leaves out (more science, more history), but we trust her to go on without it, pulled by the story exactly as she tells it. Her subject matter is often double— the human drama and the scientific. The reader can almost hear Barrett thinking. In “Anecdotes,” Ann Beattie traces the differences between friendship and acquaintanceship. Conversations between her characters, their overt sharing of anecdotes and the push and pull of their unspoken exchanges, are part of the pleasure of Beattie’s writing. Little by little, the narrator of “Anecdotes” pulls away from the complications of what she thinks about a friend’s mother, Lucia, and what the friend’s mother thinks she should think, complications that extend to a choice between annoying involvement and happy disengagement. During this process, Beattie makes use of a minor character passing by in pink Uggs, and the criticism of the fuzzy boots by the cashmere- wearing Lucia. Beattie’s combination of sharpness and humor might seem to add up to satire, but she doesn’t make fun of her characters or reduce them to generalizations. Rather, she shows us that they’re all worth a look, though some are worthier than others. Beattie’s body of work is a testimonial against the unexamined life, and the title of her 1991 story collection Secrets and Surprises gives a clue to what awaits the reader in “Anecdotes.”
Tash Aw’s “Sail” is about a man who is isolated, estranged both from his country and his sense of who he is. Like the streamlined, arrow-like sailboat we see at the story’s beginning, Yanzu moves lightly and, it seems, effortlessly. When we are introduced to him, he is considering buying the sailboat to help himself over a failed love affair. He does not, however, know how to sail, and his ignorance is parallel to his inability to occupy or direct his own life. Yanzu is different from other people, as different as the boat he contemplates buying is elegant and mysterious. At thirty-nine, he is a successful green businessman in Hong Kong, dresses in expensive “classic” clothing, and is married to a woman he doesn’t like very much. At twenty, he studied chemistry, which the author calls the “intricate study of change,” and left his native Beijing after minor participation in the Tiananmen Square protests. When Yanzu fled to Hong Kong, he wanted to become a writer who would reveal mainland China’s faults and crimes. Yet “the more he wrote about Beijing, the more distant it seemed,” until he gave up the idea of writing. Instead, through his ambitious, materialistic wife, he is introduced into a world of gain, and more or less accidentally makes money. He wishes to learn English, and at the advice of his wife, who treats him with less warmth than she would a designer handbag, he takes private lessons from a restless, rootless Englishwoman with whom he falls in love.
Tash Aw’s story rings with the loneliness and absence of intimacy in Yanzu’s life. As the tale unfolds, Yanzu gains the world in the form of property, status, and bespoke suits, but never finds his own meaning or identity. Aw’s writing is elegant, guided by imagination, and skilled at showing how Yanzu appears to others in contrast to how he feels; the writer lets the reader understand how empty it feels inside Yanzu. Like the chemistry Yanzu once studied, “Sail” is an intricate study of change.
In contrast to the chilly vacancy of the marriage in “Sail,” the marriage of Donald Antrim’s Stephen and Alice in “He Knew” is a perfect synthesis. Antrim’s skilled narration of their journey from Bergdorf Goodman to Madison Avenue and parts north reveals their marriage as a tight duet, perhaps a tango. The objects they covet, reject, and acquire are more than material; each has the shimmer of the spiritual, a communion made tangible. Stephen and Alice are tightly wound, both around each other and within their own screaming nervous systems. Drugged, alert, anxious, suffering, the two cling together during what at first looks like a shopping spree and eventually becomes a fantasy of fertility and stability. Antrim calibrates his story so perfectly that the walk up Madison Avenue past one luxury store after another resembles the Stations of the Cross. By the end of “He Knew,” the reader feels as strung out as the characters, and wishes as much as Stephen does to believe in his desperate hopefulness.
Asako Serizawa’s delicate and subtle story of suspicion and fear, “The Visitor,” takes place in postwar Japan, during the brief visit of Murayama, an ex- soldier, to the narrator, a housewife. He claims to have been a friend of her missing, probably dead, son, also a soldier. Through small, telling details slowly parceled out in dialogue and exposition, we learn that civilians are near starvation, that returning soldiers are distrusted, and that the future is uncertain for all. Nationalism has been replaced by shame and deprivation.
There is a vase in the room where the mother entertains Murayama with food and tea from her scant supply. It is a “pale, ornamental vase [her] husband had sent from China during his tenure there. Like everything else, [she] did not expect the vase to stay long, its delicate color soon to be given up for a sack of grains and a few stalks of vegetables, but for the moment it cheered the room, its quiet shape attracting the eye, settling the soul. . . .” The absent husband is threatening, his wartime activities mysterious.
The narrator and the visitor exchange volleys of dialogue, and when the visitor finally leaves, she discovers a telling photograph he has left behind— which she mistakes for a scene of a mass execution before realizing it is an even more devastating image. Interestingly, Serizawa mentions the idea of restraint in her commentary on “The Visitor” (see page 442), but in that case the restraint exists not as literary technique but as the human quality that keeps her characters at a distance from each other.
In Kelly Link’s “The Summer People,” juror Edith Pearlman’s favorite, the mundane is transformed into the enchanted and back again. The story at first appears to be about year- round residents of a mountainous region who care-take for the rich summer visitors, and in particular about a clever and resourceful girl named Fran. Some of the summer people have more to them, though, than the usual breed of second- home owners: they have the power to transform, create, and heal. They also have the power to imprison, a device often seen in classic fairy tales. Fran tries throughout the story to slip the noose of enchantment, but, as in many fairy tales, learns that what seems like a triumph is not so desirable after all.
L. Annette Binder’s “Lay My Head” makes use of a fairy tale as a story within a story. In a lament, elegiac and peaceful, the sickly Angela reviews the memories and emotions that bind her to life, including the tales of her childhood: “Strubelpeter with his wild hair and Hans im Glück who was happiest when all his gold was lost.” Angela’s mother still believes in remedies for the disease that’s killing her daughter, but Angela believes only in her body’s signals. As the story progresses, the reader is taken on a remarkable journey that lasts until Hans im Glück is free to go home happily, all his gold lost. Binder intersperses the decay of Angela’s body with the progress of her spirit until, amazingly, the reader accepts Angela’s death.
The subject of memory, or perhaps more accurately the condition of remembering, drives other stories in this year’s collection: “Leaving Maverley” by Alice Munro, “Your Duck Is My Duck” by Deborah Eisenberg, “The Mexican” by George McCormick, and “Pérou” by Lily Tuck.
Alice Munro’s “Leaving Maverley” is steeped in memory, as announced by its opening: “In the old days when there was a movie theatre in every town....” The story is not about nostalgia, which is a subspecies of memory. Rather, it shows the grace offered by memory and story in a life that otherwise might look like a cheat and a waste. The love story of Ray and Isabel is the umbrella plot protecting the story’s deepest intention. Central as the events of their love and marriage are, it is the counterpoint to their long steadiness offered by the story of Leah that brings “Leaving Maverley” its depth and beauty.
Unlike Ray and Isabel, Leah runs from one thing to another, coming in and out of their lives; she gives them something to talk about, and talking is one of the things they do best together. Ray is fi rst seen as a night policeman in the small town of Maverley, working nights so he can spend his days with his invalid wife: “They had no children and could get talking anytime about anything. He brought her the news of the town, which often made her laugh, and she told him about the books she was reading.” When they met, he was a young veteran, hoping to head to college. Isabel was from a rich family, married to another man. Each changed everything so that they could marry and be together. Then she fell ill, and their existence became a careful routine.
Leah is change itself, making surprising leaps among relationships and modes of living. When she reappears at a crucial moment in Ray and Isabel’s life, Ray can’t remember her name. When he does, it’s “a relief out of all proportion, to remember her.” Leah’s name and what he knows about her is a fragment of his own story, something he can keep. Deborah Eisenberg’s “Your Duck Is My Duck,” juror Lauren Groff ’s favorite, also begins with a look at the past: “Way back— oh, not all that long ago, actually, just a couple of years, but back before I’d gotten a glimpse of the gears and levers and pulleys that dredge the future up from the earth’s core to its surface— I was going to a lot of parties.” The subject, then, is time, perceptible and fantastic. The narrator, an artist who’s stuck— unable to paint, working a boring job— is invited to leave all that behind and become the guest of Ray and Christa, a seemingly agreeable rich couple, at their beach place. The hope is that she’ll be able to paint again.
As in Alice Munro’s “Leaving Maverley,” we are treated to an umbrella story, that of the beach town’s inhabitants, the household’s servants, and the other (also compromised) guests of the couple. The ups and downs of Ray and Christa’s relationship rule everything and everyone. Only one guest, a master puppeteer, has found a way to stay clear of these fluctuations; he goes on with his work in a state of detachment. Our narrator doesn’t find peace and quiet or a way to return to her art during her stay, but by the end of the story, she is not only painting, she’s selling. She has her own money in her pocket and the reader wants to congratulate her on her restored independence from the whimsical, slightly sinister rich. Time rolls along in Eisenberg’s funny and involving story, whether we like it or not, for it’s inexorable, and once it’s gone, we can’t retrieve it except in the glimpses that memory gives us. As the puppeteer says, “And the thing you mostly get to keep is leaving.” The question of using autobiography— another form of memory—in fiction is a touchy one. Where one writer might bristle at the idea that she takes her work from her life, another will admit cheerfully that this is the case. It is certainly true that, at a minimum, writers never escape fully from themselves, not even in their most fully imagined work: wherever you go, there you are.
In “Pérou,” Lily Tuck makes a story out of what she cannot possibly remember about her own life. “Pérou” begins: “The year is 1940 and I lie fast asleep under a fur blanket in a Balmoral pram.” No baby knows what the year is or the name of its carriage; this is not memory speaking. A similar complicated negotiation of fact and imagination continues in the naming of the street the baby rolls along, and the detailed description of what her nurse, Jeanne, is wearing. Jeanne, the narrator explains, “is nineteen years old and will devote five years of her life to looking after me— years she will spend in Peru.”
And so the story continues, the story of Jeanne losing her family, country, language, everything she ever had. The story is told in a detached voice with occasional asides, letting us know that the narrator, the former baby, was as helpless as Jeanne to affect her fate. In part, this is the fault of the times, a period in European history of desperate displacement and flight. Reading, one is convinced of the helplessness the people in danger must have felt as they tried to save themselves and those they loved. The baby in the Balmoral pram is under threat, and uses the resource of memory to construct and pay tribute to someone who guarded her from danger and was herself abandoned. In “Pérou” memory is flexible and slippery, like trying to use a snake to measure a straight line.
The narrator of George McCormick’s “The Mexican” tells us that when he was a boy he worked summers at a rail yard with his Uncle Alton and a fellow named Chicken, icing shipments of California oranges, fruit that would ripen as it crossed the continent. The first paragraph of the story is a song of place- names and colors, with evocations of the weather, the sky, and the imagination of a boy looking past Oklahoma, perhaps into his future. The narrator lets us know that he has two ways of telling the story of an eventful night with Uncle Alton and Chicken: the accurate way he’s telling it to us, and the other way, distorted and pressed into a different setting; frogs in one version, coyotes in the other.
As an adult, the narrator trades his experience for the mythic West of tall tales, yet he makes us care for the prosaic, for everything and everyone he describes. “In the West,” he tells us, “what we love most are lies.” That night in Oklahoma the boy sees something unexpected and keeps it to himself, which is one kind of lying. Years later, when he tells the story to his sons, he changes everything— the oranges become Mexican steers who escape from the train car. “The Mexican” weighs two versions of a night against each other, and what seems likely to be the truer is rejected in favor of distortions that fulfill a cultural desire for another kind of story altogether.
Melinda Moustakis arranged “They Find the Drowned” in short sections that alternate in subject matter between the natural world and the human, with “the scientists” mediating between the two. As the story progresses, the two worlds touch: “The canopy has thinned by 70 percent and everything under it is changing— a beetle gnaws through the bark of a tree and the salmon count drops and then a fisherman drinks himself into a ditch.” With poker- faced humor and tenderness, Moustakis brings alive the threatened world of her story. Titles count in a short story. Watch for the point at which “they find the drowned” appears in the text. It’s a moment of heightened danger and simple reality at once.
It seems that danger has passed when Ayse Papatya Bucak’s “The History of Girls” opens. Until the end, the story is in first-person plural. There is coziness in the narrative voice, in tandem with horrors. The “ghosts of the girls who had already died” wait while the narrators do, and school rivalries and crushes, youthful dreams and ambitions, stories, poems, sheets and blankets, uniforms, gym skirts, head scarves, and stockings are revisited. The ephemera of the girls’ communal life charm us, and we— the story’s narrators and its readers alike— forget to ask, What are we waiting for? The answer comes in the singularity of the voice at the end when we realize that we’ve witnessed nothing less than a struggle between life and death.
Another kind of struggle is the subject of Jamie Quatro’s intriguing “Sinkhole.” The narrator, Benjamin Mills, is, he tells us, an amazing fifteen-year-old runner whose potential would have no end if it weren’t for the sinkhole in the middle of his chest. Only he can feel it, and if he doesn’t perform the Gesture, the sinkhole will “be the boss” of him. Because Ben’s brother died of a heart defect, his own physical perfection seems suspect; only Ben knows the danger he’s in from the sinkhole.
Ben is at summer camp, a place where a God impersonator is brought in to instruct the campers. He has a crush on his friend Wren, who, after surgeries for cancer, lacks her reproductive organs and her colon. Wren is lovely, damaged, and sexually curious. Ben has his sinkhole; she has a hole in her side for her colostomy bag. Wren is brave and determined, but Ben might be pulled into his sinkhole. How they come to terms with their afflictions and with their affection for each other is the essence of Quatro’s story. It’s easy to portray teenagers as morose and self-absorbed. It’s hard to create characters like Wren and Ben who use their youthful energy and will to vault themselves, however clumsily, into adulthood.
In Samar Farah Fitzgerald’s “Where Do You Go?” Henry and Vega, married two years, move to a suburban village and find themselves the only young people there. At first, they are self-sufficient, and the advantages of their new home balance the oddness of their situation. They are different from their elderly neighbors, whom they find amusing and a little repulsive. Little by little, they mix with them, and find within themselves and their relationship some frightening truths about love and companionship. Henry wonders, “If he hadn’t found Vega when he did, ten years ago, if he came across her now for the first time, would she still manage to captivate him?” What they took for granted now seems fragile and at risk. Henry becomes the favorite of their female neighbors, and Vega has an adventure of sorts with cigarette- smoking Gordon, whose customary outfit is pajama bottoms and a suit jacket. They begin to understand what a difference age makes and how little. For the first time, they see that something is coming for them, as it comes for everyone.
Essie, the unreasonable, possessive mother in “Tiger” by Nalini Jones, resembles the eponymous beast in her ferocious desire to make everyone in her household obey her every wish. Her daughter Marian, visiting Bombay from America, is married to Daniel, a prime target of Essie’s contempt. Essie’s granddaughters, Nicole and Tara, are delighted to fi nd a mother cat and two kittens. Against Essie’s commands, they play with the kittens and feed them, making them part of Essie’s household. The children choose the name “Tiger” for the mother cat. There are other tigers in the story, including an imposing and entitled one who naps in the middle of a road while travelers wait hours for it to awaken and move out of their way. Essie moves a bit, too, after tribulation. Jones’s portrait of a lonely, stubborn woman is touching not for Essie’s virtues but for her all- too- understandable flaws.
“White Carnations” by Polly Rosenwaike is another disquisition on motherhood, particularly on the transition from being a daughter to being a mother. A group of motherless women meet annually to celebrate Mother’s Day. The narrator’s meditation on her own mother’s life and way of mothering is woven throughout the story. When the discussion turns to adoption, she wonders, “Why such attachment to your own genetic lineage? I didn’t mean to be accusatory or self- righteous. My interest in this topic was philosophical.” Is that true? the reader wonders. False?
The story’s conversational tone, the women at the Mother’s Day celebration, the narrator’s slowly revealed dilemma— all are factors in the enjoyment of the story and its ending, which surprises its characters and uncovers what the reader might have known all along.
Derek Palacio’s “Sugarcane” is set in post- revolutionary Cuba, not the Cuba of political rhetoric but of the daily rules and orders that control the life of every citizen. Armando is a rural doctor allowed to have a Jeep to travel to visit his far- flung patients. To sweeten his life, he agrees to take under his wing a sugar plantation manager’s son, Eduardo, who is neither bright nor talented but wishes to become a doctor. In exchange for consenting to teach Eduardo, help him through entrance exams, and write him a letter of recommendation, Armando receives pounds of sugar at a time when Cubans are entitled to only one cup every Saturday.
With the bounty of sweetness comes an affair with the sensual Mercedes, and some hard choices for Armando. The story is saturated with sugar and bureaucracy, limits and confinement, and the possibility of love. Underlying the sweetness and bitterness of life in Cuba is the nagging question of leaving or staying.
Joan Silber’s “Two Opinions” begins with a family visit to federal prison, where the narrator’s father is being held for refusing to register for the draft during World War II. The narrator, Louise, and her sister, Barbara, are dressed up and wear their Mary Janes, and on the way home their mother feeds them treats like “homemade brownies and date- nut squares,” of which the narrator says, “We were very excited, the whole trip seemed to have been so we could have this food.”
Thus begins Louise’s evenhanded account of her life. Hidden within all the interesting details of her gains and losses is her continual contrast of the ideal and the quotidian. She is accused by her family of having no principles, but this isn’t really so. Her principles are less easily articulated than the political and social goods her parents believe in; she wishes to lead an ordinary life, and she does, or tries to. She marries her high- school sweetheart, a teacher who has so few scruples that he bribes his students “to rat on each other.” When he’s fi red, their lives take a different turn. Throughout, the narrator stands up for the goodness of the ordinary. Her principles are all her own.
In many of Joan Silber’s short stories, her narrators, as in “Two Opinions,” bear witness to their lives, speaking so openly, sharing themselves so willingly, that the reader can’t help hoping for mercy for them.
Kishen, the main character in Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s “Aphrodisiac,” is a Cambridge- educated Indian who wishes to write “the sort of novel that should be written about India.” Several of Jhabvala’s novels were set in India, though whether or not Kishen would consider them novels that should be written abut India is doubtful. Jhabvala, who died in April 2013, was not a writer who engaged in grandiose declarations about India or anything else.
Jhabvala’s vision of her characters is so dry- eyed and clearminded that Kishen would surely wish to duck her examination. Jhabvala excelled at creating frustrating characters who themselves are frustrated. At certain points in all her stories, the reader feels like telling a character or two to shape up, even as the reader is aware that the character’s paradoxical problems require far more than willpower to be solved. Jhabvala was expert at portraying a certain kind of unwilling but fi erce entanglement, as in “Aphrodisiac.” By the time Kishen begins to understand how far things have gone wrong, he is beyond redemption. The reader can upbraid Kishen or feel sorry for him, or feel both emotions at once, knowing that he is hoisted with his own petard, as are we all. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s vision, wisdom, and humor will be missed.
— Laura Furman
West Lake Hills, Texas