The short story often gets short shrift. While Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” is an astounding feat of economy, it’s rarely mentioned in the canon of Hemingway’s masterpieces like For Whom the Bell Tolls. There’s a strong case to be made that Kafka’s little fables are far more perfect than his unfinished novels, and yet The Trial, incomplete as it is, is still considered his finest work. I would take any one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales over the interminable stuffiness of The Scarlet Letter. There exists, perhaps, a feeling that the short story as art form is incapable of making Grand Gestures or Big Important Statements. Collections that are lauded tend to function (or at least pretend to function) as homogeneous “novels in short story” –which can be great, of course (see Denis Johnson’s inimitable volume Jesus’ Son) — but why should that be? To often, readers dismiss short stories, particularly short stories, as little more than time-fillers, neat little chunks of text to occupy specific moments in time: a subway ride, an term in a waiting room, a spare half-hour. Sometimes we set aside our real Reading Time for those oh-so important novels, so that we might Learn and Grow as a Person (or whatever). And while the tales comprising the 2009 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories certainly won’t disappoint as time-fillers, they offer so much more than simple leisure reading.
Repeatedly, the stories in this collection explore what is at stake in the human condition, and a sense of loss underpins many (if not most) of the tales. Take the lead story, Graham Joyce’s “An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen,” for instance. This story of a British Army officer who may or may not have been exposed to toxic nerve gas during the first Gulf War unfurls in a realistic, funny, and often affecting voice. Joyce’s tale dips from a military procedural into uncanny, fantastic territory, making the reader question the perception of the narrator, who never wavers in his beliefs about the strange events (namely, meeting a djinn) that are (maybe) happening to him. I thought about “An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen” for days after I read it and I made a colleague read it so that I could force him to discuss it with me. Karen Brown’s “Isobel’s Daughter” also explores loss, communicating the profundity of those everyday tragedies we often look away from. (Brown’s evocation of Tampa, Florida is spot-on, I must add). In “Purple Bamboo Park,” E.V. Slate lets us peer into the life of an old maid in modern China. The story is heartbreaking from the get-go, and yet her protagonist is not a wholly sympathetic character; Slate’s handle on human failure and our investment in mundane adventures is crushing–who knew we could have so much in common with an aging domestic worker? Caitlin Horrocks literalizes loss in “This Is Not Your City,” thrusting her readers into the panic of Russian immigrants whose daughter goes missing. In “The Order of Things,” Judy Troy examines loss and meaning through an affair, concluding that “Feeling came first and though after; that was the order of things,” much to the surprise of her protagonist. And while Paul Theroux’s “Twenty-two Stories” is more playful in both structure and content (it is comprised of twenty-two short short short stories), again we find characters pondering loss and the circumstances of their losses. Theroux’s characters, like those in James Joyce’s Dubliners, repeatedly come to negative epiphanies, whether they lose their faith in God and religion or realize that they were unfit parents. The closing story, Junot Díaz’s “Wildwood” makes me kind of ashamed that I still haven’t read Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I will remedy this omission forthwith.
While readers may not love every story collected in The 2009 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, it would take a pretty cold automaton to dismiss most of what’s presented here. The project, helmed by editor Laura Furman with jury prize selections by A.S. Byatt, Anthony Doerr, and Tim O’Brien, is really an exploration of how people handle loss and beauty and family and adventure and boredom and all those things that happen in life (and death). And isn’t that what we ask of our literature? Read this book, but give these stories their proper due. They’re more than just time-fillers; each one is a perfectly crafted little world waiting to be explored. Recommended.
The 2009 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories is available May 5th, 2009 from Anchor Books.