I have to confess that I don’t subscribe to any literary magazines.
I’m a hypocritical book mongrel.
I rally for the short story form, even flash fiction if it’s done right, but then I don’t actually support the magazines that provide and establish authors that try to keep that form alive. My only way of giving back is to read as many anthologies as I possibly can, particularly contemporary fiction anthologies. I also try not to stick to the ones that Barnes and Noble carries because they never actually choose any weird ones.
Usually, when you read an anthology it’s because you either A. like the genre, B. you are starting your own small marathon of writing flash fiction to the early morning, or C. you want to know what the “best of” contains for that particular year, or in this case, century. (Yes, be alarmed, someone actually believed they could put together a fair and righteous anthology of fiction for the CENTURY). I would turn that book over in bookstores, hoping no one would buy it.
Anyway, also per usual when reading an anthology, not all of the stories are good. There are few that really spark and then only because one particular line changed how you viewed the world. Then you read everything by that author hoping to get that sick feeling again (like a woman in a bad relationship) and it’s all for naught. Those feelings come quickly, and spaz out before we can even realize what’s happened.
This is NOT the case for The O’Henry Prize Stories of 2014. There were only two stories that I didn’t feel were up to par and the rest were brilliant. I found myself unable to physically write down (due to hand cramping) all of the quotes that I highlighted. And the stories are new and fresh. They don’t center around one genre, or one betrayal from the world. They are like a little capsule that we can fling into space and hope that some extraterrestrial with a sense of compassion finds to explain this world of love gusts and expectations that don’t meet fantasies.
Or we can bury it, for the future. I’d be willing for this book to be my message to the next world along with a long composition of why they should try to recreate the dinosaur, read Emily Dickinson, and take up Twitter.
- The collection begins with mounting tension when two boys play with a gun. One without a mother, and one who holds secrets tighter than he can hold a fist. I’m not sure now which is which because they both blend together as children, and only when they become adults do they realize their differences (as most of us do with our childhood friends). My favorite thing about it is that it repeats itself multiple times, through multiple ages of childhood and adulthood. There is a “cathedral of silence” during every year of this man-boy’s life. He faces this silence like an open wound and it leaves him questioning who he was, and who he is now.
“Later when he tells the story to people they won’t understand. Why didn’t he run away? His friend had a loaded gun. He will be repeatedly amazed at how poorly everyone remembers their childhoods, how they project their adult selves back into those bleached-out photographs, those sandals, those tiny chairs. As if choosing, as if deciding, as if saying no were skills like tying your shoelaces or riding a bike. Things happen to you. If you were lucky, you got an education and weren’t abused by the man who ran the fife-a-side. If you were very lucky you finally ended up in a place where you could say, I’m going to study accountancy … I’d like to live in a countryside … I want o spend the rest of my life with you” (“The Gun,” Mark Haddon, Granta)
- The next story, “Talk” by Stephon Dixon (The American Reader) plays with the idea of point-of-view in a story, the inner voice that we all communicate with after we stop trying to talk to our cats for most of a lonely day. It also plays with growing old when that inner voice might be the only person that we talk to in a day’s time. Even when you think of talking to someone, that inner voice can hold you back, be it the voice a friend or a foe.
“Valentine” by Tessa Hadley (The New Yorker) just made me never want to have a daughter. I’m not too far away to remember what I put up with from boys in high school, but I am too far away to meet that girl and shake hands like an acquaintance. The girl in this story doesn’t “do bad all by herself,” but “does bad” for the boy with all the wrong angles. He’s a writer, but he’s a wanderer. He’s a bit grunge, but he’s haughty in philosophy. It really just tells the story of the girl before the boy, during the boy, and then plays with the idea that you can go back to the girl who was the “before” version of yourself. (Hint: You can’t).
“There was a rare blend in him of earnestness and recklessness. And he seemed to know instinctively what to read, where to go, what music to listen to. He was easily bored, and indifferent to anything he didn’t like” (Tessa Hadley).
- “Petur” by Olivia Clare (Ecotone) broke my heart more than a little. It’s a mother and son story, the son is an adult on a vacation with his mother when a volcano goes off in Poland and they are forced to live in ash. The ash becomes symbolic for their relationship and his mother’s scattered mind as she walks through the (not wreckage) but fall, and he watches her own odd unfurling.
“Nights after her afternoon walks, she’d sit with a field guide. I have a bird heart, she’d say, your mother, the bird. Precise knowledge of a fjall’s origins, or of the call each bird made, was the closest she felt she had, she said, to wisdom, because lang, because details, were important. They were solid and finite and felt infinite” (Olivia Clare).
- Abuse. Roadtrips. Racism. Lingering unresolved, but unpracticed feelings. Old towns. Father’s who still protected their daughters from men who drank too much and leaned too crooked over stoves thinking. Trees with names. Tradition.
“You remember your mother saying you had to learn to use the Lexicon because words were both tools and weapons and the difference between the right one and the almost-right one was like lightning and a lightning bug, and when you said the lectern was higher than you could reach she showed you the step stool hidden underneath” (“You Remember the Pin Mill,” David Bradley, Narrative).
- “Nemecia” by Kirsten Valdez Quade will stay with me the same way the movie, “Black Swan” stays with me. They both have similar disturbing skin scenes. Nemecia is an almost older sister to Maria, but in the end, they become neither sister nor friend. It’s really the story of how grief creates competition in us.
“Nemecia had an air of tragedy about her, which she cultivated. She blackened her eyes with a kohl pencil” (Narrative).
- Most disturbing story in the collection is easily “Trust” by Dylan Landis (Tin House). I was so uncomfortable with this story. It felt a little bit like someone giving you a creative writing prompt like “If your house burned down, what would you take.” And immediately you start to live through your house burning down, and how the flames flicker, but they don’t flicker and you realize you’ve never experienced a fire and they probably gust like a parachute. It’s just like that except it’s a teenage robbery and I just wanted it to end (in a good way…in a good writing way). It’s also like every Law & Order episode that you live in fear of, except this is MID-DAY and you start to realize that this could happen at anytime of day, not just when you’re sleeping (which is terrifying).
- “Old Houses” by Allison Alsup (New Orleans Review) tells the old neighborhood folktale from the perspective of a barbecue. It’s just creepy enough to not really affect you personally, but add an edge to your day that wasn’t there before. It wasn’t as strong as the others in the collection, but it did stand tall.
- My favorite story in the entire collection is “Fatherland” by Halina Duraj (Harvard Review). I think that’s because I thought it was just going to be another World War II story, but it was beyond me giving you any account of why it’s so good.
“I tried to stop my father’s words at my ears but they would not stick. I knew they weren’t meant for me, but I was half my mother, my father had said so himself. Like any good soldier, my father shot bullets through the air toward a target, but did not understand collateral damage” (Halina Duraj).
“West of the Known” by Chanelle Benz (The American Reader) was the story that has stuck with me beyond reading the last story in this collection days ago. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the quick moves between innocence and horror. It’s (strangely) a Wild West story, but it doesn’t have any of that gun-slinging bullshit. Well, it does, but it’s believable. It ain’t no John Wayne rodeo if you know what I’m sayin’. At the end of the story, something bloody terrible happens and it’s truly believable. I can feel the rope burns still.
“For in the high violence of joy, is there not often a desire to swear devotion? But what then? When is it ever brung off to the letter? When they come for our blood, we will not end, but ton on in an unworldly fever” (Chanelle Benz).
On second thought, maybe I like this story so much because it uses the word “brung” which I obsessively, and unconsciously used for the majority of seventh grade, while my father corrected me every single time.
- Finding who you are in the grace of picked flowers, that’s “The Women” by William Trevow (The New Yorker).
“Good Faith” is about snake handlers during a revival and how sometimes one person can’t change the ideals instilled in us since birth. It’s a fantastic story, truly. It might be one of my favorites from the collection because the ending is beyond powerful. It’s the longest story in the collection and I wouldn’t mind if it was transformed into a novel. I would read these characters again and again.
- Guy dates Asian girl. They disembody one another. Life goes on. A short summary of “The Right Imaginary Person” by Robert Anthony Siegal (Tin House).
“Parents and teachers agree to forget that children are in fact lunatics, and that what we call growing up is just learning to hide it better so nobody will lock us away” (Robert Anthony Siegal).
- “Nero” by Louise Erdrich (The New Yorker) was just depressing. I didn’t really fall for this story, but the dog got to me.
The way light is fractured through a window is retold in the story “A Golden Light” by Rebecca Hirsch Garcia (The Threepenny Review). It’s one of the rarely hopeful, but then hope-squashed stories in the collection.
- “Fairness” by Chinelo Okparanta is a disturbing story that immediately made me worry about my students and the “salt and ice challenge.” It should be read after reading a “Cosmopolitan” magazine or obsessing over people you don’t know on social media. Or, just listen to some Beyonce and then read this story. A girl is obsessed with lightening her skin based on the standards set by overseas societies. BLEH.
- I hated “The Inheritors” by Kristen Iskandrian (Tin House). I’d almost even skip it if reading this book again.
“I like being sad, which mystified her; I like it until I reach the nadir where sadness changes, as if chemically, to repulsion and self-loathing, making me wish that I was “capable” of “handling” things instead of turning away from them in disgust until my disgust disgusts me, and my anger at my inadequacy as a human being angers me, and all of that pure, easy, delectable sorrow gets squandered” (Kristen Iskandrian).
- “Deep Eddy” by Michael Parker (Southwest Review) is the only flash piece in the collection. It’s about virginity and dating and how both of these things make us question everything.
“She’d lost her flower with the first of a string of boys and she liked me only in the way girls like those boys who make them forget, temporarily, some pain I hoped was only temporary” (Michael Parker).
- The next story was kind of sad because the girl character was the worst version of myself. It’s set in Venice (I think, but I’m questioning myself now), called “Oh, Shenandoah” by Maura Stanton (New England Review). I often say to my boyfriend, “I just want to hug you so hard it hurts” when he does something incredibly annoying. This chick is like me in that situation, but to the extreme. And the boy, just daydreamy and unable to understand any of her cues.
- “Opa-locka” by Laura van den Berg (The Southern Review) is about a team of sisters who fulfill their childhood hopes by becoming personal investigators. At the time, they don’t understand their need for this odd job, eating gas station snack foods on roofs in a stake-out, but as the story progresses, the reader is clued into their past and why they might need these rooftop rendezvous, for each other and just for themselves.
This O.Henry Prize Collection is one of the best I’ve read in a long time. Not only were most of the short stories meaningful and worth the read, but I can mostly remember each one even though I read some of them as long as a month ago. This is a collection of stories that linger and each story gets redefined as you think of it again. I HIGHLY recommend this book. HIGHLY, HIGHLY, HIGHLY, Mountaintop.