Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The PEN / O. Henry Prize Stories 2011

This short story collection is surprisingly political.  I only sampled a few of the stories, and aside from one top pick, "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You" by Jim Shepard, they all had a political edge to them.  All in all, I liked them for being "fierce" stories, as editor Laura Furman writes in her introduction to the collection, but after a while it became obvious that the panel that picked the stories had a bit of an axe to grind.  They chose stories with liberal themes or preoccupations -- one story, for example, imagined a world after global warming in which food was scarce in Britain, complete with an attempted rape and many other unexpected horrors in a world with few resources; another imagined a horror of horrors in Budapest at the end of World War II.  Rape or the threat of rape seemed to hang over many stories.  One story I skipped was entitled "Melinda" -- just from the title, I feared that it would be about rape, but from the description at the back of the book it seems to be about a meth addict.  I'm not sure I need to be exposed to this kind of fiction, no matter how adult I am or sophisticated as a reader.  The most important short stories are about people who break rules.  I understand that.  I just don't see the need to be badgered in fiction.  The story I liked the best was the aforementioned "Your Fate Hurtles Down at You," which studiously avoids the politics of the Alps in the 1930s (not very pretty politics, I assure you).  It is a fierce story without being polemical or obvious.  It continually surprises with subtlety and tension in a set of family dynamics that matches the tension in the snow before an avalanche.  The extended metaphor of the avalanche dominates the story, and it makes for compelling reading.  I am glad I bought the book just for that story, but I can't say I recommend the whole collection.
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